December 2, 2020
The faces of the economic team President-elect Joe Biden unveiled publicly Tuesday included an African American woman, a man born in Nigeria, an Indian American woman and just one white man.
The response from Asian American, Black and Latino Democrats: It’s not enough.
They want more representation, particularly in the Cabinet. And after Rep. Jim Clyburn, the most senior Black member of Congress and a key Biden ally, spoke out last week about the need for more diversity in Biden’s burgeoning administration, more Black, Latino and Asian American lawmakers are joining the chorus.
“We’re very, very concerned as a community, as a Latino community,” said Texas Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, who called last week for at least five Latinos to be appointed to Cabinet-level positions.
Asian American and Pacific Islander advocates and officials are warning the Biden administration, in writing, it will be “deeply disappointing if several AAPIs are not nominated” to Cabinet positions. They’re growing increasingly convinced the president-elect will not match President Barack Obama’s total of three Asian Americans in his first Cabinet.
Meanwhile, the Congressional Black Caucus is urging Biden to choose a Black Defense secretary and up the number of African Americans leading departments overall.
Together, the criticism highlights the challenges the Biden transition faces in satisfying expectations for a historically diverse Cabinet. And it underscores the growing demands for equal representation after a presidential election in which Asian Americans were difference-makers in Georgia, Latinos boosted Biden in Arizona, and Black voters propelled him to the nomination and ultimate victory.
But appeasing everyone may be a nearly impossible task, especially given the zero-sum reality of Cabinet jockeying and the limited slate of top-tier positions.
Latino lawmakers and outside groups, for example, are pushing New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham for Health and Human Services secretary — but tapping her over former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who is Indian American, could anger Asian American advocacy groups.
“It’s no secret that as you look at the number of people that have been appointed … we don’t see too many Asian Americans there, do we?” said Bel Leong-Hong, chair of the Democratic National Committee’s AAPI caucus.
Those lobbying the transition team say there is still time for Biden to meet his lofty diversity goals. But some Democrats are pessimistic after seeing the first rounds of personnel picks.
Biden’s core White House team will be mostly white, including his chief of staff, communications director, press secretary, legislative affairs director and one of his top economic advisers. And two of the so-called “Big Four” Cabinet positions — atop the State, Treasury, Justice and Defense Departments — have already been filled by white candidates.
“A true way for Biden to make history would be to nominate a person of color for one or more of those ‘Big Four’ positions, and now they’re down to just two,” said Janet Murguía, the president of UnidosUS and a former adviser to President Bill Clinton. “So there will be enormous scrutiny from both the Black and Latino community for the remaining two jobs — DoD and Justice — and rightfully so.”
A Black House lawmaker, who requested anonymity to speak more freely as Biden fills positions, put it more bluntly. “He’s got to step it up,” the lawmaker said, noting that Kamala Harris’ selection as vice president doesn’t give Biden an excuse to appoint fewer African Americans to head key departments.
The Biden transition team says the president-elect will have a diverse administration when all is said and done. “His success in finding diverse voices to develop and implement his policy vision to tackle our nation’s toughest challenges will be clear when our full slate of appointees and nominees is complete,” a Biden-Harris transition official said in a statement.
It’s true that, as the transition official pointed out, Biden has “announced several historic and diverse White House appointments and Cabinet nominees.” He appointed an all-female senior communications team, for example, as well as the first woman of color to lead the Office of Management and Budget and the first female nominee for Treasury secretary.
But in 2020, the bar for diversity has been raised well beyond the seven women and 10 nonwhite officials in President Barack Obama’s first Cabinet.
Senior AAPI officials highlight huge increases in voter turnout among Asian American voters in the 2020 election — including in crucial battleground states he won, such as Georgia and Arizona — as one reason they should be well-represented throughout the administration. Early and absentee voting among AAPI voters rose nearly 300 percent in battleground states this year, according to the Democratic data firm Catalist.
The Biden transition announced Monday that Neera Tanden, an Indian American woman, will be nominated to lead the Office of Management and Budget. But some AAPI officials said they still fear Biden is unlikely to meet the benchmark set by Obama, who appointed three AAPI candidates to Cabinet positions at the start of his term.
“We just want to make sure that the Biden administration — and we’ve conveyed this from Day One — has a diverse representation, and that diversity includes AAPIs,” said Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), vice chair of the DNC. “That’s not always fully understood.”
The influential Congressional Hispanic Caucus has also mounted an active pressure campaign.
In phone calls and letters, the lawmakers pointed out the transition’s agency review teams are roughly 11 percent Latino and their COVID-19 Advisory Board is about 15 percent Latino — each less than the roughly 20 percent share of the U.S. population Latinos represent.
And though they cheered the nomination of Cuban American Alejandro Mayorkas to run Homeland Security — the first immigrant and first Latino to hold the position, if confirmed — it does not come close to representing the breadth of Latinos across the country, they say.
“When we talk about diversity, we also need to talk about diversity within the Hispanic community,” said California Democratic Rep. Raul Ruiz. “The vast majority of Hispanics in the U.S. are Mexican Americans, so it would be important and helpful to have them represented in nominations. The Puerto Rican and Cuban American and Dominican American experiences are also important and should also be reflected.”
Gonzalez, the Texas Democrat, said he’s warned Democrats about the surge in support for Republicans among Mexican American communities in South Texas and other battleground states.
“When Republicans are coming into our districts saying, ‘what have the Democrats done for you?’ And we have a Democratic president with a low showing or low representation of Latinos in his Cabinet and government, it is a tough response,” Gonzalez said. “I don’t want to have to defend that.”
In addition to Lujan Grisham, Latino lawmakers support either DNC Chair Tom Perez or California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to lead the Justice Department. Ruiz’s name has also been floated by some members of the Hispanic Caucus as a potential addition to a Biden administration, given his health care background as a physician.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus have been pressuring Biden’s transition team on an individual level, according to multiple members. Many take their cues from Clyburn, who is pushing for Ohio Democratic Rep. Marcia Fudge to be selected as the first Black female Agriculture secretary.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) said he’s keeping a close eye on who Biden names to lead Housing and Urban Development, pointing out that Democrats have not nominated a Black man to lead HUD since 1965, when the department was created by President Lyndon Johnson. And he echoed other CBC members who are saying former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson’s “name needs to be in the mix” for Defense Secretary.
“I’m not ready to panic,” Cleaver said of representation within the administration, adding that members see Biden as someone who understands their demands and the “delicacy” of keeping a diverse party happy.
“The philosophy of those of us who’ve been in the civil rights movement is that even if it’s friends, you know, you don’t let up in your expressions of anticipation,” said Cleaver. “We’re anticipating that he does the right thing.”