Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, said the nature of the office made it a political lightning rod long before Perez arrived.
"He has rigorously enforced a number of civil rights laws," Tobias said of Perez. "Some of that work is controversial, but I think that's inherent in the mandate that office has."
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In Maryland, Perez used the labor department to implement regulations to stem the foreclosure crisis. He pushed to shift oversight of adult education programs to his agency, a move that led to a turf battle with state education officials. And he beefed up enforcement of the state's minimum wage law.
"Tom was adamant that this agency had to be responsive to the foreclosure crisis," said Leonard J. Howie III, Maryland's current labor secretary.
Many Republicans and business groups offered muted responses to the nomination, which leaked out more than a week before Monday's event.
Randy Johnson, a vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said he hoped Perez would "work with the business community to advance policies that promote jobs and economic growth."
Perez served as an attorney in the civil rights division of the Justice Department in the late 1980s, prosecuting several high-profile cases. He also worked for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who died in 2009.
Perez left the federal government when President George W. Bush, a Republican, took office in 2001. He taught law at the University of Maryland law school for six years. The school's dean, Phoebe A. Haddon, said Perez would be "an extraordinary talent and a singular proponent of public service."
If confirmed, Perez would replace Hilda Solis, a Democratic former congresswoman from California who resigned in January.
"My parents taught my four siblings and me to work hard, to give back to our community and make sure that the ladder of opportunity was there for those coming after us," Perez said at the White House on Monday. "We can keep making progress for all working families."