Tuesday, January 30, 2001

Bush cabinet now has Ky. connection

Chao OK'd as labor chief

By Patrick Crowley and Terry Flynn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The Senate approved Elaine Chao, the wife of Kentucky U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, as labor secretary Monday, placing her at the helm of the agency that deals with labor issues, working conditions and the minimum wage.

        Ms. Chao becomes the first Kentucky resident in a presidential Cabinet in nearly 50 years.

        The Senate had planned to vote on Ms. Chao's confirmation today, but Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., went to the floor Monday afternoon and asked that the nomination be approved by voice vote.

        It was an easy confirmation, by any standard. State Sen. Jack Westwood, R-Erlanger, said Ms. Chao has the right political experience and family connections.

        “I wasn't terribly surprised. Mitch worked very hard on the (Bush) campaign,” Mr. Westwood said.

        “But more importantly, there is a lot of respect for Elaine Chao. She's very dynamic. She should do a very good job.”

        Last week, Ms. Chao received a warm welcome during confirmation hearings before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. It helped that a bipartisan group of lawmakers, which included Mr. McConnell, introduced


        During the hearing, Ms. Chao was questioned about increasing the $5.15 hourly federal minimum wage by $1 per hour. President Bush has said he favors the increase, but only if states are allowed to opt out.

        “I support that,” Ms. Chao said.

        She also was questioned about workplace safety rules the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued in November that would require new ergonomically designed furniture and equipment in many of the nation's workplaces.

        Labor unions say the rules would protect employees from repetitive strain and other injuries caused by working conditions and save employers billions of dollars in lost work time.

        Business groups contend the rules will be financially crippling. They have urged the Bush administration and the Republican-controlled Congress to reverse them.

        Ms. Chao made no commitments on the ergonomic stan dards.

        She was not Mr. Bush's first choice for labor secretary. He turned to the former Peace Corps director when conservative commentator Linda Chavez withdrew her name after it was disclosed that she had given money and shelter to an illegal immigrant who once did chores around Ms. Chavez's house.

        Ms. Chao, 47, helped campaign and raise money for Mr. Bush in Kentucky during the presidential race and has prior federal government experience.

        A native of Taiwan who came to America at age 8 in 1962, Ms. Chao won a White House fellowship in 1983 and eventually went to work in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, serving as deputy secretary of transportation under former President Bush.

        In 1992 she became president and CEO of the United Way of America and then went on to head the Peace Corps. She married Mr. McConnell in 1993.

        Ms. Chao is a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Wash ington. Her areas of expertise include civil society, the nonprofit sector and philanthropy.

        Republican Party activists in Kentucky and on a national level had mentioned Ms. Chao as a possible Cabinet secretary beginning last year, as she and Mr. McConnell became involved in the Bush campaign. Originally they had predicted Ms. Chao would be on a short list for secretary of transportation.

        The last Kentucky resident to serve in a president's Cabinet was Fred Vinson, an eastern Kentucky lawyer appointed treasury secretary in 1945 by President Truman. He also went on to serve as chief justice of the Supreme Court in the late 1940s.

        Unlike Mr. Vinson, Ms. Chao does not have deep Bluegrass roots. Her only real connection to Kentucky is through Mr. McConnell. While the couple does own a condominium in Louisville, much of their time is spent in Washington.

        The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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