Why Tom Perez Matters

Secretary of Labor Tom Perez (Credit: AP)

Just a few minutes ago, the Senate confirmed Tom Perez, the top civil rights attorney in the Department of Justice, to be the next Secretary of Labor — an outcome that, until two days ago, appeared likely never to happen. Senate Republicans opposed Perez’s confirmation so strenuously that some of them did not even wait for President Obama to formally announce Perez’s nomination before they attacked him. The final vote to break their filibuster of Perez’s nomination was 60-40 — exactly the number of votes he needed to move forward. And this result probably never would have happened if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) had not come within an inch of invoking the so-called “nuclear option” in order to force a deal that included Perez’s confirmation.

The fact that Perez emerged as Obama’s most controversial cabinet appointment reflects a very significant bias in our confirmation process. Secretary Perez has two Ivy League degrees, including a law degree with honors from Harvard Law School. The market salary for an attorney in private practice with an honors Harvard JD is $160,000 a year — and that’s in their very first year after graduation. Perez, as an experienced attorney with years of senior-level government service, obviously could command substantially more money. At any point in his career — from the day he graduated from Harvard through today — Perez could have left public service and chosen a career that would have made him very rich very quickly. He never once took this path.

Instead, Secretary Perez spent his entire career in public service — as a law clerk to a federal judge, as a prosecutor in the same Civil Rights Division he would go on to lead, as an adviser to Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) on civil rights, and in various high-level civil rights and labor policy jobs at the state and federal level. When his law school classmates were plotting how to convert their six-figure associate salaries into seven-figure partnerships, Perez put white supremacists in prison.

It’s unlikely that conservatives opposed his nomination simply because he chose public service over wealth, however. What really drove this opposition was the way he conducted himself throughout his career. Secretary Perez pushed basic labor protections such as a minimum wage for domestic workers when he served on the Montgomery County City Council, an effort that ultimately succeeded after he left the council. He promised to “throw the book” at employers who withheld pay from immigrant workers. He saved a key prong of federal fair housing law from an attempt to neuter it in the Supreme Court, and he used that very aspect of the law to collect hundreds of millions of dollars from major banks that charged minority homeowners more than whites seeking a mortgage. He also reinvigorated the Civil Right’s Division’s historic commitment to protecting voting rights after the Bush Administration largely shunned that role. Indeed, Perez led the push against voter ID, a common method used by conservatives to shift the electorate rightward, in Texas and South Carolina.

At every one of these junctures, Secretary Perez could have been less aggressive. He could have decided to preserve his chances of surviving a future confirmation hearing by not taking actions that would enrage powerful conservatives. Instead, he rigorously enforced the law and fought hard to improve it — predictably making many enemies in the process. His confirmation today is proof that it is still possible to live your life the way Perez did, and still rise to the highest levels of government.

Sadly, however, his story is not particularly common. In the earliest days of the Obama Administration, the White House reached out to Pam Karlan, a Stanford Law Professor widely viewed as one of the most brilliant and outspoken liberal legal thinkers in the nation, to ask her if she was interested in becoming a federal judge. Karlan was never nominated. Future California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu, another top progressive legal scholar, did receive a nomination to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, but his nomination never became a high priority for the administration and it ultimately died due to a filibuster. Dawn Johnsen, an outspoken opponent of the Bush Administration’s torture memos who spent five years of her career defending abortion rights and reproductive freedom, met a similar fate after she was nominated to lead the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.

These incidents send a very clear message to young progressives interested in high-level government service — keep your mouth shut and do not ever call attention to your politics. As I wrote shortly before Justice Liu was confirmed to the California Supreme Court, “[a] dear friend of mine chose not to apply for a job at a leading women’s rights organization because she was too scared of the future implications for her career. A talented colleague turned down an offer to do important research on corporate influence on the law because he was scared of leaving a paper trail. I myself once advised someone not to publish an article because I thought it would doom her in a future confirmation hearing. None of these people is over the age of 33.” Since I wrote those words, another, eminently qualified friend told me that she planned to give up her quest for an administration job and “go the full Dawn.” Her meaning was that, now that she no longer wanted a job in government, she was free to be open and honest about her politics — just like Dawn Johnsen.

Johnsen, for her part, says she has “no regrets” for her career choices and she insists that “being willing to stand on principle and fight for liberties that were at times controversial has not hurt me professionally.” Karlan, in a speech that anyone with political ambitions should be forced to watch before they can seek any kind of public office, offered this advice:

Would I like to be on the Supreme Court? You bet I would. But not enough to have trimmed my sails for half a lifetime. Sure, I’ve done lots of things I regret over the years. But the things I regret aren’t the things that keep someone from being nominated or getting confirmed. I regret being unkind to people I love and respect and admire. I regret getting frustrated by little things. I regret never taking a summer off. I regret not being able to stick to a diet. But I don’t regret taking sides on questions involving the Voting Rights Act. I don’t regret helping to defend the constitutional rights of criminal defendants. I don’t regret litigating cases on behalf of gay people. I don’t even regret being sort of snarky. . . .

[I]n a lawyer, courage is a muscle. You develop courage by exercising it. Sitting on the fence is not practice for standing up.

Tom Perez stood up. He stood up for voting rights. He stood up for immigrants. He stood up for fair pay. And he stood up to some of the wealthiest and most powerful forces in the nation. And today, he became a member of President Obama’s cabinet.

His confirmation is proof that the choice Karlan suggests — to trim your sails and preserve the chance for a high appointment or to live your beliefs freely and openly — does not have to be the only option.