Assembling an inclusive Biden cabinet
President-elect Joe Biden is likely to move quickly in announcing cabinet picks and top aides central to dealing with the pandemic, including leaders of the departments of the Treasury and Health and Human Services and a National Economic Council director.
The first appointments will be Monday when Biden announces a group of scientists and experts to help him craft a plan to tackle the pandemic.
Biden said that “our work begins with getting COVID under control,” adding that Americans “cannot repair the economy, restore our economy or relish life’s most precious moments” without doing so.
“The Biden team is the most experienced, most prepared, most focused transition team ever, commensurate with the challenges that Biden will face” Jan. 20, said David Marchick, director of the Center for Presidential Transition at the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. The center advises presidential candidates on the transition.
Their top priority in the 10 weeks before Inauguration Day on Jan. 20 will be building a staff and assembling the pieces needed to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. The incoming administration needs to fill about 4,000 political appointments of which around 1,200 require Senate confirmation.
Biden has promised to assemble one of the most diverse Cabinets in history. And in speech after speech the president-elect and vice president-elect are careful to mention Native Americans in their listing of inclusion.
That promise — and a deep bench of talent — opens the possibility for another first, the first Native American to serve in any administration as a member of the cabinet.
A political background, running for office, has historically been a route to the cabinet.
Minnesota Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan, White Earth Nation of Ojibwe, is a long time advocate for children, families and communities of color, she served in the Minnesota House or Representatives since 2015 and served as a member of the Democratic Farmer Labor Party’s People of Color Caucus working to improve education, health and economic opportunities for people of color and Indigenous communities. A graduate of the University of Minnesota, Flanagan was an original trainer of Wellstone Action’s program and served on the Minneapolis Board of Education from 2005 to 2009.
Where would that resume lead? Could be directed toward the Housing and Urban Development or a federal children's agency.
Or it's possible that Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar is appointed as Attorney General or another cabinet post. Then Flanagan would be a favorite for a U.S. Senate appointment. (That's how Minnesota's Tina Smith first joined the Senate after the resignation of Al Franken.)
Sarah Deer, Muscogee Creek Nation of Oklahoma, could serve in a variety of roles, including at the Department of Justice. She is an attorney and professor at the University of Kansas, holds a joint appointment in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and the School of Public Affairs and Administration.
Her scholarship focuses on the intersection of federal Indian law and victims’s rights. Deer is author of “The Beginning and End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America” and has testified before Congress on two occasions regarding violence against Native women and was appointed by Attorney General Eric Holder to chair a federal advisory committee on sexual violence in Indian country. Her work to end violence against Native women has received national recognition from the American Bar Association and the Department of Justice, and she was named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow in 2014.
There are already news reports that the Interior Department is a possibility for Indigenous leadership. A number of Native Americans have the resume — a combination of political, management experience — to lead that agency.
Hilary Tomkins, Navajo, served as the Interior Department’s solicitor in the Obama administration. She was the first Native American to hold that post, a job that requires Senate confirmation. She is a graduate of Dartmouth University and Stanford Law School, she is currently partner at Hogan Lovells in Washington D.C. with a practice in environmental, energy and American Indian law.
Rep. Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, and a Democrat from New Mexico, has the political background required for the job. But she would have to leave Congress. (And another candidate for that post is retiring New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall.)
Often the Interior secretary is a former Western governor. One way the Biden-Harris administration could break that mold: Would be to pick an elected tribal leader. Especially one who already manages a large land-based community, such as the Navajo Nation. Ideally a tribal leader would have experience working in the federal government as well as leading a tribe.
Former Fond du Lac Ojibwe Chairman Karen Diver could be that kind of appointment. She is now the director of Business Development for the Native American Advancement Initiatives. She was appointed by President Obama as the special assistant to the President for Native American Affairs from 2015 to the end of the Obama administration.
She served as chairwoman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa from 2007 to 2015. Diver has a Bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Minnesota, Duluth, a Masters in Public Administration from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and is a 2002 Bush Leadership Fellow.
Beyond Interior there are other possibilities.
Two Native American women have served as state directors for health and human services, Val Davidson in Alaska, and Anna Whiting-Sorrell in Montana. Davidson, Yupik, also has the political resume, having served as Alaska’s lieutenant governor. Davidson is president of Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage. Whiting-Sorrell, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, served in the administration of former Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
Those jobs are smaller versions of the massive Health and Human Services department, which includes everything from Medicare and Medicaid to the Indian Health Service.
Politico recently posted that a favorite for secretary of Agriculture is former North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp ... and it also included on its list of potential candidates Janie Hipp, Chickasaw, and chief executive of the Native American Agriculture Fund.
Politico said: "Take note" because "USDA has been flagged by insiders as a potential post for a woman or a person of color, as Biden is expected to stand up the most diverse cabinet in history."
"That means the racial and gender makeup of the picks that come before agriculture could be a key factor."
Another job that is cabinet rank is the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
One candidate is likely to be Keith Harper, Cherokee. He was appointed by President Obama in 2013 as the U.S. representative to the United Nations Human Rights Council. In that post he worked with Susan Rice, widely thought to be the next Secretary of State. Harper is currently chair of Jenner and Block’s Native American Law Practice, Harper represented plaintiff’s cases in the landmark lawsuit Cobell v. Salazar and served as senior staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund. Harper is a graduate of the New York University of Law.
Seattle City Council member Debora Juarez, Blackfeet, could serve at HUD as well. She has worked for two governors in Washington state, been a Superior Court judge, and successful attorney.
Any cabinet pick will have to win approval in the Senate. And there will be political headwinds. Control of the Senate hinges on two Jan. 5 runoff elections in Georgia, which could mean campaign visits there by both Biden and Harris. Whatever the result, the Senate will be sharply divided, making it tough for Biden to get key Cabinet nominees confirmed.
Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut predicted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., "will force Joe Biden to negotiate on every single pick."
One historical note about the transition: Republican President Herbert Hoover so detested his successor, Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, that the U.S. government was hampered even as a recession deepened, unemployment rose and Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany. That helped prompt the 20th Amendment, ratified in 1933, which moved Inauguration Day from March to January.
As a result, the country had less transition time between presidents to endure, but it also left a shorter time frame to do all the work required to build out a government.
Mark Trahant, Mary Annette Pember and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Hilary Tompkins' first name.
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