WASHINGTON — — Senate Republicans criticized the nomination Monday of former state labor secretary Thomas E. Perez to lead the U.S. Department of Labor, signaling the longtime civil rights lawyer will face a contentious confirmation over his approach to the law and his record on immigration.
Perez, the top civil rights attorney in the Justice Department, was nominated by President Barack Obama at a White House event that drew a host of supporters, including Gov. Martin O'Malley, AFL-CIO leader Richard Trumka and the Rev. Al Sharpton.
The 51-year-old Takoma Park resident, a former board member of the immigrant advocacy group CASA de Maryland, won immediate praise from Democrats and organized labor, but faced equally swift criticism from some Senate Republicans. One questioned his stances on immigration; another said he is committed to blocking the confirmation to protest a lawsuit filed against his state by the Justice Department.
If confirmed, Perez would take over the Labor Department at an especially important time. The department will be a key player in the administration's plan to overhaul the nation's immigration laws, an effort that has gained momentum on Capitol Hill since last year's election. Obama has said raising the minimum wage is also a top priority of his second term.
The son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Perez is the only Latino selected so far to serve in the president's new Cabinet. The Harvard-educated native of Buffalo, N.Y., opened and closed his remarks on Monday in Spanish.
"His story reminds us of this country's promise," Obama said. "I'm confident that Tom's going to be able to work to promote economic growth, but also make sure that that growth is broad-based."
Perez, who in 2002 became the first Latino to win a seat on the Montgomery County Council, launched a brief run for Maryland attorney general in 2006. He was knocked off the ballot by the state Court of Appeals, which found he lacked the 10 years' legal experience in Maryland required by the state constitution.
O'Malley then picked Perez to serve as the state's labor secretary, a job he held from 2007 until 2009.
Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, described Perez as "an aggressive champion for justice and the public good his entire career."
Republican pushback focused on Perez's tenure leading the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, which began in 2009. They noted an inspector general's report released last week that found deep political schisms in the agency over which types of cases to pursue. Most of the problems predated Perez.
Sen. David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, said he would oppose Perez's confirmation over a lawsuit the Justice Department filed against his state that dealt with enforcement of federal voter registration laws.
Vitter said the department was selectively litigating portions of the law that benefit Democrats.
Another Republican, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, criticized Perez's work as a board member of CASA de Maryland from 1995 to 2002, calling the organization a "fringe advocacy group" and arguing that the nominee's positions on immigration are outside the mainstream.
"This is an unfortunate and needlessly divisive nomination," Sessions said in a statement. "By nominating Mr. Perez to this important post, the president has placed his drive to promote his flawed immigration policies over the needs of the millions of unemployed Americans."
Gustavo Torres, CASA's executive director, called Sessions' comments false and argued that they "continue a hostile, inflammatory attack on immigrants."
Torres said CASA "provides innovative immigrant integration programs that promotes opportunity for all, creates jobs, and strengthens local economies."
The back-and-forth over immigration underscores the part Perez would play in immigration reform. The department could help to regulate and oversee a temporary worker program for illegal immigrants if such a program is included in legislation now being crafted by a bipartisan group of lawmakers.
If Perez does encounter a fight in the Senate, he will be on familiar ground. Republicans delayed his confirmation to his current position at the Justice Department for more than six months in 2009, raising many of the same concerns — including his work with CASA de Maryland.
He ultimately won confirmation on a bipartisan vote of 72-22.
As head of the civil rights division at Justice, Perez challenged voter identification requirements in South Carolina and Texas and reached the largest fair-lending settlements in history with banks accused of discriminating against black and Hispanic homeowners. He also sued local police departments over discrimination and brutality claims.
Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, said the nature of the office made it a political lightning rod long before Perez arrived.
"He has rigorously enforced a number of civil rights laws," Tobias said of Perez. "Some of that work is controversial, but I think that's inherent in the mandate that office has."
In Maryland, Perez used the labor department to implement regulations to stem the foreclosure crisis. He pushed to shift oversight of adult education programs to his agency, a move that led to a turf battle with state education officials. And he beefed up enforcement of the state's minimum wage law.
"Tom was adamant that this agency had to be responsive to the foreclosure crisis," said Leonard J. Howie III, Maryland's current labor secretary.
Many Republicans and business groups offered muted responses to the nomination, which leaked out more than a week before Monday's event.
Randy Johnson, a vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said he hoped Perez would "work with the business community to advance policies that promote jobs and economic growth."
Perez served as an attorney in the civil rights division of the Justice Department in the late 1980s, prosecuting several high-profile cases. He also worked for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who died in 2009.
Maryland Policy & Politics
Perez left the federal government when President George W. Bush, a Republican, took office in 2001. He taught law at the University of Maryland law school for six years. The school's dean, Phoebe A. Haddon, said Perez would be "an extraordinary talent and a singular proponent of public service."
If confirmed, Perez would replace Hilda Solis, a Democratic former congresswoman from California who resigned in January.
"My parents taught my four siblings and me to work hard, to give back to our community and make sure that the ladder of opportunity was there for those coming after us," Perez said at the White House on Monday. "We can keep making progress for all working families."