Bloomberg Law
Dec. 30, 2020, 9:20 PMUpdated: Dec. 30, 2020, 11:50 PM

Biden Pick for Labor Stalls at Boston Mayor, Californian Su (1)

Ben Penn
Ben Penn

Joe Biden‘s transition team faces an increasingly difficult decision in its hunt for labor secretary, as it weighs what’s come down to a contest between Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and California Labor Secretary Julie Su.

The president-elect is under mounting pressure from Asian-American and Pacific Islander leaders to give Su the top spot, instead of Walsh. The transition has tried to broker a compromise by floating Su as deputy labor secretary, but she’s expressed reservations about taking the deputy post, which complicates a final decision on one of the last Cabinet slots Biden must fill.

The transition in recent days has tried to arrange that package of Walsh—a former union leader and close Biden friend—as U.S. labor secretary and Su as second-in-command at the U.S. Labor Department, three sources familiar with the discussions said. The team contacted Su about serving as deputy labor secretary this past weekend, but a source familiar with the discussion said the California official wasn’t told who Biden has in mind for secretary and was unsure whether she’d take the No. 2 spot.

Walsh, who’s preparing to run for his third term as mayor next year, has been told it’s down to him or Su for labor secretary, another source briefed on the matter told Bloomberg Law. Another previous contender for the post, former Obama White House adviser Patrick Gaspard, who is Black, appears to no longer be in top contention, several sources said.

The sources, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity to share private conversations, viewed a Walsh-Su rollout as the Biden camp’s bid to appease the Asian-American and Pacific Islander community, which is mobilizing out of concern that Biden could exclude someone of that ethnicity from a Cabinet secretary position for the first time in two decades. Su is the daughter of Chinese immigrants and Walsh’s parents emigrated from Ireland.

A transition spokesman declined to comment on the labor secretary decision but said that of Biden’s 20 Cabinet appointments thus far, 11 are people of color, 10 are women, and three are Asian American.

The Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus sent Biden a letter Tuesday signed by more than 100 Democratic lawmakers urging him to select an AAPI with the title of Cabinet secretary, though it did not mention Su by name. In addition to CAPAC members, the entreaty made public Wednesday was also signed by Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Jeff Merkley (Ore.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) .

“We are also asking for a meeting with the president-elect,” CAPAC Vice-Chair Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) said in an interview late Monday. “We think this is a very serious matter, and we know that they want to make an announcement soon—and we want to emphasize that we intend to be heard.”

Takano, who earlier this month spearheaded a letter from 15 lawmakers that specifically endorsed Su for labor secretary, rejected the idea that Su getting the deputy secretary nomination would be a reasonable compromise.

“I am fully operating on the premise that Julie Su is and ought to be considered for a position of secretary, and there’s a huge difference between secretary and deputy secretary,” Takano said.

Biden’s picks for vice president, U.S. Trade Representative and director of the Office of Management and Budget are all of Asian-American or Pacific Islander descent. But Takano and his allies are insisting that a member of their ethnicity should hold the more prestigious “secretary” designation. This would ensure Biden unites the country by including a representative from a growing demographic that’s turning out to vote for Democrats, they said.

The Biden transition said in a statement Wednesday that their first 100-plus White House appointees reflect Asian-Americans or Pacific Islanders at more than twice their share of the U.S. population.

Both Su and Walsh declined to comment through their respective media representatives. A Biden aide told reporters Wednesday that new Cabinet announcements would be made next week.

Unions, Advocates Split

The next labor secretary will play a key role in the Biden administration’s efforts to repair the pandemic-damaged economy, with responsibility over state unemployment insurance programs, protecting workers from on-the-job Covid-19 infection, and enforcing emergency paid-leave provisions.

Members of CAPAC, along with California labor leaders, national immigrant and worker rights groups, and other progressive organizations for weeks have argued that Su is an eminently qualified and passionate civil rights attorney.

They point to her aggressive and innovative enforcement tactics as head of California’s wage-and-hour agency starting in 2011 and her management of a massive state bureaucracy when she was promoted in 2019 to labor secretary, putting her in charge of a major workforce crisis caused by the pandemic.

Walsh has an established relationship with Biden dating back to at least the Obama administration, and has secured several public endorsements from prominent labor union presidents.

The heads of the AFL-CIO’s two largest unions—Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers—both endorsed Walsh for labor secretary. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka also tried in November to secure union support for Walsh, labor officials said.

Weingarten said she’s looking for a labor secretary who “has a real vital relationship with the president.”

Union leaders see Walsh, the former head of Boston’s Building and Construction Trades Council, as a labor secretary who’d be more likely to have clout with the president, helping workers’ interests win out in top-level White House decisions.

—With assistance from Josh Eidelson (Bloomberg News)

(Updates with letter from Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.)

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To contact the editors responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at; Andrew Harris at