Asian lawmakers: ‘Unacceptable’ if Biden doesn’t name AAPI Cabinet ‘secretary’

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Asian American lawmakers on Friday called on President-elect Joe Biden to nominate an Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) to fill one of the remaining “Secretary-level” slots as he puts the finishing touches on assembling his Cabinet.

Biden selected Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.), whose mother emigrated from India, as his vice president. He also nominated Center for American Progress President Neera Tanden, the daughter of Indian immigrants, as director of the Office of Management and Budget. Vivek Murthy, the son of Indian immigrants, will return to his former role as U.S. surgeon general. 

And this week, Biden tapped Capitol Hill staffer Katherine Tai, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, to fill the important post of U.S. trade representative. 

But the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, known as CAPAC, pointed out in a statement that this could be the first time since the Clinton administration that AAPIs could be shut out from occupying a secretary role in the executive Cabinet — a development the lawmakers called “unacceptable.” 

“AAPIs are the fastest growing racial population in the country and came out in record numbers to elect Joe Biden to be our next President of the United States. And yet, for the first time in over two decades, we are facing the possibility that there might not be a single AAPI Cabinet Secretary in a presidential administration. Let us be clear: that outcome is unacceptable,” CAPAC said in a statement.

“President-elect Biden promised to build an inclusive government that reflects the diversity of our nation. To not include an AAPI official as a Cabinet Secretary overseeing a federal department would send the wrong message that AAPIs do not need to be included,” the group continued. “We already see the exclusion of AAPIs in critical policy conversations regarding the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color, immigration, and racial justice that often overlook our community due to the harmful ‘model minority’ stereotype that paints AAPIs as a monolithic group.”

The sharp statement from Asian lawmakers comes as Biden is making his final decisions about who will be running his executive-branch agencies. Many secretary jobs, like those at State, Defense and Health and Human Services, are already spoken for. 

So the members of what’s known as the Tri-Caucuses — Black, Hispanic and Asian lawmakers — are now ramping up the pressure as they lobby Biden’s team to ensure they have a seat, or multiple seats, at the table.

The Asian American community has been lobbying for David Kim, California’s Transportation secretary, to run Biden’s Transportation Department. And Julie Su, California’s secretary of Labor and Workforce Development, is in the running to be Biden’s Labor secretary. Another obvious pick at Labor would be Chris Lu, who served as deputy Labor secretary under former President Obama and is now leading the Biden transition’s Agency Review Team for the Labor Department.

On a call with reporters Friday afternoon, Biden transition officials pointed to the selection in recent days of Tanden and Tai — both of whom will have a seat in the Cabinet, though without the title of secretary — and said it reaffirms Biden and Harris’s commitment to building a diverse and effective administration.

“We have not only the most qualified and experienced Cabinet, but also we’re on track to have the most diverse in American history,” said Jen Psaki, Biden’s incoming press secretary, “and that is a value that will continue to be important to the president-elect, the vice president-elect, and the entire team as further decisions are made.”  

Late in his presidency, Bill Clinton appointed former House Transportation Committee Chairman Norm Mineta (D-Calif.), CAPAC’s founding chairman, as his Commerce secretary. Then George W. Bush asked Mineta to stay on as Transportation secretary, and he played a role in grounding all U.S. commercial flights on the day of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. 

Elaine Chao would serve as Bush’s Labor secretary for eight years and later was brought back by President Trump as Transportation secretary. Obama had a record number of AAPI Cabinet secretaries: Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.  

“President Barack Obama had a record three AAPI Cabinet Secretaries, President George W. Bush had two AAPI Cabinet Secretaries, and even President Donald Trump has one AAPI Cabinet Secretary,” CAPAC said. 

“If we do not have an AAPI Cabinet Secretary in the Biden Administration, it will undermine the historic progress that AAPIs have made over the past 20 years. The millions of AAPIs who came out to vote for a President who promised to see them and hear them, and who promised to unite us, are watching,” the lawmakers wrote.

Julia Manchester contributed. Updated at 3:33 p.m.

Tags 2020 election AAPI Andrew Yang Asian Americans Barack Obama Biden transition Bill Clinton Donald Trump Elaine Chao Eric Shinseki Jen Psaki Joe Biden Katherine Tai Neera Tanden Vivek Murthy

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