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Asian American leaders press Biden for more diverse Cabinet picks

President-elect Joe Biden takes questions from reporters in Wilmington, Del., on Friday.
President-elect Joe Biden takes questions from reporters in Wilmington, Del., on Friday. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

Members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus met virtually with some of President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team Monday to express their growing concern that there will be insufficient Asian American representation in top-tier spots in Biden’s administration.

About a dozen lawmakers from the bipartisan group told Biden’s team in a video call they felt hurt that even though Asian American and Pacific Islander voters came out strongly for the ­president-elect, there may ultimately be no AAPI representation in senior levels of the Cabinet.

Though the tone of the meeting was polite, many lawmakers left the meeting disappointed by the Biden team’s responses, according to people with knowledge of the call. They pointed to what they said were previous unfilled promises by Biden to name AAPI people to the senior levels of his campaign, transition and inauguration teams.

“There’s kind of like this pattern of neglect,” said one person who was on the call who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private conversation. “This is despite efforts to ask for these things.”

In another blow, Ronald A. Klain, Biden’s pick for White House chief of staff, had promised to be on the call but did not show up at the last minute because of a scheduling conflict, CAPAC members were told. They spoke instead to Biden advisers Steve Ricchetti, Jeff Zients and Ted Kaufman.

Biden’s team has prided itself on rolling out a diverse set of candidates with each Cabinet and personnel announcement, but most of the senior, highly visible leadership roles have gone to White candidates, including Janet Yellen as treasury secretary, Antony Blinken as secretary of state, Klain as White House chief of staff and Jen Psaki as White House press secretary.

That has not gone unnoticed by CAPAC, as well as Asian American Pacific Islander advocacy groups. Of Biden’s Cabinet-level picks so far, only one is of Asian American descent: Neera Tanden, whose parents immigrated from India, was chosen to serve as director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, though Republicans have threatened to torpedo her confirmation.

Asian Americans are not alone in pressing Biden for representation in his Cabinet. Black and Latino leaders have also voiced concern that his long-promised diversity has mostly shown up in secondary positions, and Biden is meeting Tuesday with African American groups in part to discuss such issues.

When Tanden’s nomination was announced last week, ­CAPAC’s chair, Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), said she was thrilled, praising Tanden as a “strong, experienced leader” and noting that if confirmed, she would be the first woman of color to lead the OMB, a critical agency that helps shape administration priorities.

But Tanden, who heads the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, has already been criticized as too partisan by several Republican senators, and Chu and others worry privately that she will be treated as a “sacrificial lamb” who may not be confirmed. Tanden’s nomination will be especially precarious if Democrats do not win both Senate seats in Georgia’s Jan. 5 special election, leaving Republicans in control of the Senate.

Vivek H. Murthy, a physician of Indian descent, was reportedly a candidate to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, but he was instead asked to reprise his role as U.S. surgeon general, a job he held during the Obama administration.

Chu on Monday reiterated her call for the surgeon general job to be elevated to a Cabinet-level position, but transition officials told CAPAC members that change would be unlikely.

“That is a position that is very important, but one doesn’t even directly report to the president — it’s part of HHS,” said Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), the first vice chair of CAPAC. “Our call remains that we have AAPIs at the highest levels in the Cabinet, just like every administration in recent history.”

Since Bill Clinton’s administration, there has always been at least one AAPI Cabinet member. The Obama administration had a record three AAPI Cabinet secretaries, while the Trump administration has included two — Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Nikki Haley, the former ambassador to the United Nations.

More broadly, AAPI activists contend that Biden should honor one of the central promises of his campaign — to move beyond President Trump’s hostility to diversity and build a government that looks like America. AAPIs make up about 7 percent of the U.S. population, and Asian American voters were critical to Biden’s victory in such states as Georgia, which had not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1992.

Biden has recognized that numerous civil rights groups are pressuring him on diversity, promising that in the end, they will be satisfied with his picks.

“Their job is to push me,” he told CNN’s Jake Tapper last week. “Every special interest — and I don’t say that in a negative way — every advocacy group out there is pushing for more and more and more of what they want. That’s their job.”

He added: “My job is to keep my commitment, to make the decisions. And when it’s all over . . . you’ll see the most diverse Cabinet, representative of all folks — Asian Americans, African Americans, Latinos, LGBTQ, across the board.”

Civil rights leaders are not so sure. Two weeks ago, 19 members of CAPAC sent a letter to Biden’s transition team urging that AAPIs be chosen for at least 7 percent of Cabinet-level and other positions, reflecting their proportion of the U.S. population.

The letter also noted that AAPIs represent the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. electorate and that they had turned out in record numbers in the November election to support Biden over Trump by a roughly 2-to-1 margin.

A similar letter from the AAPI Victory Fund, a super PAC that was the second national group to endorse Biden in the Democratic primaries, was more pointed.

“Given the enormous contributions of AAPI voters in electing you and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris — I dare say pivotal in several battleground states — it would be deeply disappointing if several AAPIs are not nominated to serve in your Cabinet,” wrote Shekar Narasimhan, the group’s founder and chairman.

Narasimhan noted that the Victory Fund had endorsed Biden at a time when two other AAPI candidates were still in the race — Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and businessman Andrew Yang — “with the knowledge that many in the AAPI community would be upset.”

“Our meeting was at a moment in the campaign, in the middle of January, when it was not looking particularly good” for Biden’s campaign, Narasimhan said in an interview.

After Biden made the case that he would be the best candidate to represent AAPI interests, the super PAC got behind him and eventually helped him raise more than $11 million for his campaign, as well as organizing more than 5,000 volunteers to work on get-out-the-vote efforts for Biden and later Harris.

In exchange, Narasimhan said Biden “emphatically” assured them AAPIs would have representation at the top levels of his campaign — including a “visible” AAPI person as co-chair of his campaign — and then in his transition and government.

“Our community looks up and says, ‘Who’s there?’ And we should be able to point to that person and say, ‘They’re there,’ ” Narasimhan said. “We made that ask several times during the course of the campaign. Should I say I’m disappointed it didn’t happen? Hell yes, of course. These may sound rhetorical and symbolic, but to our community, they damn well matter.”

That sentiment was shared by others.

“Our communities are growing at a point where not being taken seriously is something that is of concern,” said Madalene Mielke, president of the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies. “It’s to make a better government. It’s not just for the sake of representation.”

Mielke cited former congressman Norman Mineta (D-Calif.), a Japanese American whose family was sent to an internment camp when he was 10 years old and who later served as President George W. Bush’s transportation secretary. Mineta has said his personal story, which he recounted to Bush at Camp David in early 2001, was a big reason Bush spoke out strongly against racially profiling Muslims after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“Those are the kinds of experiences that AAPIs have gone through in their history here,” Mielke said. “And to not have an Asian American who can talk about their unique lived experiences in this way, it doesn’t provide a full American experience for an administration that is supposed to be diverse and inclusive.”

CAPAC’s meeting with the Biden team came after other civil rights groups said they are dissatisfied not only with the lack of diversity in Biden’s Cabinet-level picks, but with how some of those decisions have been handled.

Last week, the Congressional Black Caucus, along with a half-dozen civil rights groups, urged Biden to appoint more African American candidates to top positions.

On Thursday, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus criticized the treatment of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.) — who was reportedly a front-runner for HHS secretary but now appears to be out of the running — and said more Latinas should be named to the administration.

Meanwhile, several Asian American groups have sent lists of prospects to Biden’s transition team, some as early as the summer. They have included such figures as Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) for defense secretary; David S. Kim for transportation secretary; Julie Su or Chris Lu for labor secretary; Yang for commerce secretary; and Katherine Tai for U.S. trade representative.

Kim and Su hold Cabinet positions in California, and Lu is a former deputy U.S. labor secretary. Tai is chief trade counsel for the House Ways and Means Committee.

But with six weeks to go until the inauguration, there is growing concern that few of those recommendations are being seriously considered for prominent spots.

The top Cabinet posts are generally seen to be secretary of state, defense and treasury, along with the attorney general. With Biden’s reported selection late Tuesday of retired Gen. Lloyd Austin, who is Black, as defense secretary, only the attorney general slot remains unfilled among the top four.

Duckworth, like other current lawmakers, faced an additional challenge because Biden is unlikely to pluck members from the Senate or House given the narrow partisan margin in both chambers. If Biden’s Cabinet does not include any AAPI secretaries, it would be the first time that has happened in more than 20 years.

Chu said she has been trying to ascertain from transition leaders who is a “realistic” candidate, as opposed to being mentioned solely to give the appearance that Biden’s team is trying to assemble a diverse administration. “We wanted to make sure that the conclusion was that that person would be appointed,” she said.

The transition team told ­CAPAC members on the call Monday that the candidates listed by Asian American activists were being considered, though it was unclear how seriously.

Biden spokesman Jamal Brown said in a statement that the transition team is working to build an administration that looks like America, and he noted that Harris is the first woman of Black and South Asian descent to be vice president-elect.

Asian American leaders express pride in Harris’s historic election, but they also chafe at the idea that her presence might give the transition team a pass on naming other AAPIs to Cabinet positions.

“We’re thrilled that she’s vice president-elect. She’s been an amazing advocate for the AAPI community,” said Gregg Orton, national director of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, another group that has sent Biden a list of AAPI candidates. “But no, I’m challenged by this idea that that should be enough. I guess I would simply refute it.”

Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.