Chao, Elaine

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Elaine Chao

The first Asian-American woman to serve in the United States cabinet, Elaine Chao (born 1953) was named U.S. Secretary of Labor by President George W. Bush in 2001. After the 2004 presidential election, she was kept on in her cabinet post when Bush moved into his second term.

Sailed on Freighter

Elaine Lan Chao was born in Taipei, Taiwan, on March 26, 1953. She was the oldest of six girls. Her family had come to Taiwan in 1949, fleeing the Communist takeover of the Chinese mainland, and they had connections to two Chinese families who owned shipping companies. In 1958 Chao's father, James, came to the United States, taking a job with one of those companies and enrolling as a student at St. John's University in New York. Three years later the rest of the family came to join him in a one-bedroom apartment in Queens. They booked passage on a freighter that took 30 days to make the trip from Hong Kong to Los Angeles.

Chao arrived in the United States speaking no English. At first she experienced severe culture shock. Her father told her to greet her teacher on her first day of school, and she fulfilled his request by bowing to the teacher in the traditional Chinese manner, provoking peals of laughter from her classmates. Halloween was a special challenge; when children showed up at the door dressed in scary costumes, Chao thought the house was being robbed, and turned over supplies of flour and other staples. Soon, however, her gift for relating to the people around her asserted itself. Within two years Chao had been elected president of her class.

Meanwhile, James Chao's new shipping business, Foremost Maritime Corporation, was prospering. The family moved to a posh area of suburban Westchester County. Elaine Chao was schooled in the value of hard work—and not only in the classroom. Chao and her sisters were given such problem-solving tasks as fixing toilets and resurfacing the family's long circular driveway. Chao was admitted to Mount Holyoke College, an elite all-female institution in South Hadley, Massachusetts. She majored in economics, taking classes in international finance and graduating in 1975.

Chao went on for a master's degree in business administration at the Harvard Business School, working for the Gulf Oil Corporation while she was in school. After receiving her degree, she worked for four years as a lending officer in the international banking division of Citicorp, concentrating on the shipping industry. Chao's first exposure to politics and government came in 1983, when she spent a year as a fellow in the White House Office of Policy Development, working on transportation issues in the administration of President Ronald Reagan.

Gravitated Toward Government Service

After her term at the White House was over, Chao taught briefly at St. John's and then returned to the private sector, spending three years as vice president of Bank-America's capital markets group. In 1986, however, she reentered public service as deputy maritime administrator in the U.S. Department of Transportation. She was promoted to chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission in 1988, serving as chairman of a group called Asian Americans for Bush/Quayle during that year's presidential campaign. After the inauguration of President George H. W. Bush in 1989, she became deputy secretary of the Transportation Department.

Sometimes serving as an advocate for shipping industry interests in these posts, Chao gained both her first executive position and her first high-profile job when President Bush named her director of the Peace Corps in 1991. There, in the wake of the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union, she recruited American business students to start new industries that would lay the groundwork for the emergence of Russia's new capitalist economy. She also started the first Peace Corps programs in the newly independent states of the Baltic region. With the defeat of Chao's Republican Party in the 1992 presidential election, she was out of the government sphere once again, but her next job both raised her public profile still higher and tested her managerial skills.

When Chao took over the presidency of the United Way of America, a nonprofit agency responsible for admin-istering more than $3 billion in charitable donations made annually by millions of American workers, the organization was in a state of crisis. Its former president, William Aramony, had resigned after revelations that he spent agency funds on such personal perks as first class airline tickets. Donations were falling, and local United Way branches were reevaluating their relationships with the national agency. Chao moved to reestablish the United Way's credibility. She began with a 50 percent cut in the president's salary, which under Aramony had stood at $390,000, and in subsequent years she refused to accept raises offered to her. She also instituted a new ethics code, along with specific expense accounting controls, and she created a new member services agency to improve communication between the national group and local chapters. Members of the United Way board of directors, satisfied that the group's worst troubles were behind them by the time Chao departed in 1996, pooled personal funds to offer her a going-away bonus of $292,500, but Chao turned that down, too.

By that time Chao had officially become one-half of a Washington power couple, marrying U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) in 1993. She assumed the role of stepmother to McConnell's three children from a previous marriage. Working for four years as an editor and senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, Chao moved to Kentucky with McConnell and became a frequent sight at local sporting events. Asked by Time after she became Labor Secretary whether the two discussed policy on their personal time, Chao replied, "No, we're much too busy. We both love what we're doing. When we have time together, we talk about college football, about getting together with friends—the usual kind of stuff—[like] who takes out the garbage…. I have to confess, I do." Chao kept a hand in politics as founder of the Independent Women's Forum, a group of conservative women who touted the virtues of individual initiative.

Emerged as Compromise Labor Secretary Pick

After George W. Bush emerged as the winner of the disputed 2000 presidential election, Chao seemed likely at first to be shut out of her ultimate goal of a cabinet seat when fellow Asian American Norman Mineta was chosen as Secretary of Transportation, and former U.S. Treasurer Linda Chavez was nominated as Secretary of Labor. The Chavez nomination, however, collapsed after revelations that Chavez had employed an undocumented alien as a worker in her home, and Bush turned to Chao instead. "She brings to this post the qualities for which she is known and admired—strong executive talent, great compassion, and a commitment to helping people build better lives," Bush said in a statement quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle.

At first, although she was a staunch conservative who had dismayed some Asian-American activists with her opposition to affirmative action programs, Chao encountered little resistance. One Republican senator told Anne Kornbluth of the Boston Globe that she was a "rock-solid" choice, and even the president's opponents in the labor movement placed no barriers in the way of her confirmation. Chao had worked previously with John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO union umbrella organization, who merely said (according to Kornbluth) "I would like to meet with her to discuss the many challenges facing the new secretary of labor."

As she had been in previous posts, Chao was successful as a manager. Devoted to her work, she would sometimes awaken at 2 a.m. for an e-mail session, and then go back to bed. Chao was well liked by her employees, whom she treated to surprise birthday parties and, for her security detail, impromptu frozen yogurt stops. Some of her staff had been with her since the 1980s, as she moved through jobs in a variety of organizations. And Chao's status as the first Asian-American woman cabinet head in American history was not lost on Asian groups, who sent a steady stream of lecture invitations her way. "She gets an Arnold Schwarzenegger [California's popular Austrian-immigrant governor] reaction from Asian Americans," Mitch McConnell told Stephanie Armour of USA Today. "They want to meet her, have their picture taken with her."

After several years of Chao's actions in office, however, the bloom was off the relationship between Chao and leaders of some labor groups. Chao and her onetime defender Sweeney clashed over a Chao initiative to strengthen financial reporting rules for labor unions. "She's cut health and safety law enforcement, child-labor regulation, and the minimum wage. She stopped investigations into ergonomic injuries," wrote Mary Conroy of Wisconsin's Capital Times. "Although she says there's no money for those items, she can find plenty of money to audit unions." One of Chao's deputies in the Labor Department was a former Heritage Foundation scholar who had written a paper titled "How to Close Down the Labor Department." Chao nevertheless had her defenders, even within the labor movement. Don Carson of the International Union of Operating Engineers told Armour that "she definitely looks out for the welfare of workers. She's been very progressive. She's making a big difference." Chao for her own part told Armour that "all of our initiatives have as their goal to improve the lives of American workers." And she expressed frustration over her interactions with labor leaders, telling David T. Cook of the Christian Science Monitor that "we really tried to reach out to organized labor and the leaders of the federation. It is a two-way street. I can't make them work with me if they don't want to."

One of the most sensitive areas under Chao's jurisdiction, in view of several tragic mine disasters that occurred in the mid-2000s, was that of mine worker safety. A Lexington [Kentucky] Herald-Leader report in 2006 explored mining industry donations to Mitch McConnell's campaigns, and the overlap between the McConnell and Chao staffs. Specifically, the paper alleged that Chao quashed an investigation into a 2000 coal slurry spill released by Massey Energy Co., a McConnell donor. McConnell rejoined that since both he and Chao were supporters of the Republican agenda, it was no surprise that their positions coincided. "She doesn't need any direction from me," he told John Cheves of the Herald-Leader. "In fact, I think that's a little bit insulting…. I'm a Republican, and I generally support what the Bush administration is trying to do. She takes her orders from the White House." Labor Department officials contended that mine safety citations actually increased in number during Chao's tenure."

Generally, Chao avoided the controversies that surrounded several other members of the Bush cabinet, and she was asked to stay on for a second term after Bush won reelection in 2004. In 2005 a survey of Republican Party insiders named Chao as the most underrated member of President Bush's cabinet. By the middle of her second term, she had shepherded several major initiatives through the federal bureaucracy. The Labor Department had implemented a new set of white-collar overtime regulations into enforcement of the Fair Labor Standards Act, a plan that had been on the agenda of a succession of Republican and Democratic administrations. And Chao was instrumental in shaping the Pension Reform Act of 2006, which beefed up corporate contributions to a federal pension insurance fund and mandated new pension fund accounting requirements. Chao had also become a tireless advocate for worker retraining programs, many of which were assisted by Labor Department funds. "I am not pro-business or pro-union," she told Cook. "I'm for the 11 percent [of workers] who are organized and the 89 percent who are not."


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Boston Globe, January 12, 2001.

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"About Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao," U.S. Department of Labor, (December 10, 2006).