Almost immediately after President Obama introduced Thomas Perez as his choice for Secretary of Labor, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) vowed to block the nomination in the Senate. The far-right senator issued a press release condemning “his spotty work related to the New Black Panther case,” which Vitter claimed Perez was “closely involved in.”
Even for Vitter, it was an odd argument. Perez didn’t even work at the Justice Department when it dropped the absurd New Black Panther case, and though Perez later answered the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights’ questions about the matter, the panel’s report “concluded that Perez did not intentionally mislead the commission.”
But by even relying on the ridiculous controversy to go on the attack, Vitter helped illustrate why Republicans’ outreach to Latino communities will be more challenging than the RNC may care to admit. As Greg Sargent explained:
[I]t is now clear that some Republicans will do all they can to block Obama’s first Latino pick for his second-term cabinet – and the right is gearing up for a campaign against him that will make the effort to block Chuck Hagel look like a knitting seminar. Given Thomas Perez’s background as the son of Dominican immigrants, plus his role running the Justice Department’s civil rights division, this isn’t going to make the RNC’s “outreach” to Latinos any easier. […]
Other Republican senators [in addition to Vitter] plan to paint Perez as a “radical legal activist” who has “tried to help illegal immigrants avoid detection,” as the New York Times puts it.
This is not to suggest Republican critics of the administration can’t complain about a nominee they don’t like, just because he’s Latino, or that criticism of Perez is necessarily evidence of bigotry.
The nature of the criticism matters, however, and at this point, the racial angle to the right’s anti-Perez rhetoric is hard to miss.
As Simon Maloy noted:
Reacting to the news, Rush Limbaugh drew a straight line between Perez and the “grand kleagle of the Ku Klux Klan” and also compared him to Hugo Chavez. It’s not difficult to see how that bumps up against the recommendations in Preibus’ report: “If we want ethnic minority voters to support Republicans, we have to engage them, and show our sincerity.”
Fox News and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) were far more circumspect in their criticism of Perez, but both relied on racially-charged lines of attack – Megyn Kelly focused on the New Black Panther case Perez didn’t oversee and Sessions complained about Perez’s work as an immigrants’ right advocate. Michele Malkin echoed a related sentiment, blasting Perez as “Obama’s nominee for secretary of (illegal alien) labor.”
Roll Call added that Republican leaders realize that if they launch a major offensive against the Labor nominee, “they risk undercutting the Republican National Committee’s brand-new diversity push and getting mired in fights over voting rights and immigration,” but they may do it anyway, out of fear of “blowback from their base.”
Ron Bonjean, a former GOP leadership aide, told Roll Call his party can oppose Perez if it does it carefully and focuses “on his ability to promote jobs and the economy.” If Senate Republicans “start wading into the issues of immigration, that can be a political minefield for Republicans. Keep the focus on whether he can do the job,” Bonjean advised.
So far, I’d say the GOP’s efforts to thread that needle are off to a poor start.