Inside the Intense Jockeying to Be the Next Labor Secretary

Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh is officially leaving the Biden administration, marking the first major departure from President Joe Biden’s cabinet. And all the same, 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 for the high-profile gig.Julie

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Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh is officially leaving the Biden administration, marking the first major departure from President Joe Biden’s cabinet. And all the same, 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 for the high-profile gig.

Julie Su was first to come to mind for many. She’s currently deputy secretary of labor after the nomination went to Walsh last time around.

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

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

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), chair 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 the Department of Labor is led by a champion for workers,” wrote Sanders.

Others within Democratic circles have floated names of current and former members of Congress, like former Reps. Andy Levin and Tim Ryan, or current Rep. 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 is leaving to lead the National Hockey League’s players’ union. In 2021, he was confirmed to much applause from labor and union leaders who saw him as an ally to their cause. And broadly, many feel he delivered, even through times like averting a rail strike last year while negotiating new contract terms with workers.

“Marty had the president’s seat and understood that the role of labor law and the Labor Department 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 picking a successor, and the White House declined to comment on this story. But still, Democrats aren’t hesitant to name their suggestions.

Su is the definite favorite of progressives. Almost as soon as news of Walsh’s retirement broke, Su’s name was put forward by labor leaders and progressives alike. In 2021, progressives jockeyed for her to be the nominee, but Biden opted for the more moderate option in Walsh instead. During her time as California’s labor secretary, Su’s record was bogged down with questions 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.

That contrast in favorability against Walsh showed in the numbers for the two’s individual Senate confirmation votes. Walsh received 18 Republican votes in his Senate confirmation. Su received zero.

But this go around, with Biden two years into his presidency, Su might have another shot. 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.


U.S. President Joe Biden shakes hands with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh as Deputy Secretary of Labor Julie Su applauds, in the Rose Garden at the White House, Sept. 15, 2022.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Thirty-four members across the House and Senate also penned a letter to Biden insisting Su was the right pick, citing her diversity as a bonus to her labor chops.

“Her voice and perspective would be invaluable to the Administration, especially as there is no Secretary-level Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) official currently serving in your Cabinet – the first time the 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 number of encouraging words for Su’s record. But she’s far from a shoo-in.

Reich is also a leading contender, and Nelson could very well be the pick, though, for now, she’s supporting Su.

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

Norcross also kept the door open on the gig. In a phone interview last week, Norcross was evasive about whether he’s actively in talks for the role, but he said it was an “honor to even be mentioned.”

“My focus is entirely on representing folks of the first district of New Jersey,” Norcross said.

Pressed on whether he’s received any direct outreach about the job, Norcross said he’d “rather keep that private.”

“Those in our labor caucuses and our general Democratic Caucus are very interested in this position,” he said.

At least one name that’s been floated in Democratic circles seems definitively out. Ryan, who lost his bid for Senate last year, told The Daily Beast he’s focused on spending time with his family in Ohio.

“I’ve gotten a million calls on it from some pretty significant 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 that guy, you know, who would be a good fit for that, but it’s not in the cards right now,” Ryan told The Daily Beast.

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

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

It’s somewhat standard for individuals actually hoping to be considered for top administration roles to be especially careful about what they say in this stage of talks. It’s early—and up until just a few days ago, Walsh hadn’t even confirmed news he would leave.

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

That means Biden will be facing his first cabinet-level confirmation hearing in quite a while. Ahead of a potential re-election campaign—that’s yet to be announced but considered highly likely—there’s less room for chaos over controversial nominees.

But there’s also room for virtue-signaling. A more progressive pick could be a buoy to the base that helped propel his largest policy ambitions over the past two years. A more moderate favorite, however, would be a shout out to the members and voters in the center.

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

“They have to reflect the positions of President Biden, his priorities, his positions and his agenda,” as Norcross put it, pondering on the qualities he thinks the next labor secretary should have.

“That is the number one focus,” he said.

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