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Chao Aiming to Lead the Second-Tier Pack

By Al Kamen
Friday, April 22, 2005; Page A15

For many years -- and especially since President Ronald Reagan famously called his secretary of housing and urban development "Mr. Mayor" -- Cabinet members in the "lower tier" have often fretted about getting the attention they deserve.

These officials are not household names -- not Rumsfelds or Rices -- and their only route to high-profile status is often, lamentably, a criminal indictment or similar scandal.


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But it need not be so. There are numerous ways Cabinet members can raise their profiles to be instantly recognized, if not by the public at large then at least by their own employees.

Second-tier types would do well to follow some of the trailblazing efforts in recent years of Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao. Take a look, for example, at the walls of your own building or even your own floor. Not long ago there were, by one count, 130 or so photos on the second-floor executive offices of the Labor Department headquarters. These depicted workers in various professions. Now there are basically the same number of photos, but 58 of them include a shot of the secretary out there on the job, we're told.

Take a moment to look at the people who attend your agency's events. They often wear ID badges around their necks and could use new lanyards.

So at a Labor Department conference last fall, participants received lanyards that say: "U.S. DOL Secretary Elaine L. Chao. Very nice, very snappy. (Ours is red.) It's what they call "branding." Nothing very complicated, nothing you, too, can't do.

At the same conference, participants got fine-quality fleece blankets embroidered in white with "Opportunity Conference / Asian Pacific and Hispanic Americans" and in yellow script with "Secretary Elaine L. Chao / U.S. Department of Labor."

Chao's department, which includes the Mine Safety and Health Administration, sponsors a yearly mine rescue contest to test the speed of rescue teams from around the country. At the September 2003 event in Lexington, Ky., attendees at the conclave received beautiful gold-colored coins, about the size of a half-dollar with a bas relief of Chao in the center.

You say you are not into memorabilia or the budget's too tight? Then look to your own Web site. Most agency sites have at least one picture of the boss amid lots of other things on the home page -- though the Pentagon, for example, doesn't have that photo. Neither does the Department of Education.

But the Labor Department has "In Focus," which is billed as a section for "up-to-the-minute news about the Secretary of Labor's efforts to strengthen the workforce and the business community."

The site appears to have gotten off to a slow start in October 2001, and it was still cluttered in 2002 with events and photos of other Labor officials. But by 2003, In Focus featured about 50 items with photos of Chao at work.

So on Sept. 26, 2003, for example, she "met with Grammy award winner and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Ricky Martin" at the department "to discuss a campaign against . . . child exploitation."

If you can't begin every item with the word "Secretary," that's okay. For example, an August 2003 photo item says "President George W. Bush walks with his economic advisers at his ranch in Crawford, Tex.," including, of course, Chao.

Worried that you do not have as many significant events as Chao does? Maybe you don't. But doesn't your department give away lots of money? Grants to this and that? Then, on your Web site, it is not the Department of Commerce or Education or HUD that gives away the money, it's you. And no amount is too small. So, for example, on Aug. 11, 2004, "Secretary Chao announced a $3.1 million grant to the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate (SWO) Tribe . . ."

Technologically challenged? No problem. Try a newsletter such as "The Labor Beacon," which, in its only issue last September, a six-pager, had seven photos of the secretary.

Finally, you must stay on top of the news. When Pope John Paul II died April 2, a Saturday, Labor's Web site had a brief but heartfelt condolence note from the secretary. No other Cabinet member, save Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice -- who's obliged to comment -- appears to have shared his or her feelings about this.

And who knows but what efforts to highlight your accomplishments might serve you in future years. The Paducah (Ky.) Sun in December reported that Chao, just asked to stay on at Labor, "said her serving in a cabinet position and [husband Sen. Mitch] McConnell's being majority leader" when incumbent Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) steps down, "would be the same lineup as 15 years ago when U.S. Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas was majority leader and his wife, Elizabeth Dole, was transportation secretary."

And where is Mrs. Dole today?

Heading Home?

Career diplomat and Vietnam vet James Jeffrey, now No. 2 at the embassy in Baghdad, is the leading candidate for the new post of deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan.


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