By Justin Sink and Meghashyam Mali - 03/18/13 04:16 PM EDT
President Obama named Thomas Perez as his choice to head the Department of Labor in a ceremony in the White House's East Room on Monday.
Perez currently heads the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division and will replace former Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, who stepped down in January.
President Obama highlighted Perez’s tenure at the Justice Department, where he spearheaded efforts to fight unfair mortgage lending practices, enforce human trafficking laws and protect the working rights of the nation’s veterans.
"Tom fought for a level playing field where hard work and responsibility are rewarded and working families can get ahead," Obama said.
The president also noted that as Secretary of Labor in the State of Maryland, Perez fought for increasing the minimum wage to a "living wage" — an initiative that Obama championed in his most recent State of the Union address.
Perez called it "a remarkably humbling and exciting phenomenon" to be nominated.
Perez's selection is expected to garner strong support from civil rights groups and organized labor, who have said they are ready for a fight if his nomination faces opposition from Republicans. AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka and NAACP president Ben Jealous were both in attendance at Monday's ceremony.
"At a time when our politics tilts so heavily toward corporations and the very wealthy, our country needs leaders like Tom Perez to champion the cause of ordinary working people," Trumka said in a statement.
But GOP lawmakers are expected to press Perez over Labor Department policies they charge hurt businesses and unfairly benefit unions. Republican leaders have also voiced concern over Perez's tenure at the Justice Department, where he aggressively pursued discrimination suits against local law enforcement departments and changes to voting laws.
In a statement Monday, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) blasted Perez's nomination as "unfortunate and needlessly divisive."
"The top priority of the Secretary of Labor should be to create jobs and higher wages for American workers," Sessions said. "But Mr. Perez has aggressively sought ways to allow the hiring of more illegal workers. Mr. Perez has also had a controversial tenure at the Department of Justice where he has demonstrated a fundamentally political approach to the law."
In his comments Monday, Obama looked to rebut that characterization, saying that whole Perez has "tackled plenty of tough issues, he's spent a careers as a consensus builder." Perez himself said that his career had taught him "that true progress is possible if you keep an open mind [and] listen to all sides."
Asked about the criticism on Monday, White House press secretary Jay Carney dismissed Republicans concerns.
"I think it's pretty clear he's enormously qualified and talented for the position," Carney said.
Perez is also the first Hispanic American tapped for Obama’s second term Cabinet, a fact underscored by his decision to address Obama in Spanish on multiple occasions during the nominating ceremony. The administration has faced criticism in its second-term, over the alleged lack of diversity among the president’s inner circle.
Last week, Rep. Marica Fudge (D-Ohio), the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, sent Obama a letter admonishing the lack of diversity in his second-term appointments.
“You have publicly expressed your commitment to retaining diversity within your cabinet,” she wrote. “However, the people you have chosen to appoint in this new term have hardly been reflective of this country’s diversity.”
Daniel Strauss contributed.