Thomas E. Perez would replace outgoing secretary Hilda Solis and would be the only Latino in the president’s cabinet. Perez has served as the assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division since being nominated for the position in October of 2009. Prior to this, he served as the Secretary of Maryland’s Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.
Perez is a first-generation Dominican American whose father passed away at 12. His father’s friend, a teamster, helped to raise him. When he lost his job, the teamsters' union supported him. That support left an indelible mark on Perez.
Since graduating from Harvard Law School Perez has dedicated much of his life to public service. In the 1990s he served in the Clinton Justice Department on the Worker Exploitation Task Force. The task force was formed to help design programs to protect vulnerable workers.
Perez is at the center of several highly debated and contested court cases. In 2012 the Justice Department filed suit against Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio alleging discrimination against Latinos, excessive force, and unconstitutionally-run prisons. Perez was critical of the sheriff, telling reporters "The police are supposed to protect and serve our communities, not divide them. At its core, this is an abuse of power case involving a sheriff and sheriff's office that disregarded the Constitution, ignored sound police practices, comprised public safety, and did not hesitate to retaliate against perceived critics."
Perez’s stance on Arpaio is unlikely to curry him any favor with Republicans. Senator Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said that Perez will have to face a lot of tough questions before the Senate votes to confirm him.
The Civil Rights Division that Perez headed up also filed cases against Texas and South Carolina regarding discriminatory voting laws. Perez has been an outspoken advocate of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act whose constitutionality is now being challenged in the Supreme Court.
During his time as assistant attorney general, Perez reversed the precedent of hiring conservative lawyers with little-to-no civil rights background set by the Bush administration. The hiring spree resulted in new records of criminal enforcement in the areas of human trafficking and discriminatory housing laws. Perhaps this shows a desire by the Obama administration to refocus attention on the Labor Department, which has suffered from dwindling influence over the years.
Perez will be tasked with taking on a host of challenging issues, including a stagnant unemployment rate and drumming up support for a planned increase in minimum wage. Elevating Perez to cabinet level signifies the importance civil rights have played in the Obama administration and the importance it will continue to play in his second term.