“You're killing somebody if you have them in your college and you're forcing them to eat that.”
-- Tom Perez, leader of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, in a February interview with the Huffington Post about winning a settlement with Lesley University under the Americans with Disabilities Act concerning students who demanded more gluten-free options in the school cafeteria.
What’s a civil right in America?
Does that category include the right of students with wheat allergies to have more gluten-free options in school cafeterias?
In the Bush administration, the answer was no. In the Obama administration, the answer is yes. And that difference reflects a sea change in the 55-year-old Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice spurred by its leader, Deputy Attorney General Tom Perez.
Now President Obama wants to make Perez, an activist lawyer and liberal hero, his secretary of Labor. The fight over the nomination promises to be intense.
The old thinking about the civil rights unit saw the division as a custodian of basic rights, especially for black Americans. The new thinking is that the unit is an entrepreneurial entity and should be looking for new ways to extend special federal protections to more individuals: abortion practitioners, illegal immigrants, schoolchildren classified as transgender and, yes, those allergic to wheat.
The term “civil rights attorney” summons up images of Atticus Finch, Freedom Riders and soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division enforcing Brown v. Board of Education.
But with fewer instances of institutional racism to prosecute, the Civil Rights Division had been in an entrepreneurial mode in recent decades, particularly in the Clinton Administration. But under President George W. Bush, some of the old guard returned and applied the brakes.
For the left, the Bush team at the division was tantamount to having the Yankees front office in charge of recruiting for the Red Sox. The conflict between a management team of conservative lawyers and a staff of mostly liberal lawyers rendered the division all but irrelevant except in cases of the most obvious civil rights abuses. That was just fine by conservatives.
But according to a report from the department’s inspector general, Perez’s effort to swing the division back onto activist footing resulted in those with opposing views feeling shut out, discouraged and victimized. The report said the unit was plagued by “deep ideological polarization.”
With Perez, though, Obama has chosen someone at the center of multiple controversies inside one of his most controversial departments.
The report, issued last week, also found that Perez had given misleading testimony in 2010 when he said that political appointees had not been part of the decision to drop an already successful prosecution of New Black Panther Party members for voting intimidation.
By tapping Perez, Obama is signaling that he’d like to see a similar entrepreneurial spirit brought to the regulation of America’s employers. Unions are very happy at the thought of having an effective activist like Perez. Employers foresee years of costly litigation and lots of new limits on how they can fight against union organizing.
And while Perez’s attitudes about labor-management relations will certainly figure heavily into his confirmation hearing – including his time as Maryland’s labor commissioner – it will be his controversial tenure at the Justice Department that will draw the most attention and criticism.
Obama certainly could have taken another path.
He showed his commitment to a reinvigorated left in his pick to lead the Department of Environmental Protection, Gina McCarthy. McCarthy is a crusader on the topic of global warming but is not personally controversial. Few beyond industry lawyers and environmental activists knew anything of McCarthy before, and while her hearings will involve much denouncing of an activist EPA, there is little to suggest that conservatives can block her appointment.
In fact, there is every reason to believe that low-key McCarthy will be far more effective in advancing liberal goals on climate change than Lisa Jackson, the high-profile environmental activist who headed the agency until last month.
With Perez, though, Obama has chosen someone at the center of multiple controversies inside one of his most controversial departments. Along the way, Perez has picked up multiple detractors and a problematic paper trail.
The Perez appointment cheers labor activists not happy about Obama’s selection of perennial political patron Penny Pritzker, the Hyatt hotel heiress, to head the Department of Commerce.
Perez also offers hope to the ambitions of big labor for big advances for struggling unions, hopes that were vanquished when an appeals court tossed out the president’s recess appointees at the National Labor Relations Board.
But at a moment when Obama is trying to knit together some kind of a deal to get through the next 20 months on borrowing and spending, sending a lightning rod like Perez up for confirmation is not likely to foster much in the way of bipartisan accord.
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com. Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30amET at http:live.foxnews.com.