President Obama’s March 18 nomination of Justice Department official Thomas Perez to be his new secretary of Labor has put GOP lawmakers and conservative media personalities into an uproar.
Among the slights were the comments of Rush Limbaugh, who compared Perez to the “grand kleagle of the Ku Klux Klan” and the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
“If George W. Bush puts a Klansman in his cabinet, there would be hell to pay. That's essentially what's happened here,” Limbaugh said on his March 18 show, according to a transcript.
But Perez has at least one defender. Former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele broke ranks with his party, criticizing Limbaugh for his racist statements.
“I think we just need to be a little more tempered here,” Steele told The Huffington Post. “I just don’t see a basis for, you know, Chavez? How did we jump to that? Oh, because he’s [Perez] Hispanic? Oh, got it, got it, alright. Again, you can’t take that seriously, and that’s what the American people are tired of, quite frankly.”
During his tenure as Maryland’s lieutenant governor, Steele worked with Perez while the latter was a Montgomery County, Md. Lawmaker. Steele also touted Perez's work heading up Maryland’s Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation and said Perez has “done an incredible job” in his current position as head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
“I think he’s going to be a good Labor Secretary,” Steele said. “I think he can bring a different temperament to the job and recognize the very important balance between labor and management, if you will, and the appropriate role of unions in this new marketplace and the appropriate role of small businesses.”
“I think he is going to be exciting. I’ve known him a long time and this is one of those moments where there is no partisanship here,” Steele added. “This is a good public servant who should be given an opportunity, and the president recognized that."
As head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, Perez and Republicans bumped heads over states’ restrictive voter ID laws, which the agency opposed.
Republicans hadn't approached the “contentious” voter ID issue “in the smartest way possible,” Steele said. “If we had, the courts wouldn’t be throwing it out.”
“His view as heading up the Civil Rights Division was one of what’s fair, what does the law require,” he added. “His responsibility at the Justice Department was to make sure those standards were met, and I think you’ll see that same kind of approach in his appointment over at Labor. He’s going to come at it asking what’s in the best interest of America’s workforce and recognizing the interconnection between that workforce and the people that employ them.”
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