WASHINGTON — Latino lawmakers and community leaders warned Republicans on Tuesday about the consequences of blocking President Barack Obama’s nomination of Thomas Perez to be labor secretary.
The show of force at a Capitol Hill news conference came a day before Wednesday’s scheduled confirmation vote on Perez by a Senate committee, following a two-week delay caused by partisan infighting.
“Tom Perez is eminently qualified for this job,” freshman Rep. Joe Garcia, a Florida Democrat, said in an interview. “If Republicans wanted to show an understanding of the Hispanic electorate or sympathy for the Hispanic electorate, they picked the wrong guy to make a scapegoat.”
Some Republican senators have criticized Perez’s performance as the head of the civil rights division in the Justice Department, accusing him of unfairly blocking several states’ voter ID laws and of enforcing anti-discrimination laws too aggressively.
Republicans also have questioned Perez’s ethics in reaching what they claim was a questionable deal with St. Paul, Minn., city officials that involved two court cases over alleged discrimination in housing and banking.
If he’s confirmed by the full Senate, Perez would be the first Latino member of Obama’s second-term Cabinet, helping him to deflect criticism from black and Latino leaders that there isn’t enough diversity among his top aides.
Since Obama received 71 percent of the Latino vote to help him gain re-election in November, Republican leaders have said they must do more to woo Latinos, and some prominent GOP senators are pushing a bipartisan immigration overhaul bill.
Rep. Tony Cardenas, a California Democrat, said Tuesday that Republicans were harming their outreach efforts by impeding Perez’s nomination.
“Republicans have been saying they would like to get the Hispanic community’s attention,” Cardenas said. “But what they are doing is a shame and a sham.”
Latino lawmakers defended Perez from what they described as character assassination, in unusually angry tones and exceptionally direct terms.
“To Republicans who are trying to smear this dedicated public servant in order to score cheap political points, I want to warn you: You don’t want to pick this fight with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus,” said Rep. Linda Sanchez, who’s also a California Democrat.
Hector Sanchez, the head of the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, derided Republicans’ concerns about Perez as “a fishing expedition” against the son of Dominican immigrants who worked as a trash collector while attending Brown University and Harvard Law School.
“Despite Perez’s distinguished career of public service, some in Congress are intent on tarnishing his name with accusations that don’t stand up to the light of day,” Sanchez wrote in a column published Monday in the Politico newspaper.
Some Republicans were unfazed.
“I have strong concerns about Mr. Perez’s leadership and management styles,” Sen. Tim Scott, a first-term South Carolina Republican, told McClatchy on Tuesday. “His track record at the Department of Justice seems to have created a politically charged environment, which led to unbalanced and unfair decisions.”
Scott is among a handful of Republican members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee who are expected to vote against Perez’s confirmation Wednesday at the panel’s session. With more Democrats than Republicans, the committee is expected to recommend confirmation, setting the stage for a potential struggle in the full Senate.
At a hearing of the committee last month, Scott, the only black senator, laced into Perez for his decision as the head of the Justice Department’s civil rights section to block South Carolina’s voter ID law as a violation of the landmark 1964 Voting Rights Act.
“South Carolina has been treated unfairly in many ways as it relates to the voting rights law,” Scott told Perez. “And as I look at your management style, it seems to have a political perspective, a political bias.”
Perez responded: “I respectfully disagree with your characterization of what we have done.”
After South Carolina sued the Justice Department over the law, a federal court upheld the law, although it required the state to enforce it more leniently than originally written.
The Labor Department, which enforces thousands of workplace regulations, has been without a leader since Hilda Solis, who’s also Latino, resigned in January.
Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, accused Perez of having leaked important details about a banking case to The New York Times a day before releasing the information to the public.
“Is it appropriate and ethical to release non-public information, especially when that information could move equity markets?” Burr asked Perez at the Senate committee hearing last month.
Perez said his aides provided the same information to other news outlets before the official public announcement.