In Alexander Acosta, President Trump chose a nominee with deep experience in labor relations, law and education.
President Donald Trump moved Thursday to replace his first choice for labor secretary, choosing Alexander Acosta, a Florida law-school dean and former assistant attorney general for civil rights. Acosta would be the only Hispanic in Trump’s Cabinet.
Andrew Puzder, a lawyer and fast-food executive, withdrew from consideration for the Cabinet post Wednesday in the face of opposition from Democrats, union groups and liberals and some Republicans over his business record and character questions.
In Acosta, Trump chose a nominee with deep experience in labor relations, law and education. He addressed concerns about the lack of diversity in his administration. And he tapped someone whose chances of being confirmed appear to be relatively high, because Acosta has made it through the process three times before for different roles.
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“Alex is going to be a key part of achieving our goal of revitalizing the American economy, manufacturing, and labor force,” Trump said as he called on the Senate to swiftly confirm him.
A Miami native and son of Cuban immigrants, Acosta earned undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard University and was a clerk for Justice Samuel Alito Jr. when he was still an appeals-court judge. Acosta’s most relevant experience to the job of labor secretary was his time as a member of the National Labor Relations Board from 2002 to 2003 during the administration of former President George. W. Bush. When his tenure there ended, Acosta was tapped by Bush to head the Justice Department’s civil-rights division.
He went on to become the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida, where his office prosecuted terrorism suspect José Padilla and founders of the Cali cartel. He convicted Charles Taylor Jr., the son of Liberia’s former leader, of torture. His official biography said his office also prosecuted several bank-related cases and targeted health-care fraud. Among his most high-profile cases was the prosecution of Washington, D.C., lobbyist Jack Abramoff on conspiracy and wire-fraud charges. Abramoff pleaded guilty and served 43 months of a five-year, 10-month sentence.
Since 2009, Acosta has been dean of the law school at Florida International University in Miami.
He began his legal career specializing in employment and labor issues in the Washington, D.C., office of the Kirkland & Ellis law firm.
“He has had a tremendous career,” Trump said.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which will consider Acosta’s nomination, praised the pick and promised to “schedule a hearing promptly.”
“Mr. Acosta’s nomination is off to a good start because he’s already been confirmed by the Senate three times,” Alexander said. “He has an impressive work and academic background.”
Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the leading Democrat on the panel, made a passing reference in her statement to having “some initial concerns about his record” but did not name them.
Puzder, chief executive of Carpinteria, California-based CKE Restaurants, parent company of the Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s chains, withdrew the day before his Senate confirmation hearing after several Republicans opposed him because of a series of controversies, including admitting he had for years employed a housekeeper who was in the United States illegally and decades-old allegations of spousal abuse.
Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said the Senate needed “to conduct a thorough review” of Acosta after Puzder’s failed nomination.
“Our next secretary of labor must fully respect our laws designed to protect American workers,” Henderson said.
If confirmed by the Senate, Acosta, 48, would lead a department that includes the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. and Bureau of Labor Statistics, which tracks and reports on job growth, wages and unemployment benefits.
Under President Barack Obama, the Labor Department was aggressive about protecting workers through new rules and enforcement actions. The Trump administration is expected to take a much different approach.
In January, the administration froze a regulation that would have extended overtime pay to 4 million more workers. This month, Trump issued a memo to the acting labor secretary calling for a review of a pending rule affecting retirement advisers. Known as the fiduciary rule, it requires investment brokers who handle retirement funds to put their clients’ interests ahead of other factors, such as their own compensation or company profits.
Republicans and key players in the financial industry have opposed the rule, saying it would drive up the cost of investments by forcing asset-management firms to spend money on implementation and make it more difficult for average Americans to get retirement advice.
One issue from Acosta’s past that Democrats could jump on is a voting-rights case in Ohio shortly before the 2004 presidential election. As assistant attorney general, Acosta filed a brief that supported the rights of citizens to challenge the eligibility of voters.
A civil-rights lawyer representing the plaintiffs said at the time “the letter was highly irregular.” Bush narrowly won the state, which determined the outcome of his race with Democrat John Kerry.
The collapse of Puzder’s nomination was the latest blow for a president who demanded the resignation of his national-security adviser earlier in the week. In naming a new labor nominee right away, Trump and his team hoped to put the sting of Puzder’s failure behind them and regain momentum.
Acosta was not on hand for the announcement in the East Room of the White House, and the president dispensed with the nomination in a few sentences during a news conference. “I think he’s going to be a tremendous secretary of labor,” Trump said.
The U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce hailed the choice. “We are thrilled to work with Acosta on a host of economic and labor issues, which directly affect our members and the Hispanic community as a whole,” said Javier Palomarez, the chamber’s president.
The initial response from some of the most outspoken opponents of Puzder was also mostly positive.
“Unlike Andy Puzder, Alexander Acosta’s nomination deserves serious consideration,” said Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO trade union. “In one day, we’ve gone from a fast-food chain CEO who routinely violates labor law to a public servant with experience enforcing it.”