Thomas Perez was grilled by Republican Senators as his confirmation hearing to become the next Secretary of Labor got underway. (Getty Images)

Labor nominee Thomas Perez grilled by GOP, says he’ll work with business, labor to create jobs

In prepared remarks at his confirmation hearing to become the next Labor Secretary, Thomas Perez pledged to Senators that he would have an open mind in the role and work with business and labor to create jobs, though his process to confirmation will be rocky with Republicans expressing reservations about him.

“There is so much that unites us, Democrats and Republicans, President Obama and the Congress,” Perez said in prepared testimony to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. “And in fact, so much of what unites us falls directly under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Labor.”

Perez said he recognizes that “business will always be the primary generator of good jobs,” but that the Labor Department should be “an active partner” with states, business groups, unions and community colleges to make sure workers have the right training for jobs of the future.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus wrote a letter to the Senate committee to express its enthusiastic support for Perez. “The CHC had the privilege of meeting with Mr. Perez many times and were consistently impressed with his dedication to preserving the rights of workers, voters, students and the disabled,” the letter read in part. “His experience overseeing a number of important investigations, particularly those involving worker discrimination, will certainly carry over to his cabinet and will serve the president and the American public well.”

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Cid Wilson, a Wall Street financial analyst and friend of Perez, was at the hearing and praised his preparation. “I’ve known him for 10 years,” Wilson said. “We got to know each other in the Montgomery city council and are proud Dominican-Americans. I thought he was very well prepared for all of the questions and concerns raised to him.”

Some Republicans remain wary of Perez’s aggressive enforcement as head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. A report by top GOP lawmakers this week accused Perez of misusing his power to persuade the city of St. Paul, Minn., to withdraw a housing discrimination case before it could be heard by the Supreme Court. In exchange, the Justice Department agreed not to intervene in two whistleblower cases against St. Paul that could have won up to $200 million for taxpayers.

During the hearing, Republican Senators questioned Perez on a variety of issues, including the St. Paul case and voter ID laws.

“That seems to me to be an extraordinary amount of wheeling and dealing outside the normal responsibilities of the assistant attorney general for civil rights,” said Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander of the St. Paul case.

Perez replied that he not only followed all rules and guidelines but it was at the advice and counsel of career justice department attorneys. He reminded GOP Senators that he has worked under Republican administrations — first under Ronald Reagan and then George H. W. Bush. “In the justice department it’s not about partisanship, it’s about justice,” Perez said.

Wilson said Republicans like Orrin Hatch asked important, topical questions concerning the Labor appointment, but others like Alexander and South Carolina’s Tim Scott focused on peripheral issues. “I was disappointed that some Republican Senators used the hearing for political opportunism to express issues that have nothing to do with what he’s being confirmed for,” Wilson says. “Tim Scott spent all of his time asking about voter ID laws. Tom Perez is being nominated for secretary of labor, not attorney general.”

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Perez said he is proud of his accomplishments at the Justice Department, pointing to a 40 percent increase in the number of human trafficking cases, stepped up hate crimes enforcement and efforts to protect the employment rights of military service members.

He also highlighted his background as the son of immigrants and the story of his parents seeking refuge in the United States to escape a repressive dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. Perez is the only Hispanic that Obama has tapped so far for his second-term Cabinet.

While some GOP lawmakers have raised questions about his qualifications for the Labor Department, Republicans are also treading carefully so as not to antagonize Hispanic groups at a time when the party is seeking to broaden its appeal to Latino voters.

Democrats claim that Perez’s critics are politically motivated. Civil rights groups, labor unions and Hispanic organizations have rushed to his defense, calling him a strong leader and forceful advocate for labor rights.

“As with most public officials, he’s been the target of accusations and mudslinging,” Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, the Democratic committee chairman, said in his prepared opening remarks at the hearing.

Harkin said he has looked into accusations against Perez and could draw only one conclusion: “Some people don’t like Tom Perez precisely because he is passionate about enforcing our civil rights laws and protecting people’s rights. In my view, that passion makes him more, not less, qualified to be secretary of labor.”

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The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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