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Labor Chief Nominee Walsh Begins Prep as Names Emerge for No. 2

Jan. 11, 2021, 10:55 PM

The Biden transition team is pivoting from nominating Boston Mayor Marty Walsh for labor secretary to getting the former construction union leader up to speed on the U.S. Labor Department and reviewing several labor policy veterans to serve as his deputy.

President-elect Joe Biden is still interested in offering the deputy labor secretary post to California Secretary of Labor and Workforce Development Julie Su, who lawmakers and worker advocates previously were pushing to get the top job, said sources familiar with the process. But Su has expressed reservations about accepting the No. 2 role, and hasn’t definitively said whether she’d accept, those sources added.

In an effort to give Walsh a seasoned agency expert to smooth his transition to the Cabinet, the transition also is considering a trio of senior Obama DOL alums for Walsh’s deputy, including Seema Nanda, who was chief of staff to then-Labor Secretary Tom Perez, Sharon Block, who ran DOL’s policy office, and Chris Lu, who was also deputy to Perez at DOL, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity to share private deliberations.

Tapped by Biden on Thursday, Walsh has now received briefings from the DOL agency review team that’s been assembling materials since November and selected veteran Senate staffer Matt VanKuiken—chief of staff to Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.)—as the “sherpa” guiding him through the confirmation process, according to sources inside and outside the transition.

Walsh’s upcoming moves will lay the groundwork for the incoming administration’s plans to take immediate actions to assist workers struggling from the pandemic by reversing deregulatory steps taken under President Donald Trump’s Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia. The mayor’s early preparations also show an urgency in the Biden team’s desire for a swift and smooth Senate confirmation.

The choice for deputy will be pivotal in supporting Walsh’s first foray in federal government service, potentially giving him a second-in-command experienced working with the White House to execute on the agency’s complex web of policy and regulatory initiatives. Walsh brings a managerial background after seven years helming a major city bureaucracy, but lacks a law degree and isn’t steeped in the department’s inner workings.

The Biden transition team didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the status of the selection process. Su declined to comment through a spokeswoman. Block and Nanda didn’t respond to messages, and Lu declined to comment.

Political Skills

It’s not clear when Walsh will begin the traditional pre-confirmation hearing process of meeting with lawmakers one-on-one to forge relationships and discuss policy objectives. He’ll be vetted by a newly Democratic-majority Senate, which means he could gain approval without a single Republican vote.

The Boston Democrat also is working with the DOL ethics counsel and the Office of Government Ethics to finalize his financial disclosures and potential list of recusals—a necessary precondition for a Senate hearing.

But after nearly two full terms as a big-city mayor, 17 years as a Massachusetts legislator, and a close friendship with the president-elect, Walsh goes into the process with political acumen and strong union bona fides.

During his time as Boston mayor, Walsh has made worker safety a priority, taking steps to mitigate on-the-job Covid-19 risk. That suggests a familiarity with an issue that will be the top day one policy mission at Biden’s DOL: elevating the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to a greater role in combating the public health emergency.

He also has a reputation for being a listener and consensus builder, which could come in handy in a contentious confirmation battle. During initial meetings with Biden’s DOL review-team members, Walsh listened to the briefings without injecting his own agenda, said two sources familiar with the process.

VanKuiken, the adviser charged with assisting Walsh during the confirmation process, has worked his way up to chief of staff over 12 years at Stabenow’s office. The four-term Michigan lawmaker is a member of Senate Democratic leadership, serving as her caucus’s chair of policy and communications.

—With assistance from Nancy Cook (Bloomberg News)

To contact the reporter on this story: Ben Penn in Washington at

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