WASHINGTON – Thomas Perez, a Takoma Park resident who has served in top county and state-level positions in Maryland, remained calm in the face of tough questioning from Senate Republicans Thursday as he sought confirmation as the next U.S. secretary of labor.
“I am very grateful to the president for the confidence he has shown in me with this nomination,” Perez said after introducing his wife and three children, all seated in the front row of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
Perez, 51, remained positive and upbeat throughout the two-hour-long confirmation hearing, despite occasionally hostile questioning. The committee will vote on his nomination on April 28. He needs confirmation by the full Senate to take the Cabinet post.
Perez was nominated by President Obama on March 18 to replace Hilda Solis, who resigned in January. He was introduced by Maryland Sens. Barbara Mikulski, a senior member of the HELP Committee, and Ben Cardin.
Mikulski spoke warmly about Perez’s role in expanding training for veterans and low-skilled workers as Maryland’s secretary of Labor, Licensing and Regulation from 2007 to 2009.
“We believe in Tom Perez’s integrity, competency and commitment to the mission of the agency,” Mikulski said, calling him “one of Maryland’s favorite sons.”
The Maryland Chamber of Commerce supports Perez’s nomination, which Mikulski said is significant because of the business community’s initial skepticism toward him.
“Our system works best when we are responding to the needs of businesses,” Perez said.
Cardin defended Perez’s tenure as head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division since October 2009. The junior senator from Maryland chaired Perez’s confirmation hearing for that position; he was confirmed by a 72-22 vote.
“He’s been through the vetting process. We know his background. We know his commitment to fairness,” Cardin said.
Perez has faced scrutiny from Senate Republicans for what they allege to be his participation in a “quid pro quo” deal, linking the Justice Department’s decision to not intervene in two whistleblower cases with a decision by the city of St. Paul, Minn., to drop a housing discrimination case headed to the Supreme Court.
“I believe the resolutions reached in this case were in the interest of justice,” Perez said, adding that he was unaware of the whistleblower case at the time. Furthermore, the case was unwinnable, he said.
Republicans argue that Perez encouraged the deal in an effort to protect disparate impact theory, the concept of using of statistics to determine racial discrimination, which the Supreme Court would likely have struck down.
The allegations were detailed in a 68-page report released Monday by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
“It seems to me that you’re manipulating the legal process in a way that’s inappropriate,” said Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, the committee’s ranking member.
Republican Louisiana Sen. David Vitter has said that he will place a hold on Perez’s nomination, meaning that a supermajority — 60 senators — will be needed to put it to a vote.
Perez’s rise to the president’s Cabinet began in 2002, when he became the first Latino elected to a seat on the Montgomery County Council. Perez served four years and was president in 2005.
“He has a wonderful temperament, a profound intellect, and a big heart,” said Councilman George Leventhal, who worked closely with Perez on issues affecting the county’s poor, sick and homeless populations. “He’s a superb choice.”
Perez left the council to run for state attorney general, but his bid was short-lived. The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled in August 2006 that he had not practiced law in the state for 10 years, a constitutional requirement for the position.
His former campaign manager, now-Delegate Luke Clippinger, D-Baltimore, said that Perez will make an “extraordinary” secretary of labor if confirmed.
“He is somebody who can look really, really critically at challenges that working people face,” Clippinger said of Perez, who he still calls a “good friend.”
But, Perez also made his share of enemies as the Free State’s labor secretary.
“For him to be head of the Department of Labor is problematic because he has shown time and time again that he doesn’t care about the law,” said James Pelura, who chaired the Maryland Republican Party at the time. “He’s more concerned about the liberal agenda.”
Leventhal, who entered the council with Perez and is running for Montgomery County executive in 2014, said he was not surprised to see his friend end up in high places.
“He’s had an extraordinary rise since leaving the council but he’s just an exceptional guy.”