Opinion: Politics of race hidden behind Perez confirmation fight

Thomas Perez continues to be denied Senate confirmation as President Obama’s labor secretary. Republicans paint Perez, the lone Hispanic nominee to the cabinet, as a partisan who pursued a racial agenda as the former head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the GOP’s leading Hispanic voice, has called Perez a “disastrous” choice for the cabinet. Yet during the 2012 national election, Perez mounted a record number of cases aimed at halting racial bias in voting. He specifically filed a case to halt a redistricting effort in Texas that federal judges ruled damaging to Latino voters.

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Perez also pursued an “unlawful discrimination” case against Arizona’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the lawman famous for his crackdown on mostly Hispanic illegal immigrants.

Hector Sanchez, president of the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, charges that efforts to block Perez from becoming Labor secretary amount to an “attack on the Latino community.”

Hidden behind the high-profile confirmation fight over Perez is an intense story of 21st century racial politics. This latest version of America’s civil rights struggle is centered in the Justice Department and the federal courts where the voting rights laws are enforced for the rising number of minority voters, especially Latinos.

For the last decade, GOP strategists have taken a skeptical view of the political impact of voting-rights law enforcement. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requires jurisdictions with a history of racial bias in voting, mostly in the old south, to get clearance from the Justice Department for any change in election rules. That gives the federal government added leverage in reining in any racially-biased changes to election rules by the region’s dominant white Republican political establishment.

In 2012, Perez pursued a record number of new cases charging voting rights violations, including challenges to new voter identification laws. He defeated the Texas redistricting plan and also stopped Texas and South Carolina from putting in place new photo identification requirements that would have disproportionately depressed the minority vote in those states.

Perez’s tenure at the civil rights division stands in direct contrast to the tenure of a strong Bush administration conservative, Bradley Schlozman, who ran the division beginning in 2003. An inspector general’s report found that during his tenure, Schlozman favored lawyers with partisan Republican backgrounds for jobs at the Justice Department. He also purged the voting rights section of lawyers he saw as aggressive enforcers of minority voting rights cases.

The inspector general’s report suggested Schlozman viewed most voting rights cases as examples of liberal Democrats trying to undercut the political strength of conservative Republicans. In an infamous email, he wrote: “My tentative plans are to gerrymander all of those crazy libs right out of the [voting rights] section.” He also was found to have moved three minority women out of the Civil Rights Division to “make room for some good Americans.”

Perez came to the Voting Rights Division in 2009 with Obama’s new Attorney General Eric Holder. His first step was to end the exclusive hiring of right-wing lawyers.

But from the start he had trouble escaping the dysfunction that preceded him. The first fight began when he refused to pursue civil suits against a black man, a member of the New Black Panther Party, who stood near a polling station in Philadelphia looking menacing. No voter, black or white, reported being intimidated or prevented from voting. But conservatives objected on ideological grounds. If it had been a case of white intimidation of black voters, they said, liberals in the Obama administration would have kept the case alive.

An inspector general’s report found no racial or political agenda behind the decision not to pursue the case.

But Perez did go after more traditional violations of voting rights statutes as the GOP began purging voter registration rolls, limiting voting hours and creating new voter identification laws. He also helped to implement a new federal hate crime law protecting minorities, gays and women. And he negotiated a deal with the city of St. Paul, Minn. to settle a housing bias case before it reached the conservative majority on the Supreme Court.

David Ogden, who ran Obama’s transition team for Justice, recently wrote: “By any proper measure, Tom [Perez’] efforts to restore and transform the Division have been a tremendous success.”

But Jennifer Rubin, a blogger for The Washington Post, captured the heart of conservative opposition to Perez when she wrote that given Perez’s  role in the politics surrounding the Civil Rights Division, “I see no conceivable way in which [Perez] could be an appropriate secretary of [the Labor] department …”

Here is another opinion: If only for trying to restore credibility to the voting rights section and reaffirm the original intent of the law to provide voting rights protections for minorities, Perez deserves much more than Senate confirmation to become Labor secretary.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.