Battle lines have emerged in the fight over the next secretary of Labor, a crucial decision for President Biden as he steps up his efforts to appeal to blue-collar workers ahead of 2024.
Asian Americans in Congress are hopeful that with the expected exit of Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, Biden will finally name an Asian American to his Cabinet by promoting deputy secretary Julie Su.
But ex-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has thrown former Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney’s (D-N.Y.) name into the mix, complicating Biden’s decision.
Walsh is expected to leave the Biden administration in the coming days to lead the National Hockey League Players’ Association, and when that news broke, the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus quickly endorsed Su, a former California labor secretary, to take his spot. The Congressional Black Caucus has also since endorsed her.
The Biden administration is the first in more than 20 years not to have an Asian American Cabinet secretary. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said this week, when asked about naming an Asian American to any potential upcoming vacancy, that “every community is important to this president.”
“Clearly, we want to make sure that we have an administration that represents the United States. He thinks that’s important. And we’ll continue to work towards that. So, the AAPI [Asian American and Pacific Islander] community is important, like every other community,” she said Thursday.
Biden, however, is also under pressure from longtime ally Pelosi to put Maloney in a Cabinet spot. Maloney was at the helm of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee last year, losing his own seat as the House flipped to GOP control.
“I’d love to see him in public service. If that’s the administration, that’d be good,” Pelosi told Politico this week, adding that it’s “up to them” on whether that means as Labor secretary.
Maloney, who was the first openly gay person elected to Congress from New York, has support beyond just Pelosi.
“We would of course love to see Sean Patrick Maloney continue his career in public service, either in elected or appointed office,” said Albert Fujii, press secretary for the LGBTQ Victory Fund. “We will continue working to increase LGBTQ representation in the administration because at the end of the day, a government that reflects the true diversity of America is stronger.”
The Asian American Action Fund, meanwhile, said it supported Su two years ago before Walsh was named — and it wants to see her finally get the spot.
“Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial and ethnic minority in the United States and a key reason that the Biden-Harris Administration has the opportunity to work with a Democratic Senate this session. We are confident the White House will keep this in mind and proactively find ways to ensure eminently qualified AAPI leaders like Julie have a seat at the table,” the group said in a statement.
Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of the progressive political action organization Our Revolution, also threw his support behind Su over Maloney.
“It’s in her DNA, fighting for workers, and she has a track record of doing it, which Sean Patrick Maloney does not,” he said. Geevarghese added that Maloney is “no friend of labor” and is “aligned with the corporate wing of the Democratic Party.”
The horse race stemming from Walsh’s reportedly forthcoming departure comes as Biden faces a fresh necessity to appeal to the crucial voting bloc of blue-collar workers during his expected reelection bid.
Democrats lost union workers in 2020 in states including Ohio to former President Trump, whose anti-free trade message and other rhetoric resonated with the labor vote. Union households had already shifted blue-to-red in the 2016 election, and this growing trend has making Democrats concerned that Black and Hispanic union members could follow white ones to the GOP.
Some of the largest unions, including AFL-CIO, have not endorsed anyone yet for the role.
Both candidates raise questions.
“As the former California labor secretary, and the current deputy secretary appointed by Biden, Su obviously has experience and apparently the trust of the president. But does she have the support of labor?” asked former Pennsylvania Rep. Chris Carney (D), a Biden ally.
“Maloney has the support of the former Speaker, and is a known quantity to organized labor. But is his loss in a typically blue N.Y. district an indication he no longer has the political influence he once enjoyed?” Carney added.
Ahead of the midterm elections, Biden ramped up his engagements with organized labor. He routinely praises Big Labor and expresses his gratitude for union support throughout his political career.
Biden also reached out to the labor movement in his State of the Union address this week, calling for a “blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America.” He made a point to mention his support for the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, a sweeping pro-labor bill, despite the fact that the legislation is not going anywhere in the GOP-controlled House.
Biden then went to battleground Wisconsin on Wednesday and spoke in front of an audience of union workers in Madison.
Walsh’s shoes will be tough to fill. He has been a symbolic figured at the helm of the Labor Department, as the first former union official to be secretary in four decades, and he has valuable connections to labor bosses.
Geevarghese suggested former Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) for the role. Levin was reportedly considered before Walsh was named in 2021.
One Democratic source, who asked to remain anonymous, threw out former Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) for the job. Ryan unsuccessfully ran for the Senate in 2022 with a pro-worker platform but has butted heads with Biden, and said in October he doesn’t think the president should run for reelection.
And, even with Walsh in the top spot, unions haven’t shied away from criticizing this administration.
Walsh played a key role in negotiations between railroad operators and union workers to avoid a strike that officials said would have crippled the U.S. supply chain. Congress eventually voted to impose a contract to avoid a strike after negotiations faltered, but there was reluctance by unions and some Democrats to override the union ratification process with a vote.
The deal struck between labor and management negotiators was also not fully supported by some rail unions because it ended up not including enough days of paid sick leave.
Under a GOP-controlled House for the next two years, Biden will likely only be able to accomplish pro-labor agenda items through executive action, further highlighting how essential the Labor secretary will be for him.
And advocates want to see more from Biden to win back blue-collar support in 2024.
“I think he’s got two years. He’s talking the talk but in terms of walking the walk, to me the most significant data point is union density is an all-time low,” Geevarghese said. “He talks about support for workers on strike, but at the end of the day, he as president hasn’t used his power to add more workers to the ranks.”