Labor Nominee Perez at Center of Texas School Board Controversy

President Barack Obama's nominee for Secretary of Labor, Thomas Perez, is embroiled in a heated new controversy over a school board election in Texas in which the federal government is intervening to protect incumbent school board members from their own failure to file papers to appear on the election ballot.

Elections for four positions on the Beaumont Independent School District (BISD) in Beaumont, TX are to be held on May 11 in accordance with state law. Four challengers filed applications to be placed on the ballot, but their applications were rejected by BISD--and the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, led by Perez, is backing BISD's attempt to postpone the May 11 election, ostensibly for civil rights reasons.

BISD, like other jurisdictions in Texas, is subject to the controversial Section 5 of the Civil Rights Act, through which its election structures must be approved or "precleared" in advance by the Department of Justice (DOJ). Over the past three decades, the district has shifted demographically from one in which white voters were a strong majority to one in which black voters are a plurality and a strong voice at the polls.

BISD currently has a "7-0" system, in which all seven members are elected from seven local districts. The voters, alarmed by management problems, passed a ballot measure in 2011 to replace the "7-0" system with a "5-2" system, in which five members would be elected from local districts and two would be elected as "at-large" members. However, DOJ rejected the new plan on the dubious grounds that the new system might disadvantage minority (i.e. black or Hispanic) candidates, and so BISD has retained the 7-0 system.

New census data required BISD to redivide its seven existing districts to take account of population shifts. A new "7-0" district map was approved by the BISD. According to legal filings in the case, existing state law requires that all seven positions must be up for re-election after a redistricting, unless the board exempts incumbents whose terms are no yet expired. Yet BISD simply forgot to exempt those four members.

Now the BISD is attempting to protect those members by rejecting the election itself, arguing in state court that the redistricting is a "voting change" that requires the DOJ to provide preclearance, and that the election ought to be postponed until preclearance is given--an outcome that would allow the four incumbents to filed their papers to keep their seats. And Thomas Perez is siding with the incumbents in his capacity as Assistant Attorney General, in charge of the DOJ's highly politicized Civil Rights Division. 

Ironically, the challengers for the four BISD seats are a diverse group consisting of an African American woman, a Hispanic man, a white woman and a white man. They are now fighting in court to protect their right to appear on a ballot--and being rejected by BISD and Perez on supposed civil rights grounds, when in fact the real reason the incumbents are in trouble is their own incompetence and ignorance of the law.

Last week, Perez faced tough questions from Republicans at his confirmation hearing regarding his role in intervening in a St. Paul, MN lawsuit in which the DOJ convinced the city to drop a Supreme Court case that might have threatened DOJ's controversial "disparate impact" enforcement tactic in civil rights cases. In exchange the DOJ would stay out of a whistleblower case against the city alleging massive housing fraud.

Even by Department of Labor standards, Perez is an highly ideological nominee. He has been described by former DOJ lawyer J. Christian Adams as a "radical progressive" who "has amassed a record demonstrating contempt for the rule of law, hostility toward the private sector and an aversion to telling the truth under oath." One of the chief concerns is Perez's hostility to race-neutral enforcement of civil rights laws, especially given Perez's alleged role in abandoning the voter intimidation case against the New Black Panther Party.

The Beaumont case, which comes before a three-judge panel at the federal district court for the District of Columbia on Tuesday, will be decided as Senators consider whether to pass Perez's nomination out of committee to the full Senate. Perez's attempt to protect the incumbents on the BISD from their own mistake on civil rights grounds is emblematic of the problems in his record that have provoked Senators' concern.


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