Outraged by the lack of Asian American representation in President Biden’s administration, Democratic Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Mazie Hirono have pledged to vote no on any White House nominees who aren’t diverse candidates.
“There’s no AAPI representation in the Cabinet,” Duckworth, of Illinois, told Capitol Hill reporters Tuesday afternoon. “There’s not a single AAPI in a Cabinet position. That’s unacceptable.”
Duckworth, who is Thai American, said she had been talking to the White House for months over concerns about the lack of representation of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, even giving the White House names of “well-qualified AAPI” candidates “who never even got a phone call.”
Biden pledged to build the most diverse Cabinet in history, and about half of his Cabinet picks have been nonwhite. Speaking about Duckworth’s decision on Tuesday, Biden said: “We have the most diverse Cabinet in history. We have a lot of Asian Americans that are in the Cabinet and in sub-Cabinet levels.” There are no Asian Americans in Biden’s Cabinet and just a handful in top positions like U.S. trade representative and surgeon general.
Duckworth said her frustration hit a breaking point after a call Monday evening with Biden aides during which she said White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jen O’Malley Dillon pointed to Vice President Harris’ South Asian heritage.
“Last night, that was the trigger for me,” Duckworth said. “To be told that ‘well, you have Kamala Harris, we’re very proud of her, you don’t need anybody else’ is insulting.” Duckworth noted she has heard that sentiment from the administration “multiple times.”
“That is not something you would say to the Black caucus: ‘Well, you have Kamala — we’re not going to put any more African Americans in the Cabinet because you have Kamala.’ Why would you say it to AAPI?”
After the call, she says she notified the administration of her decision to cast “no” votes “until they figure this out.” She said she will still vote for racial minorities and LGBTQ nominees.
Duckworth added that Biden had left the call before the comment was made and that he had been “caring and thoughtful and humane when he talked about what AAPIs have been going through.”
Hirono, of Hawaii, echoed Duckworth’s comments, telling reporters she plans on joining Duckworth in voting no on non-diverse nominees until the White House commits that there will be “more diversity representation in the Cabinet and in senior White House positions.”
Hirono added that she’s not solely calling for more AAPI representation.
“This is not about pitting one diversity group against another. So I’m happy to vote for a Hispanic, a Black person, an LGBTQ person, an AAPI person. I’d just like to see more diversity representation.”
Asian American leaders have called on the Biden administration to take concrete steps to protect the AAPI community following increased violence in the last year, including the recent shootings in the Atlanta area that killed eight people, including six women of Asian descent.
Asked what appointments the Biden administration could practically make at this point in time, Duckworth mentioned the Federal Communications Commission and the Office of Management and Budget and suggested the administration could make a commitment for a future Cabinet secretary position.
Duckworth’s decision could become a significant roadblock to future nominees in a Senate where Democrats have the thinnest possible majority.
Had Neera Tanden, Biden’s original pick to lead the Office of Management and Budget, been confirmed, she would have been the first South Asian American woman to serve in the position. Tanden withdrew her nomination in early March after multiple key senators said they wouldn’t support her.
The Senate has already confirmed Katherine Tai as the U.S. trade representative, but as Hirono told CNN on Tuesday, “I realize that we have Katherine Tai, but I don’t think the trade representative is what the community understands as a Cabinet level.”