President Donald Trump wasted little time in naming R. Alexander Acosta on Thursday as his nominee for labor secretary to replace Andrew Puzder, who withdrew hours before.
Acosta, the only son of Cuban immigrants, is law dean at Florida International University in Miami and a veteran Republican administrator, serving as assistant attorney general for civil rights and U.S. attorney in Miami.
At a news conference announcing his pick, Trump cited Acosta’s degrees “tremendous career,” his degrees from Harvard Law School and Harvard College as well as his service as a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito when he served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
Acosta “has been through four Senate confirmations. I’ve wished him the best. I think he’ll be a tremendous secretary of labor,” Trump said.
He will be Trump’s first Hispanic Cabinet nominee.
According to his FIU Law bio, Acosta has served in three presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed positions – as a member of the National Labor Relations Board, appointed by George W. Bush; assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department; and becoming the first Hispanic to become assistant attorney general.
But Acosta’s record isn’t unblemished.
He was chastised in a January 2009 report by the Justice Department’s inspector general and Office of Professional Responsibility for failing to supervise a rogue administrator intent on politicizing the civil rights division by hiring archconservatives from 2003 to 2006, according to the Daily Business Review.
Kristen Clarke, president and executive direstor of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in a statement that she’s “astonished” by Acosta’s nomination. Acosta, she said, “led the Civil Rights Division at a time that was marked by stark politicization, and other improper hiring and personnel decisions that were fully laid to bare in a 2008 report issued by the Office of Inspector General.”
The OIG found that “actions taken during Mr. Acosta’s tenure violated Justice Department policy and federal law. Political and ideological affiliations were used as a litmus test to evaluate job candidates and career attorneys, wreaking havoc on the work of the Division,” Clarke continued. “This egregious conduct played out under Mr. Acosta’s watch and undermined the integrity of the Civil Rights Division. It is hard to believe that Mr. Acosta would now be nominated to lead a federal agency tasked with promoting lawful hiring practices and safe workplaces.”
Most recently, Acosta served as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida and was the longest serving U.S. attorney in the district since the 1970s.
The departures of Acosta and U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer, who resigned Wednesday, would mean the loss of Miami’s two highest-ranking Hispanics in public law circles.
The U.S. attorney’s position in Miami is a plum political post that has been filled by Hispanics for many years. In fact, Ferrer succeeded Acosta, who served from 2006 to 2009.
There’s no guarantee that track record of diversity will continue with the Southern District of Florida covering an area that includes Trump’s “Winter White House” in Palm Beach, where Trump has his own circle of friends.
Acosta’s work in Washington includes time at the law firm Kirkland & Ellis, where he specialized in employment and labor issues, as well as teaching classes on employment law, disability-based discrimination law, and civil rights law at the George Mason University School of Law.
He also serves as chairman of U.S. Century Bank, the largest domestically owned Hispanic community bank in Florida and one of the 15 largest Hispanic community banks in the nation.
Other accolades include serving as chairman of the Board of Trustees of Gulliver Schools, and twice being named one of the nation’s 50 most influential Hispanics by Hispanic Business Magazine.
Acosta “seems to be a safer choice by the administration and someone who has more traditional conservative political experience,” said Tom Clark, of counsel with The Wagner Law Group. However, “his positions on the hot-button issues remain to be seen.”
Steve Saxon, chairman of Groom Law Group, agreed that Acosta seems like a “very safe” pick, noting, however, that it “doesn’t look like he knows a lot about retirement or health benefits.”
Puzder faced increasing criticism as well as opposition from GOP senators, with up to 12 saying a day before he was to appear for his nomination hearing Thursday before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that they’d vote against him.
Former Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, who’s now running for chair of the Democratic National Committee, called Puzder “unfit” to serve as the next Labor secretary in an interview on CNN.