In a third Cabinet move, Biden plans to name former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack as agriculture secretary, which would return him to a job he held during the Obama administration. The planned nominations of Fudge and Vilsack were confirmed by multiple people with knowledge of the selection process.
Vilsack’s planned nomination followed efforts by Black allies of Biden to derail the former governor. Some civil rights leaders had initially backed Fudge, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, for that job in hopes that she would transform the agency into one with more focus on farmworkers, food production and alleviating hunger. Some also opposed Vilsack, saying he had been insensitive to a Black employee during his earlier tenure as agriculture secretary.
The three choices appeared choreographed to blunt criticism that Biden has received from Black advocacy organizations dissatisfied that before this week marquee jobs hadn’t gone to Black officials.
Biden has already announced two Black women — veteran U.S. diplomat Linda Thomas-Greenfield and Princeton labor economist Cecilia Rouse — as his choices for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, respectively. Under Trump, those jobs were lowered to non-Cabinet rank, but Biden has said he will restore both positions to Cabinet level.
The picks of Fudge and Austin became public within about 24 hours of each other, and Fudge’s came just as Biden was set to meet with leaders from seven civil rights organizations that had been pushing him to add more Black officials at the top level of his government.
“We were seeing names across the ticker while we were meeting,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who leads the National Action Network, one of the organizations.
Fudge is a veteran lawmaker and former chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus who had been floated for other Biden administration positions. Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), perhaps Biden’s most pivotal endorser during the 2020 Democratic primaries and a powerful backer of the Ohio congresswoman, had confidently predicted earlier Tuesday in an MSNBC interview that she would be tapped for a Cabinet-level job.
In a brief conversation with reporters on Capitol Hill on Tuesday evening, Fudge declined to confirm her nomination, saying she is “in a holding pattern.” She also said she has spoken with Biden and others in the transition team.
“Let me just say that — if I were to be named — certainly it’s an honor and a privilege to be asked to be in a president’s cabinet,” Fudge said. “It is something that probably in my wildest dreams I never would have thought about. If I can help this president in any way possible, I am more than happy to do it. It’s a great honor and privilege to be a part of something so good.”
Though Fudge’s Cleveland-area district is reliably Democratic, her seat would remain vacant until a special election and shrink House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s governing majority by one vote. House Democrats won 222 seats in November’s elections, with results pending in two uncalled races.
Biden has already tapped Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.) for a senior adviser position in the White House, meaning the House Democratic majority could drop to as low as 220 members. The president-elect has expressed reluctance in interviews about selecting members of Congress for his administration, considering the narrow House majority and the party’s two-seat deficit in the Senate, pending two January runoffs in Georgia.
The next HUD secretary is expected to reverse policies under Trump administration secretary Ben Carson that have eviscerated Obama-era fair-housing protections and enforcement, protections for transgender homeless people, and legal standards meant to keep lenders, landlords and insurers from discriminating.
The Trump administration has consistently rolled back civil rights protections in housing and other aspects of American life, finalizing a new rule in September that housing advocates say would make it easier for the housing industry to enact policies that, while formally race-neutral, have an adverse effect on Black and Latino Americans. These include requiring tenants to undergo a criminal background check, prohibiting the construction of multifamily housing and using artificial intelligence to predict creditworthiness. Civil rights groups sued the administration, and a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction to keep the rule from taking effect in October.
Fudge, 68, would be the first woman to lead HUD in more than 40 years, since Patricia R. Harris left the position in 1979. First elected to Congress in 2008, Fudge has established herself as a straightforward, no-nonsense lawmaker and advocate who has been willing to challenge the most senior officials in the Democratic Party. Before her tenure on Capitol Hill, Fudge was mayor of Warrensville Heights, Ohio.
She floated a challenge to Pelosi’s speakership in 2018, despite Democratic wins in the midterms that year. Pelosi (Calif.) ultimately cut a deal that prompted Fudge to set aside her bid for speaker, tapping the Ohio congresswoman as a leader of a once-dormant panel on elections and promising a seat at the House Democratic leadership table for black women.
During Barack Obama’s presidency, Fudge was also not shy about expressing her views when she felt the president had fallen short on key goals, particularly on issues of diversity and choosing Black officials to fill key positions in his administration.
In a 2018 interview with The Washington Post, Fudge said she had, throughout her life, had to overcome people who have told her “no” about her career options and political future.
“I represent kids who go to schools that are cold, that can’t eat. I can’t play a game with them. This isn’t a game,” Fudge said.
Biden chose Fudge in part because he saw her as a voice for working families and as someone who has federal government experience and had been a mayor who dealt with HUD policies on a local level, according to a transition official who was not cleared to speak publicly. Biden also saw her as a longtime champion of affordable housing, urban revitalization, and infrastructure investment.
Fudge had previously dismissed HUD as an agency where presidents tend to install African Americans. “As this country becomes more and more diverse, we’re going to have to stop looking at only certain agencies as those that people like me fit in,” she told Politico. “You know, it’s always ‘We want to put the Black person in Labor or HUD.’ ”
Some Black officials had objected to Vilsack having a role in the incoming administration because of his 2010 firing of Shirley Sherrod, an African American who was Georgia state director of rural development for the Agriculture Department, after a conservative news website posted selected excerpts from a speech she made that appeared to be racist. The full text of her speech made it clear her remarks had been taken out of context and she was offered another federal job.
On Tuesday, NAACP President Derrick Johnson told Biden directly that he did not want Vilsack to be given the agriculture job, according to a person familiar with the meeting.
“It would be a slap in the face to all Black people for this administration to appoint him,” said Corey Lea of the Cowtown Foundation, a Tennessee-based group that advocates for Black farmers, in a letter opposing Vilsack’s appointment.
But Biden and Vilsack share some political instincts. After Hillary Clinton lost her 2016 White House bid, Vilsack pitched Biden on his view that Democrats could not be a relevant political party if they kept losing rural areas by large margins. His argument was that Democrats need to spend more time in less populated centers and craft a message that appeals to them.
The argument had some resonance with Biden, who campaigned in red counties hoping to appeal to at least some of President Trump’s voters.
The civil right leaders, in their hour-and-45-minute meeting Tuesday with Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris, said they would both “help him” and “hold him accountable” to his promise to support and elevate African Americans.
“We talked extensively about the need for there to be a diverse Cabinet, sub-Cabinet and presidential appointments,” said Marc Morial, the president of the National Urban League. He added that the leaders are “looking forward to more significant appointments” in the future.
He said he would reserve judgment about Biden’s Cabinet until he is finished naming officials to it.
Sharpton called the meeting “very candid” and “very blunt.” He said he invoked Biden’s promise to George Floyd’s daughter, telling the president-elect that he wants to be able to tell the young girl one day that her father, who died under the knee of a police officer, did change the world.
Sharpton said he restated his preference that Biden select a Black attorney general but added that at least he wants Biden to choose “someone with a proven civil rights background.” Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), who just lost his seat, is widely seen as a White candidate who could meet that test.
NAACP President Johnson also pressed the president-elect to appoint a national adviser on racial justice and elevate the position to a prominent role in the administration. He said Biden had set the precedent for such a role by creating a climate envoy position for former secretary of state John F. Kerry.
“I think racial justice rises to that level,” Johnson said in an interview an hour before the meeting. “I think it should be on equal footing to what he announced for national adviser on climate. It is important that his vision of social justice is realized. And it can only be realized if someone is responsible for overseeing it.”
Tracy Jan and Rachael Bade contributed to this report.