Opinion: Columnists

Sean Higgins: Thomas Perez would bring liberal zealotry to Labor Department

BY: Sean Higgins March 12, 2013 | 12:00 am

It would be difficult to imagine a more pro-union Secretary of Labor than Hilda Solis, who stepped down from the post in late January. But President Obama has quite an imagination.

The White House has reportedly picked Thomas Perez, currently the Justice Department's assistant attorney general for civil rights, to fill the vacancy.

Perez is better known for his civil rights advocacy than for his work regarding labor issues. But that work establishes him as one of the administration's most strident liberals and zealous activists.

The son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, the Harvard lawyer became the deputy chief of the Justice Department's civil rights division during the Clinton administration, then a staffer for late Sen. Ted Kennedy. He also worked at the Health and Human Services' civil rights division and as labor secretary for Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley from 2007 to 2009.

In 2009, he rejoined the Justice Department, and he is widely credited with pushing its civil rights division into overdrive. According to Holder, the division has increased prosecutions of hate crimes 35 percent in the last three years.

Perez is a man with a mission who sees only modest change in the country from the '60s. "Crosses are still burned in yards across the nation's heartland," Perez said at a 2010 Martin Luther King Day event in Greensboro, N.C.

He is particularly aggressive on issues related to immigration and voter fraud. He led the division's efforts to sue Texas and South Carolina over voter ID laws, succeeding in getting the Texas law overturned. Florida was also sued for its efforts to strip noncitizens from the voter rolls.

Perez has started 17 probes of police and sheriff's departments across the country, the most in the history of the division. He sued the New York Fire Department for having examinations that too many black and Latino applicants failed.

Perez's division also threatened South Carolina over its policy of segregating HIV-positive prisoners from the rest of the inmates. You might think it a good policy given that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate HIV infection is five times higher in prisons. According to state officials South Carolina, the practice effectively stopped transmission and also ensured better care for already-infected inmates. Perez was unmoved, and he warned South Carolina it was violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. Thus, a law intended to help the blind and those in wheelchairs access public spaces, is now being used to try to place HIV-infected prisoners into the general prison population.

No issue was too small for Perez either. In 2009, DOJ informed several universities including Princeton, Arizona State and Case Western Reserve that they were under investigation for ADA violations. What had they done? They offered Kindles to students. The problem? At that time, Kindles were not equipped for blind people to use. So as far as DOJ was concerned, nobody could use them.

"We acted swiftly to respond to complaints we received about the use of the Amazon Kindle," Perez proudly told a House committee in 2010. "We must remain vigilant to ensure that as new technologies are introduced, people with disabilities are not left behind."

Under Perez, DOJ took a zero tolerance policy on Amish-on-Amish hate crimes after an Ohio leader and 15 of his followers reportedly cut off the beards and hair of some of their coreligionists. Given that the vicious assaults could have been prosecuted at the state level, one might think the Justice Department would be loath to spend taxpayers' money intervening in a private religious feud among a group of nonviolent people who famously like to be left alone. Not Perez. His division won hate crimes convictions against all 16 offenders, with the ringleader receiving a 15-year federal prison sentence.

What can we expect from Perez as Labor Secretary? At the Greensboro MLK event, which was hosted by the AFL-CIO, he told the union leaders that if the slain civil rights leader were alive today "He would join with you ,,, in calling for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act" -- legislation that would dramatically tilt workplace elections in favor of labor. In Perez's view, the "civil rights movement and the labor movement are ... essentially the same."

So the zealous Perez may yet outdo his predecessor, who once told an AFL-CIO convention: "I am proud and humbled to be your humble servant as labor secretary."

Sean Higgins (shiggins@washingtonexaminer.com) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @seanghiggins.

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