Elaine Chao will become the next United States transportation secretary, according to The New York Times.
Chao is married to Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader in the Senate. She previously served as the secretary of labor from 2001 to 2009, making her George W. Bush’s only cabinet member to serve for the entire length of his administration.
Here’s everything you need to know about Elaine Chao and her relationship with Mitch McConnell.
1. She Was Born in Taiwan
Chao was born in 1953 in Taipei, Taiwan, to Dr. James S.C. Chao and Ruth Mulan Chu Chao, both originally from Shanghai. She is the eldest of six girls.
Her father, a merchant mariner, moved to the U.S. in 1958. The rest of the family followed three years later, when James had saved the money for the journey and their visas. It was not an easy trip to the United States; she traveled with her mother and two of her sisters on a cargo ship, and the trip took 37 days, according to Elaine Chao’s biography. On the trip, Elaine’s sister May became ill and nearly died because there were no doctors on the ship.
When the Chao family first moved to the United States, they did not know any English, and Elaine Chao had to learn the language over the course of the following year. Dr. James S.C. Chao built a successful business, the Foremost Shipping Co., and eventually settled in Westchester, New York, where Chao attended Syosset High School. She went on to graduate from Mount Holyoke College with a B.A. in Economics and then attended Harvard Business School, graduating with an MBA in 1979.
“My parents’ story is one of enduring love, family, faith, contribution to society and the power of education,” Chao said in 2012. “Both my parents strove to lead values-laden lives exemplifying diligence, determination, and courage in the face of great adversity.”
2. She Was Secretary of Labor Under George W. Bush
Chao became the first Chinese-American to be appointed to a U.S. President’s cabinet when George W. Bush appointed her as secretary of labor in 2001.
While serving in the Bush administration, Chao received her fair share of criticism. For instance, the Government Accountability Office says that Chao’s department did not investigate complaints from low-wage workers about their employers’ failure to pay minimum wage or overtime pay, according to The Washington Post. Chao was also criticized following two coal mining disasters that took place in the Sago Mine and the Crandall Canyon Mine in 2006 and 2007 respectively; this came after coal mine inspections were reduced.
In praise of Chao and her work, the Bush administration touted the new Fair Labor Standards Act regulations during the president’s first term, as well as the updating of union financial disclosure regulations, according to the Bush White House Archives.
Chao was appointed to this secretary of labor position after a stint as deputy secretary of transportation under George H.W. Bush in 1989 and time at the Peace Corps, serving as director from 1991 to 1992.
3. She Married Mitch McConnell in 1993
After McConnell and his first wife, Sherill Redmon, divorced, McConnell and Chao were introduced in the early nineties by a mutual friend, public interest lobbyist Stuart Bloch. Bloch invited McConnell and Chao to a candlelight dinner so they could get to know each other.
“I don’t want to say that sparks flew because that’s not the way either of them is,” Bloch told The New York Times.
They were married in 1993, and she has described him as ‘the love of her life,’ according to the Times. They have lived together in Louisville and Washington, D.C., ever since.
Chao was a key part of Mitch McConnell’s 2014 re-election campaign, introducing her husband at events and chatting one-on-one with guests. Throughout the campaign, she headlined 50 events and attended hundreds more of them, according to TIME. Those who know Chao say that she is very good at maintaining relationships with potential political allies.
“She very actively listens,” Kelly Westwood, head of the Kenton County women’s Republican group, told TIME. “She really pays attention and remembers details about people. She doesn’t see them for months and then says, ‘I know you sprained your arm, how’s it going?’ Or, ‘How’s you bid for city council going?’ She remembers everything.”
4. She Was a Contributor to Fox News & The Heritage Foundation
After leaving government, Elaine Chao contributed to several Republican organizations including The Heritage Foundation, becoming a distinguished fellow at this conservative think-tank. For The Heritage Foundation’s website, Chao has written a number of articles commenting on issues relating to labor, such as one discussing the importance of creating private sector jobs during President Obama’s second term.
“Every single member of his administration should be spending at least part of every day, if not thinking like a secretary of Business, at least being mindful of their agency’s impact on private sector job creation,” she wrote. “With layoffs already back to pre-recession levels, the answer to America’s unemployment problem is job creation. The greatest job creation is driven by entrepreneurs and young businesses so they merit special attention.”
She went on to say that the Obama administration needs to reduce the impact of regulations and be mindful of the affect agencies would have on the private sector.
In addition to The Heritage Foundation, Chao also contributed to Fox News for some time. She was also Mitt Romney’s national chair of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders during the 2012 election.
5. She Has Worked to Inspire Asian-American Children
As the first Asian-American woman to ever serve as part of a president’s cabinet, Elaine Chao has spent some of her time in recent years trying to inspire young Asian-Americans, reminding them to be optimistic and determined.
In a motivational video recorded in 2013, Chao told her story of coming to the United States being completely unfamiliar with the culture, not being able to speak any English and not having any American friends. Yet she was able to rise to the top and eventually have a prominent role in the White House.
“If I ever thought that I would have lots of difficulties moving ahead in my life and career because I was young, because I was female, because I was a minority, I would not get out of bed in the morning,” Chao said. “So I think it’s very important for you to be positive, to be optimistic, and to have the self-confidence that you can do whatever you want to do.”
Sadly, during Mitch McConnell’s 2014 re-election campaign, Elaine Chao faced a number of racist attacks from McConnell’s opponents. For example, a Democratic Super PAC called Progress Kentucky tweeted that McConnell’s marriage to Chao could explain “why your job moved to #China”. Also, Kathy Groob, the founder of the Elect Women PAC, tweeted that McConnell was “wedded to China”, and that “she’s not from KY […] she’s from Asia”. Her tweets have since been deleted.
In an appearance on Fox News, Chao said that her husband’s opponents resort to these kinds of attacks when they don’t have anything else to attack him with.
“There’s a pattern to this kind of attack. Basically, Mitch’s opponents, his left-wing opponents, can’t defeat him on policy issues, and so they resort to racial slurs and questioning his patriotism because he’s married to me.”
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