Inside the intense jockeying to become the next labor minister

Erin Scott/Reuters

Erin Scott/Reuters

Labor Minister Marty Walsh is officially leaving the Biden administration, marking the first major departure from President Joe Biden’s cabinet. And yet that departure opens the door to the first round of jockeying in two years, with moderates, progressives and everyone in between eager to float their favorites to the high-profile gig.

Julie Su first came to mind for too many. She is currently Deputy Labor Minister after the nomination went to Walsh last time.

Former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, fresh off a failed congressional bid—and less fresh off a presidential run—is interested. He is allegedly making calls to his allies in the administration.

Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has also made calls on behalf of former Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, who was campaign manager for Democrats last term before losing his own re-election bid.

Late. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, is pushing for Sara Nelson, president of the International President of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, or Robert Reich, the former secretary of Labor for former President Bill Clinton.

“I look forward to working with you to ensure that the Department of Labor is led by a champion for workers,” Sanders wrote.

Others in Democratic circles have floated names of current and former members of Congress, such as former representatives Andy Levin and Tim Ryan, or current representatives Donald Norcross.

It’s a rolodex of names for Biden’s consideration. And each in the eyes of top Democrats would have big shoes to fill.

Walsh leaves to lead the National Hockey League’s players association. In 2021, he was confirmed to great applause from labor and union leaders who saw him as an ally to their cause. And by and large, many feel he delivered, even through times like fending off a rail strike last year while negotiating new contract terms with workers.

“Marty held the president’s seat and understood that the role of labor law and the Department of Labor is to help workers and their families improve their lives,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement.

There is no set timeline for the White House to choose a successor, and the White House declined to comment for this story. But still the Democrats are not hesitant to mention their proposal.

Su is the clear favorite of progressives. Almost immediately after the news of Walsh’s retirement, Su’s name was floated by labor leaders and progressives alike. In 2021, progressives jockeyed for her to be the nominee, but Biden chose the more moderate option in Walsh instead. During her time as California Secretary of Labor, Su’s record was mired in issues of mismanagement in the state’s unemployment system, as well as her role in implementing a new labor law that designated gig workers as full-time company employees.

This contrast in favoritism against Walsh showed up in the numbers for the two individual Senate confirmation votes. Walsh received 18 Republican votes in his Senate confirmation. Su received zero.

But this goes around, with Biden two years into his presidency, Su might have another chance. She also has the weight of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, which has endorsed her. Top union leaders, including Weingarten, have done the same.

<div klasse="inline-image__title">USA RAILROAD/WORK</div>
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<p>U.S. President Joe Biden shakes hands with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh as Deputy Labor Secretary Julie Su applauds as Biden delivers remarks after U.S. railroads and unions secured a tentative deal to avert a rail shutdown in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, U.S. , 15 September 2022. </p>
<div class="inline-image__kredit">Kevin Lamarque/Reuters</div>
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U.S. President Joe Biden shakes hands with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh as Deputy Labor Secretary Julie Su applauds as Biden delivers remarks after U.S. railroads and unions secured a tentative deal to avert a rail shutdown in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, U.S. , 15 September 2022.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

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U.S. President Joe Biden shakes hands with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh as Deputy Labor Secretary Julie Su applauds as Biden delivers remarks after U.S. railroads and unions secured a tentative deal to avert a rail shutdown, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, U.S. , 15 September 2022.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Thirty-four members across the House and Senate also wrote a letter to Biden insisting that Su was the right choice, citing her diversity as a bonus to her work ethic.

“Her voice and perspective would be invaluable to the administration, especially since there is no Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) secretary-level official currently serving in your cabinet—the first time AANHPI communities have not had representation at .this level since 2000,” the letter Read.

In his final days at the Labor Department, Walsh also issued a series of encouraging words for Su’s record. But she is far from a shoe-in.

Reich is also a leading contender, and Nelson could very well be the choice, although she currently supports Su.

“We are incredibly proud of our President, and the honorable Senator Sanders is promoting his candidacy for Secretary of Labor. Sara has been clear that she believes that Julie Su is eminently qualified for the job, and she supports her appointment. She will of course also take any request from the President of the United States to serve very seriously,” a spokesman for Nelson said.

Norcross also held the door open at the concert. In a phone interview last week, Norcorss was unsure whether he is actively in talks for the role, but said it was an “honor to even be mentioned.”

“My focus is solely on representing the people of the First District of New Jersey,” Norcross said.

Pressed on whether he has received any direct contact about the job, Norcross said he would “prefer to keep it private.”

“Those in our unions and our General Democratic Council are very interested in this position,” he said.

At least one name that has been floated in Democratic circles appears to be definitely out. Ryan, who lost his Senate bid last year, told The Daily Beast that he is focused on spending time with his family in Ohio.

“I’ve had a million calls on it from some pretty important people and the people from here, you know, rank-and-file union members from here. So it’s been cool that people see me as the guy, you know, that would be a good fit, but it’s not in the cards right now,” Ryan told The Daily Beast.

Levin is too reportedly vying for a role as ambassador to Haiti. He did not respond to a request for comment on whether he would be interested in the role of Labor Secretary, which he was also tipped for in 2021.

There’s no word yet on whether Maloney is making traction. Although he has drawn some ire from progressives in the past over his campaign tactics and redistricting moves in 2022, he still has labor chops on his record, including supporting congressional staff efforts to organize and winning a number of union endorsements in his 2022 primary cycle against progressive Alessandra Biaggi .

It is somewhat standard for individuals who actually hope to be considered for top management roles to be particularly careful about what they say at this stage of the interviews. It’s early days – and until just a few days ago, Walsh hadn’t even confirmed news that he would be leaving.

Walsh’s departure follows a series of high-profile exits in the Biden administration, including chief of staff Ron Klain and communications director Kate Bedingfield. But turnover in the White House is still relatively low, especially compared to the Trump administration. Walsh was the first official member of the Cabinet to move on.

That means Biden will face his first Cabinet-level confirmation hearing in a while. Ahead of a potential re-election campaign – which has yet to be announced but is considered highly likely – there is less room for chaos over controversial nominees.

But there is also room for virtue signaling. A more progressive choice could be a boon to the base that helped drive his biggest political ambitions over the past two years. However, a more moderate favorite would be a shout out to the members and voters in the middle.

After all, the president’s cabinet is, at its best, an extension of himself.

“They have to reflect President Biden’s views, his priorities, his positions and his agenda,” as Norcross put it, reflecting on the qualities he believes the next labor secretary should have.

“That’s the number one focus,” he said.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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