President Donald Trump’s second nominee for labor secretary, R. Alexander Acosta, represents a bigger contrast with the prior pick on biography and personal style than on policy substance.
Acosta, 48, replaces Andrew Puzder, a fast-food company executive and frequent media commentator who withdrew his name Wednesday amid controversy over his personal life and business background.
“He’s intense, hardworking, but I think in contrast to Puzder, he’s going to get things done more quietly,” said Tammy McCutchen, who served as administrator of the Wage and Hour Division of the Labor Department during the Bush administration. “He will be quietly efficient. I don’t think you’ll see a lot of difference in his policy positions from Puzder.”
Trump announced his choice of Acosta, a former National Labor Relations Board member and the first Hispanic he has chosen for his cabinet, at a news conference Thursday. Trump said Acosta, a law school dean and former head of the Justice Department’s civil-rights division, will be "a tremendous secretary of labor," and noted the Senate has already confirmed him for three positions in the past.
Acosta served as assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division under President George W. Bush and was U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida, where he prosecuted Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff for fraud. He once clerked for then-Appeals Court judge Samuel Alito, now a U.S. Supreme Court justice.
He also is currently the chairman of U.S. Century Bank, an Hispanic community bank, and dean of the law school at Florida International University. A Miami-born son of Cuban immigrants, he earned both an undergraduate and law degree from Harvard, where he edited a conservative campus newspaper.
"Any Republican president would consider him for labor secretary or another senior position," said Seth Harris, who served as acting secretary of labor under President Obama.
Harris said Acosta is almost certain to be confirmed, comparing his nomination to picks like James Mattis and John Kelly that drew significant bipartisan support. But Harris said he expects Acosta to bring a pro-management agenda to the Labor Department. "He was a reliable conservative vote at the NLRB. He presided over a Civil Rights Division that was focused much more on the conservative agenda than on the traditional civil rights agenda."
Wilma Liebman, a Democrat who served with Acosta on the NLRB and later chaired the agency under Obama, offered praise for her former colleague. "I found him to be fair-minded and open-minded and highly intelligent."
Whereas Puzder’s nomination "was a real screw-you to the labor movement," said Liebman, she predicted Acosta "will give careful consideration to the points of view" from all sides on each issue.
'A public servant'
Labor groups that helped lead the opposition to Puzder were measured in their initial reactions to his replacement. "Unlike Andy Puzder, Alexander Acosta’s nomination deserves serious consideration," AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a statement. "In one day, we’ve gone from a fast-food CEO who routinely violates labor law to a public servant with experience enforcing it."
The American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees and the Fight For $15 also said in statements that they looked forward to learning more about Acosta.
At least one union is already in Acosta’s corner. He drew a swift endorsement from the International Association of Fire Fighters, which didn’t endorse either candidate in the 2016 election. In a statement, firefighters union chief Harold Schaitberger said his union worked with Acosta during his time at DOJ and "we always found him to be fair, reasonable and accessible. His long and distinguished career in law and government service make him a strong candidate to serve as our country’s next Labor Secretary."
Any controversy over Acosta is less likely to involve his eight month stint at the NLRB than his time at DOJ. A 2008 report from DOJ’s Office of the Inspector General and Office of Professional Responsibility on alleged politicized hiring found that Acosta "did not sufficiently supervise" his deputy Bradley Schlozman, who it said inappropriately factored ideology into hiring decisions.
Acosta has also been criticized by some former DOJ officials for writing a letter four days before the 2004 election telling a federal judge that it would “undermine” election law enforcement not to let citizens contest the credentials of other voters. The Ohio-based judge at the time was considering an effort by Republicans to challenge 23,000 voters’ eligibility. That letter led some faculty to oppose his selection as FIU law school dean in 2009 and his potential selection for University of Florida law school dean in 2014.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer did not immediately respond to an inquiry about those controversies. Acosta told McClatchy in a 2007 statement that his letter was intended to advise the judge that the Ohio law permitting challenges was permissible if they weren’t racially-based, and that challenged voters could still cast provisional ballots.
Acosta has many allies in Florida. "I wouldn’t have a single critical thing to say about him," said University of Miami School of Law Dean Patricia White, who credited him with significantly improving his school’s reputation as dean. "They have thrived under his leadership." The Miami Herald editorial board celebrated the pick in a Thursday article ending, "We’ve been waiting a long time to say this: Good job, President Trump."
Luis de la Aguilera, who Acosta hired to be chief executive officer of U.S. Century Bank, credits him with helping chart a course that diversified the bank’s loan portfolio away from a reliance on commercial real estate, restoring it to profitability last year.
The 2016 profit "is very indicative of the turnaround that the bank has made. Alex has been absolutely great as far as an ally and as chairman -- he’s been fantastic," Aguilera said.
Aida Levitan, who is on the board of U.S. Century Bank, said Acosta worked with de la Aguilera "hand in hand in turning the bank around and making a profit this year that was very substantial... Alex was a major part of the success that the bank is having now. He is one of the hardest working individuals that I’ve ever met."
Puzder, who had been scheduled for a Senate confirmation hearing Thursday, ran into trouble in the Senate over his admission that he employed an undocumented housekeeper. Also shadowing his nomination were divorce-court proceedings that included a domestic-abuse allegation, which he has denied. Some conservatives had questioned his pro-immigration stance.
In the 52-48 Senate, three Republican defections would have doomed Puzder if all 48 Democrats voted to deny him, and as many as a dozen GOP senators had indicated they wouldn’t back the nomination.