Republicans Accuse Labor Nominee of Fighting for Civil Rights

Dave JohnsonWhere does the Republican Party put its energy? On anything that furthers the interests of the wealthiest. Tax cuts and kicking government are right at the top of that list.* Also near the top comes blocking minimum wage increases, blocking workplace safety rules and keeping lots of people unemployed so they are desperate to take any nasty, dirty, low-paying job, etc. But next to tax cuts and keeping government from operating, Republicans fight to keep unions from being able to organize because the power of working people acting together collectively begins to challenge the power of concentrated wealth that corporations represent. To this end, Republicans hate and fight the U.S. Department of Labor and, now, the new nominee for secretary of labor.

In the News

Republican “oppo” researchers issued a 63-page report on Thomas Perez, who President Obama has nominated to fill the vacancy for secretary of labor. Perez currently serves as head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. The report accuses Perez of being corrupt because he fought to keep civil rights law intact by trading a case involving St. Paul landlords who were renting substandard homes in low-income areas for a case accusing St. Paul of not doing enough to help minorities win contracts.

The story is circulating today in the Washington Post, GOP Issues Critical Report of Labor Secretary Nominee Perez:

The GOP lawmakers accuse Perez of misusing his power last year to persuade the city of St. Paul, Minn., to withdraw a housing discrimination case before it could be heard by the Supreme Court. In exchange, the Justice Department agreed not to intervene in two whistleblower cases against St. Paul that could have won up to $200?million for taxpayers.

…Top Democrats on the House Oversight Committee issued a report on the investigation Sunday, writing that Perez ‘acted professionally to advance the interests of civil rights and effectively combat the scourge of housing discrimination.’ The Justice Department also defended Perez, saying litigation decisions made by the department ‘were in the best interests of the United States and were consistent with the department’s legal, ethical and professional responsibility obligations.’

The GOP report cites documents that suggest Perez’s decision frustrated and confused career lawyers at Justice who initially wanted to join the whistleblower cases against St. Paul. These lawyers described the department’s change of heart as ‘weirdness,’ ‘ridiculous’ and a case of ‘cover your head pingpong.’


Complicated…Perez’s deal kept the Justice Department out of one court case in exchange for keeping another from making it to the Supreme Court, which would use it to overturn important civil rights laws 5-4.

What Republicans Say Perez Did That Was Bad

The main charge against Perez (other than being brown) is that, as part of his duties in the Civil Rights Division, he brokered a deal in a housing discrimination case in St. Paul, to keep the case from reaching the Supreme Court. The St. Paul case would have enabled the Supreme Court to strike down “disparate-impact theory” in civil rights a labor law, with a 5-4 vote.

The current Roberts movement-conservative majority on the Supreme Court looks for cases that enable them to maneuver 5-4 votes to strike down laws that protect citizens from billionaires and corporations (who fund the conservative movement) in various ways. Citizens United is the best example of this. It undid campaign finance laws, enabling billionaires and giant corporations to put multiple millions into getting their candidates elected at every level. The case involving Perez is one that this court could have used to further harm citizen interests with a 5-4 vote.

The Case

In the early 2000s, a group of landlords were renting substandard (heat didn’t work, no locks, rotten floors, rat holes, bugs, broken pipes, etc.) housing to minorities in St. Paul. St. Paul cracked down with code enforcement. The landlords sued St. Paul, claiming code enforcement would violate the Fair Housing Act because minority tenants would have less access to…nasty, substandard housing with rotted floors, rats, etc.

That’s right, the slumlords sued the city arguing that if the city did code enforcement and it put them out of business, minorities wouldn’t have access to nasty, substandard housing that was infested with code violations. They claimed that code enforcement violated civil right laws by potentially decreasing minority access to nasty, substandard housing.

This is exactly the kind of case Republicans love because it turns the tables against minorities and makes the claim that the kind of businesses that scam on and prey on and take advantage of vulnerable and powerless citizens are really “performing a service.”

St. Paul’s lawyers had a duty to the city to do what they could to win for the city. They knew the Supreme Court had an interest in overturning the civil rights law that the slumlords were using to sue them, meaning they would win the case for the city. So St. Paul was taking the case to the Supreme Court even though the court would use it to strike down civil rights laws nationally.

Perez struck a deal to avoid this outcome. This is what Republicans are accusing him of.

The Other Case

The other side of the deal Perez brokered involved a suit against St. Paul claiming the city had not been using federal funds to sufficiently help minorities get contracts and jobs with the city. The case would have collapsed if the Justice Department didn’t get involved and could potentially cost the city millions if they did. So in exchange for St. Paul not taking the other case to the Supreme Court, Perez got the Justice Department to agree not to get involved.

What This Tells Us

All of this tells us that Perez understands the strategic long game that the billionaires and their giant corporations are playing, by investing in getting their people placed on the courts and Supreme Court, and how they manipulate cases to use to undermine long-standing laws that help regular people. What Perez did shows that he is there to fight for regular people, not to make a fortune by “playing along” while in a government position and then later receiving a high-paying payoff job with the corporations behind this.

Good Sources

A good source for understanding the complicated story is Adam Serwer in Mother Jones, The GOP Wants to Use This Bizarre Case to Scuttle Obama’s Most Progressive Cabinet Nominee:

The deal Perez helped cut likely prevented a landmark civil rights law from being struck down by the Roberts’ court. Perez’s civil rights division later used this law to secure record financial settlements against banks that discriminated against minority borrowers during the financial crisis. And Republicans were very angry about it.

Another source for a more conservative take on this is a series of posts by Sean Higgins in the Washington Examiner (note: you will be swarmed by pop-up ads):

A glimpse into how Thomas Perez operates.

More on the deal Thomas Perez cut with St. Paul.

How Thomas Perez might use ‘disparate impact’ theory as labor secretary.

*More from the list of where the Republican Party puts its energy: keeping people from voting, keeping objective information from reaching people, keeping entrenched “incumbent” interests like oil and coal and big pharmaceutical companies from facing serious competition, etc., etc.

This article was originally posted on the AFL-CIO on April 17, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Dave Johnson is a Fellow with Campaign for America’s Future and a Senior Fellow with Renew California.

Dave is founder and principal author at Seeing the Forest, and a blogger at Speak Out California. He is a frequent public speaker, talk-radio personality and a leading participant in the progressive blogging community.


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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.