As President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office, House Veterans Affairs Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., said he is “profoundly disappointed” with his failure to appoint a person of Asian American or Pacific Islander (AAPI) descent to serve in his Cabinet.
Takano made his critical remarks during an interview with the PBS NewsHour about his agenda for the Veterans Affairs Committee in the 117th Congress.
He said he is looking forward to the incoming Biden administration, but that his will be the first administration in 20 years not to have an AAPI leading an executive department.
“As much as I view myself as a friendly ally of this president, I think he’s erred in [that] he has chosen to exclude Asian Americans from his 15 Cabinet secretaries,” said Takano, who also has a leadership position in the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC).
A spokesperson for the Biden transition declined to comment Monday on the issue of Cabinet secretaries. But incoming White House spokesperson Jen Psaki has previously highlighted what she described as the incoming administration’s historic diversity.
“We’re already on track to have the most diverse Cabinet in American history. That is a value that will continue to be important to the president-elect, the vice president-elect and the entire team as further decisions are made,” Psaki said in December.
Biden pledged during his campaign, and since winning the election, that he would build an administration “that looks like America.” In the last several weeks, as he named members of his Cabinet and the number of still-unfilled positions dwindled, AAPI lawmakers and other advocates urged him to choose someone from that community. Takano was among a group of lawmakers who urged Biden to nominate Julie Su, who currently serves as California’s top labor official, to lead the Department of Labor.
“As we separate ourselves from the disastrous policies of the previous administration, it will be critically important to nominate professionally and culturally diverse individuals to your cabinet—particularly more Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs)—as you look to build an Administration that is better representative of our country and its people,” Takano and his colleagues, including several other members of CAPAC, said in a letter dated Dec. 11.
Following the nomination last week of Boston Mayor Marty Walsh to serve as labor secretary, thus filling all Cabinet slots, the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies, a nonprofit organization dedicated to Asian Pacific American civic participation and representation, urged the Biden administration to make up for the absence of an AAPI Cabinet secretary with additional leadership appointments elsewhere in the executive branch.
“Cabinet Secretaries serve a key role at the decision-making table while inspiring new generations of AAPIs to enter public service and participate in our civic process. The brazen exclusion of AAPIs in this incoming administration abandons and erases the AAPI community. It is paramount that the Biden Administration vow to work with AAPIs to build back our democracy so our issues can be made cognizant within the policy-making process,” APAIC President and CEO Madalene Xuan-Trang Mielke said in a statement.
Biden has announced his intention to nominate AAPIs to Cabinet-level positions, including Neera Tanden, who is Indian American, as head of the Office of Management and Budget, and Katherine Tai, the child of parents born in China and raised in Taiwan, to serve as U.S. trade representative.
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, whose parents immigrated from India and Jamaica, will also serve as the first AAPI vice president.
Biden’s transition team told the NewsHour in late December that 12 percent of the incoming White House staffers were Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. But Takano said there was a meaningful distinction between a Cabinet position and a Cabinet-level one, and rejected what he said were the Biden team’s talking points about AAPIs being appointed to Cabinet-level positions
“[Biden’s team is] drawing a distinction that is semantically designed to diminish the validity of our claim and that I don’t appreciate,” Takano said. “I don’t appreciate that you’re going to say that this is the most diverse Cabinet in history. I would say I, with all due respect, Mr. President, I respectfully disagree and I will not give you a pass on that statement.”