Julie Su’s qualifications to be President Joe Biden’s deputy labor secretary are under escalating scrutiny in what’s shaping up as an unusually raucous confirmation battle for a subcabinet post at a lower-profile department.
Campaigns from both sides of the political aisle are heating up prior to the Senate labor panel’s March 16 confirmation hearing for Su, who is currently California’s labor secretary.
On the left, multiple sign-on letters are circulating among progressive and Asian American organizations seeking to protect Su from targeted opposition by highlighting her record as a worker-rights visionary. On the right, conservative and business groups are mounting a public relations and grassroots advocacy blitz—which will expand Friday—urging lawmakers to reject her nomination due to the massive level of unemployment insurance fraud her state agency failed to prevent.
A little-known advocacy group called the California Business and Industrial Alliance, or CABIA, is promoting a report and a social media attack ad focusing on Su’s role in overseeing a California subagency that has admitted to improperly paying out at least $11 billion in jobless benefits, sending some of that money to incarcerated individuals.
Although celebrated by liberals and unions for her lengthy nonprofit and public sector record of fighting for immigrant and vulnerable workers, Su is bracing for a hostile reception from Republican senators during her first foray in Washington politics. She enjoys strong support in the Democratic caucus, however, and it is unclear whether Republicans can succeed in a bid to make Su toxic enough to sink her nomination in the divided Senate.
But the elevated outcry surrounding her nomination will make for a considerably more testy confirmation hearing than the amicable affair for labor secretary nominee Marty Walsh.
A senior Republican aide on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee said some of the panel’s GOP members are “fired up” over their concerns that Su is unfit to serve.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who chairs the panel, countered critics in a statement in which she said Su is especially prepared for the deputy labor secretary position given her advocacy for “migrant workers and workers of color who too often lack crucial protections.”
CABIA’s attack ad was produced by the anti-union public relations firm Berman and Company, run by veteran corporate lobbyist Rick Berman.
“Su made a mess of California,” the spot warns, after showing a montage of local news clips about the state’s problematic processing of jobless benefits claims. “Now, she could import California’s failed policies to Washington, D.C.”
The alliance’s accompanying report summarizes the results of previously-released California audit reports, including findings that the state’s Employment Development Department—which Su oversees—took months to begin correcting the mistakes that led to pervasive fraud.
The conservative political action committee America Rising is separately working to publicize Su’s oversight of unemployment benefits fraud.
“We’ll be very aggressive next week in highlighting Julie Su’s failed record,” said Chris Martin, America Rising’s deputy executive director. “Right now, I think she’s near the top of our list, if not the top of our list” of Biden nominees that the group is attacking through the press and social media outreach.
A Labor Department spokeswoman responded in a prepared statement that applauded Su’s management of the California unemployment insurance system.
“As California’s Secretary of the Labor and Workforce Development Agency, she had a direct role in ensuring those who lost their jobs through no fault of their own were able to receive UI benefits in as timely a manner as possible, even given the dramatic and rapid 1,400% increase in UI claims when compared with a typical week,” the spokeswoman said.
“Because of that work, she will bring invaluable and unique insights to determining how the federal government can better partner with states to improve UI system administration and outcomes, including combating the sophisticated criminal enterprises who targeted the UI system.”
Su’s defenders, anticipating an onslaught from the right, have already started submitting letters of support to the Senate HELP Committee.
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights spearheaded a letter from 51 civil- and workplace-rights groups and unions that praised Su’s accomplishments on issues such as wage enforcement and pay equity.
Several progressive advocates said their efforts to back Su are fueled in part by concerns that women of color can be subjected to harsher scrutiny during the Senate confirmation process than White male nominees.
Su’s confirmation battle comes after Republicans opposed former Office of Management and Budget nominee Neera Tanden, an Indian-American woman. Tanden’s partisan commentary on Twitter was used against her, and she withdrew her nomination after Democratic Senator Joe Manchin (W.Va.), a moderate, said he would vote against her.
“We know that women of color nominees have not been treated particularly well in other situations, so we wanted to give her support there,” said Gaylynn Burroughs, a senior policy counsel at the Leadership Conference. Su “was a civil rights lawyer and she has a stellar reputation for considering race and equity with respect to the workplace. That really is the impetus for us to support this nomination.”
When asked whether letters of support will need to yield to more direct lobbying to ensure Su’s nomination isn’t defeated, several worker advocates said it’s premature to say. But the advocates added that if Manchin were to express concerns, Su’s backers would increase their outreach to the West Virginia centrist, who could again hold a deciding vote if Republicans are united against her.
Media representatives for Manchin didn’t reply to a request for comment.