WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats are ramping up pressure on President-elect Joe Biden to nominate an Asian American or Pacific Islander Cabinet secretary, intensifying the contest for Labor secretary that national union leaders had hoped would go to Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh.
Walsh, a former union president and longtime Biden ally, has reportedly been in contention with California’s labor secretary, Julie Su, for the Department of Labor post. A Walsh spokesman on Monday declined to comment on reports that the mayor and Su were the two finalists. Su’s office declined to comment.
Biden’s incoming administration includes three top Asian American or Pacific Islander Cabinet members, including Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, whose late mother was from India, as well as the director of the Office of Management and Budget and the US Trade Representative. But none would be represented among the 15 secretaries that serve as heads of executive branch departments.
Each of the last four administrations included an Asian American or Pacific Islander with the title of Cabinet secretary, according to top AAPI groups. Biden has only three Cabinet secretary positions he has not yet announced nominees for: Labor, Commerce, and attorney general.
While applauding the selection of Harris as Biden’s running mate, more than 115 members of Congress wrote to Biden last week urging him to stay true to his pledge of building the “most diverse Cabinet in history.”
“As we know, ‘personnel is policy,’” stated the legislators, led by California Representative Judy Chu, chairwoman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. “And when we have diverse leaders in positions of power, it leads to more inclusive policies that better serve the entirety of our country. That is why we strongly believe there must be an AAPI Cabinet Secretary in your administration, just as there has been for over 20 years.”
The letter was echoed by ones from Chu’s caucus and the Congressional Tri-Caucus, which includes the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, Congressional Black Caucus, and Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
California Representative Mark Takano described the coordinated push as “friends holding friends accountable.” But he stressed Asian Pacific Americans have far too often been overlooked or excluded from American politics. He traced that history to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first law to explicitly bar people from entering the country based solely on their race, and restrictive quotas in the 1920s that impeded so many Asian immigrants from being naturalized.
“Cabinet secretaries play a very important role in the rule-making process,” said Takano, who is second vice chairman of the Asian Pacific American caucus. “They are not the same as Cabinet-level positions. There is a difference.”
Earlier last month, the group publicly urged Biden to nominate Su as secretary of Labor.
For weeks, Walsh has repeatedly tried to deflect questions about the possibility of landing the post, maintaining that he loves the job he has and remains focused on Boston’s challenges. Notwithstanding the Biden Cabinet rumors, Walsh is expected to seek a third term as mayor, though he has yet to publicly announce a run. Recent campaign fund-raising and expenditures have signaled a ramp-up to a reelection bid for the Dorchester Democrat.
Biden’s transition team and his allies have repeatedly said that Biden’s Cabinet selections are the most diverse in history and have pointed to the AAPI nominees he has already chosen for Cabinet-level positions: Katherine Tai as US trade representative and Neera Tanden as his head the Office of Management and Budget.
“I am not minimizing the concerns — I do understand why they have them,” said Lorna Ho Randlett, a Biden fund-raiser who founded Leaders Forum, an AAPI executive think tank. But she said she and members of her organization have supported Biden choosing whoever he feels is the best fit, saying the monumental crises facing the country call for trust in the administration to lead.
“I personally feel that he and Kamala Harris are a team,” Randlett said. “I think that he and the vice president were elected and their decisions will be what will guide this country back from the pandemic, the political strife, and the economic strife that has happened as a result.”
Political analysts said there might be only marginal differences in Labor Department priorities between Walsh and Su, both Democrats from deep-blue states on opposite coasts who boast top labor credentials.
But Walsh, a former head of Boston’s Building and Construction Trades Council, has a personal relationship with Biden that spans years. He also has gained support from top union leaders such as AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, who heads the country’s largest labor organization. In a statement to the Globe, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten said Walsh “would be a crucial addition to an administration dedicated to fighting for the forgotten and rebuilding an enduring middle class.”
”Marty comes from a union family and a union town. He’s walked picket lines and knows workers’ struggles and power when they come together,” she said.
Su, who started her legal career fighting for Thai sweatshop workers in Los Angeles, could put greater emphasis on helping immigrant workers and workers of color.
Biden’s transition team has remained mum on the selection process, and political analysts aren’t expecting any more Cabinet announcements until after Tuesday’s Senate runoffs in Georgia, where a small but growing Asian American population is helping tilt elections. Their votes in that state helped Biden secure a razor-thin victory over Trump in November.
Asian American voters now are the fastest-growing slice of the electorate, encompassing more than 50 ethnicities, including Indian, Filipino, Korean-American, and Vietnamese Americans. But Asian American voters have tended to be overlooked in US politics, partly because families of Asian descent have traditionally lived in largely Democratic and noncompetitive districts.
Congressional leaders told Biden he should pick an AAPI secretary after he received support from more than two-thirds of Asian American voters in his presidential campaign. But Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor of public policy at the University of California Riverside, said Trump and Republicans made inroads with Asian American voters, as they did with other voters of color.
“If the Biden administration is concerned about winning back those voters, they should think about making an Asian American Pacific Islander secretary-level appointment,” he said. “It is important to show the love.”
Takano said the dearth of AAPI representation has had dangerous consequences in the past, particularly the internment of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II, including his own American-born grandparents. Years later, it was Norman Y. Mineta, another wartime internee, who stood up for Muslim Americans after 9/11 as secretary of transportation under President George W. Bush. Mineta forbade US airlines from racial profiling Muslims and Muslim Americans and subjecting Middle Eastern or Muslim passengers to greater scrutiny.
“There wasn’t a Muslim on George Bush’s Cabinet, but there was a Japanese American who had been interned as a little boy,” Takano said. “The inclusion of an AAPI secretary made a huge difference.”
Still, if Biden chooses Walsh, his departure for D.C. could dramatically reshape the mayoral race in Boston, increasing the chances for the city to have its first woman and person of color as mayor. City Councilors Andrea Campbell and Michelle Wu, both women of color, are challenging Walsh.
“It would change the contours of the race in 2021,” said Paul Watanabe, a political science professor and director of the Institute for Asian American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
Globe staff writer Danny McDonald contributed to this report.