What You Need to Know About R. Alexander Acosta, Trump’s New Labor Secretary Pick

By Sameer Rao Feb 16, 2017

President Donald Trump announced Rene Alexander Acosta as his new nominee to lead the Department of Labor this afternoon (February 16).

The Miami Herald reports that the Cuban-American Acosta, who goes by "Alex," successfully passed Senate vetting three times before to serve out presidential appointments. He earned his Juris Doctor degree from Harvard Law School and was a National Labor Relations Board member from 2002 to 2003. He went on to become assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. He also served as U.S. attorney for the southern district of Florida from 2005 to 2009. The Herald says Acosta prosecuted several drug trafficking and fraud cases as  a U.S. attorney, including one where he indicted a fellow Republican, lobbyist Jack Abramoff, for fraud conspiracy. He clerked for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito in the mid-1990s back when Alito was a U.S. Court of Appeals judge, and currently serves as the dean at Florida International University Law.

Acosta has pushed back against Islamophobia at different points in his career. He testified before Congress in 2011 as part of a hearing about the civil rights of Muslim Americans. "As we approach the 10th Anniversary of 9/11, I feel obligated to state the obvious," he said. "As a nation, we have not forgotten the events of ten years ago. Emotions remain charged, and the desire to blame remains high. Now is [a] good time to remember that no community has a monopoly on any particular type of crime." Acosta also discussed his efforts at the Justice Department to fight post-9/11 racist backlash, including intervening on behalf of Oklahoma sixth-grader Nashala Hearn, who was suspended for wearing a hijab to school in 2003.

McClatchy DC reported in 2007 that Acosta, while working as assistant attorney general in 2004, told an Ohio judge that the Justice Department saw no issues with a local Republican legal challenge of 23,000 predominantly Black voter registrations. And a 2000 report from The Christian Science Monitor identified Acosta as part of the socially conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Trump presented the nomination one day after previous nominee, CKE Restaurants CEO Andrew Puzderwithdrew his name from consideration. Puzder was supposed to testify before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions today. Fight for $15 labor activists organized several actions against Puzder, who opposes a minimum wage increase. 

"Workers in the Fight for $15 just proved that when we stand together, even fast-food CEOs and presidents can’t ignore us," Aiesha Meadows McLaurin, a fast food worker and activist from Chicago, said in an emailed statement. "Working Americans need a labor secretary who will have our backs, not one who will hold us back. We look forward to learning more about Mr. Acosta’s record as the confirmation process unfolds. If confirmed, we will hold Mr. Acosta accountable as labor secretary and do whatever it takes to make sure that our voices are heard loud and clear in Washington."

National Employment Law Project executive director Christine Owens echoed that sentiment in the group’s statement:

America’s workers deserve a labor secretary who’s on their side—one who supports raising the minimum wage, expanding eligibility for overtime pay, ensuring safe and healthy workplaces, extending affordable health care, protecting workers’ retirement savings, safeguarding the right to organize and bargain collectively, and creating good, family-sustaining jobs.