Members of Congress intensify push for Biden to name Asian American Cabinet secretary
By Amy B Wang,
Demetrius Freeman The Washington Posts
More than 100 members of Congress are making a final push for President-elect Joe Biden to choose an Asian American or Pacific Islander Cabinet secretary, saying that not doing so would be an unacceptable omission after each of the last four administrations included at least one.
“Although you promised to build the most diverse Cabinet in history, AAPIs have so far been excluded from the 15 Cabinet Secretary slots that oversee executive departments and are responsible for shaping and implementing your Administration’s policies,” the lawmakers stated in a joint letter sent to the transition, one of many missives members of Congress have delivered to Biden’s team in recent weeks.
The Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus sent the
letter to Biden’s transition team sounding the alarm after fearing that none of the remaining Cabinet-level positions would be filled with an Asian American or Pacific Islander nominee. It was signed by more than 100 members of Congress, including non-caucus members.
A similar letter sent the previous week had been co-signed by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus.
“The need for diversity at the highest levels is not for the sake of optics. It’s about ensuring all experiences are reflected in our decision making,” the newest letter stated. “And . . . when we have diverse leaders in positions of power, it leads to more inclusive policies that better serve the entirety of our country.”
The letter followed conversations the transition had with Julie Su, California’s labor chief, about a position with the administration in the Labor Department, including possibly deputy secretary of labor, according to three people familiar with the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
A Su spokeswoman declined a request for comment Wednesday, and a spokesman for the Biden transition team would not discuss her. The transition team has had conversations with multiple candidates that can include the possibility of a number of positions within the departments for which they are being considered, according to a source close to the transition who spoke on the condition of anonymity because that person was not authorized to speak on the matter.
“President-elect Biden is working to build an administration that looks like America, starting with the first woman of South Asian descent and first Black woman to be Vice President-elect, as well as a historic slate of diverse nominees and appointees, to date. He will continue to deliver upon this vision over the coming weeks as he shapes the most diverse Cabinet in history,” transition spokesman Jamal Brown said in a statement.
While most of his Cabinet nominees have been selected, Biden has yet to announce his picks for labor secretary, commerce secretary and attorney general, and transition officials said Wednesday they did not expect additional Cabinet announcements until after the new year.
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, reportedly one of the leading contenders for labor secretary, told reporters Wednesday that he had “not been talking to anyone in the Biden Administration” but sidestepped the question of whether he would accept if offered the position, according to the Boston Globe.
“I love being the mayor of Boston,” he said at a news conference.
When asked about the pressure to name an AAPI secretary, Biden transition officials have repeatedly pointed not only to Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris, whose mother was from India, but also to the selection of Katherine Tai as U.S. trade representative and Neera Tanden as the nominee to head the Office of Management and Budget, both Cabinet-level roles. Vivek H. Murthy, whose parents, like Harris’s and Tanden’s, were from India, has been named Biden’s surgeon general-designate, though the role is not a Cabinet-level one.
Lorna Ho Randlett, who, along with her husband, is a Biden bundler who heads an AAPI public policy think tank called Leaders Forum, said her group sent a letter to the transition team on Nov. 24 in support of Biden’s choices, though very few Cabinet selections had been made at the time. The letter was also signed by “other prominent members of the national AAPI community, especially those who were among the earliest supporters of the Biden campaign,” she said.
Randlett stressed that they have been encouraging the transition team to choose as many highly qualified AAPI candidates as possible but also argued that Biden has already assembled a historic Cabinet.
“I am not at all saying that those three by any stretch of the imagination are somehow to be in a narrative about what is enough and what is not enough,” Randlett told The Washington Post, referring to Harris, Tai and Tanden. “What I think is the narrative is what is best for America. And we need to trust the leader that the people elected and the groundbreaking first-ever choices he has made.”
Other AAPI groups and lawmakers have pointed out that other constituency groups — Black, Hispanic, Native American, LGBT — are all represented in Biden’s 15 secretary-level Cabinet positions, but AAPIs are not, a departure from the past four administrations, regardless of party.
“It’s an important precedent that we have to maintain,” said Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.).
Further, they say that while Harris is first in the line of succession, the other roles rank lower than Cabinet secretaries and oversee departments with far smaller budgets. For example, the budget for the Department of Health and Human Services is about $87 billion; for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, it’s $69 million.
“Though we’re proud of Kamala D. Harris being both Black and AAPI, it’s abundantly clear that [Black civil rights groups and lawmakers] were not told that they should be satisfied with her and not go for any Cabinet secretary position,” Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, told The Post. “During the campaign, Biden said he would have the most diverse cabinet ever. The truth is, at this point, that it’s the most diverse administration ever, except for AAPIs, and we are being talked down to by the Biden transition team that we should be satisfied being in a secondary place and that is not acceptable.”
Asian American and Pacific Islander groups are not alone in pressuring Biden to diversify the highest levels of his Cabinet. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus and other groups have been urging him to name a Latina to his Cabinet, and many civil rights leaders have said they would prefer to see a Black person named attorney general.
In recent weeks, the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus had mounted an increasingly public campaign to support Su’s candidacy, as she was seen as the last realistic AAPI candidate for a secretary-level position. Caucus members shared their concerns with Harris in a Dec. 17 virtual call; she responded that she understood their concerns about not having an AAPI member at the secretary level and promised to share it with the transition team.
In the letter sent on Tuesday, CAPAC members said they were requesting an emergency meeting with Biden before he makes another Cabinet announcement. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said she was unsure why their requests were being ignored.
“We can assume that it’s because they don’t respect the AAPI community, they don’t think we have political power, we’re not making enough of a public stink,” she said. “I mean, there are all kinds of assumptions that we could draw. We’ve been trying not to draw those assumptions, but it gets harder and harder, as we see our requests be ignored.”