‘Something very historical’: Push for diverse Biden Cabinet
WASHINGTON (AP) – Native Americans are calling on President-elect Joe Biden to make history by choosing one of their own to lead the powerful agency overseeing the nation’s tribes and setting up one of several threatening tests of Biden’s promise to have a cabinet representative Americans.
OJ Semans is one of dozens of tribal officials and electoral activists across the country who are promoting the selection of Rep. Deb Haaland, a New Mexico Democrat and member of the Pueblo of Laguna, to become the first Native American Secretary of the Interior. Tell Semans, a member of the Rosebud Sioux, that a respected white lawmaker is considered the frontrunner for the job, and Semans chuckles.
“Not if I trip him,” says Semans.
African Americans, Mexicans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and other people of color played a vital role in Biden’s defeat by President Donald Trump. In return, they want to raise awareness of issues affecting their communities – and see more people who look like them in positions of power.
“It’s nice to know that a Native American is being considered,” said Haaland, who says she is focused on her Congressional work. “Sometimes we are invisible.”
In Arizona, Alejandra Gomez was part of an army of activists who put on face masks and plastic face shields to go door-to-door and cast the Mexican-American vote in over 100 degrees Celsius. The intense organization of the Mexican Americans there helped to give this state back to the Democrats for the first time in 24 years.
“We got to a point where there was no way to win,” said Gomez, co-executive director of Living United for Change in Arizona. “Our terrain has changed forever in this country with regard to the voting card.
“So we have to see that this administration reacts,” she said.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., Co-chair of Progressive Congress, said it was important that Biden’s cabinet “reflects the country and, in particular, its supportive base,” including women, racial and ethnic minorities and other groups.
The Ministries of Defense, State, Treasury, Home Affairs, Agriculture, Energy, Health and Human Services, and the Environmental Protection Agency are among Biden’s cabinet posts, with women and people of color among the top candidates. Like indoors, where retired New Mexico Senator Tom Udall is seen as one of the leading prospects, the candidacies of blacks sometimes come up against high profile white candidates.
South Carolina’s Jim Clyburn, whose endorsement of Biden was instrumental in reviving the former Vice President’s struggling campaign in February, said he was confident that the White House cabinet and staff will reflect the diversity of the nation.
“I think Joe Biden has shown that he takes African American concerns seriously,” said Clyburn, the senior black member of Congress. “I expect him to be Lyndon Baines Johnson-like when it comes to civil rights.”
Ohio MP Marcia Fudge and California MP Karen Bass are under consideration at the Department of Agriculture and Housing and Urban Development. Fudge, a past chairman of the Black Caucus of Congress, would be the first black woman to lead agriculture, oversee agricultural policies and billions of dollars in farm and food programs, and run the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – better known as food stamps – that feeds millions of low-income households.
Fudge’s main competitor is former North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp, long considered a front runner but facing mounting opposition from progressives who fear she will advocate big business interests in the sprawling department.
Clyburn, who is known to have been a major influence on Biden, supports Fudge and calls her accomplished and experienced. “What you need is someone who understands the other side of farming,” he said. “Growing food is one thing but distributing it is another, and no one is better at it than Marcia Fudge.”
Biden has promised to select a diverse leadership team. His runmate, California Senator Kamala Harris, will be the nation’s first female, first black, and first Asian-American vice president.
In January, Biden assured a Native American candidate forum that he would “nominate and appoint people who look like the country in which they serve, including Native Americans.”
The Native Americans said they contributed to a victory in the battlefield states of Wisconsin and Arizona and elsewhere, choosing Biden by a margin that sometimes reached the high 80th percentiles and above. A record of six Native American or Hawaiian lawmakers were elected to Congress.
For the Home Office, the consideration of Udall – a political ally of Biden for nearly 50 years who would serve as Home Secretary in the second generation of his family – precedes the historic candidacy of Haaland, a first-term congressman.
When asked if qualified white men of political seniority might need to step aside to make room for people of color, Udall told The Associated Press that Biden should be judged by his entire leadership team, including cabinet secretaries and White House leaders.
“What to look at a year or two later is the home affairs, EPA, or agriculture leadership team,” said Udall, whose late father Stewart served as home secretary in the 1960s. “Do you look like a leadership team representing America?”
The Department of the Interior deals with nearly 600 nationally recognized tribes, but also manages public land that spans nearly 20% of the United States, including oil and gas leasing. Therefore, the agency is crucial for Biden’s promise to launch ambitious programs to tackle climate-damaging fossil fuel emissions.
Tribal officials agree that there never was a Native American as home secretary. The Ministry’s websites cite six Indian directors from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which was transferred from the War Department to the Home Office in 1849.
Haaland, vice chairman of the House Committee for Natural Resources, is also supported by many Democrats and progressives in Congress.
She told the AP that regardless of her job, she would work to “promote clean energy and protect our public lands”.
The urge to be appointed makes what historian Katrina Phillips of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, says, “one of the first times we have seen such a broad public urge on indigenous issues.”
“We have finally reached the point where there is broader American consensus … Native American recognition deserves a vote,” said Phillips, a member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe.
Government decisions on tribal issues made by “someone who never had to live” would likely be different from decisions made by someone in the community, said Semans, who lives on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota and leads the Four Directions Native helps voting project. Haaland’s choice would be “something very historic”.
“I have all kinds of respect for Mr. Udall. However, there isn’t a single rule or rule that changes the inside that would affect him or his family, ”said Semans. “Ever.”
Knickmeyer reported from Oklahoma City. Follow Knickmeyer on Twitter at @knickmeyerellen and Daly at @MatthewDalyWDC.