Elaine Chao

Elaine Lan Chao (Chinese: 趙小蘭; pinyin: Zhào Xiǎolán; born March 26, 1953)[2] is an American politician who serves as the United States Secretary of Transportation, having assumed office on January 31, 2017. A member of the Republican Party, Chao was previously Secretary of Labor under President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2009.

Elaine Chao
18th United States Secretary of Transportation
Assumed office
January 31, 2017
PresidentDonald Trump
DeputyJeffrey A. Rosen
Preceded byAnthony Foxx
24th United States Secretary of Labor
In office
January 29, 2001  January 20, 2009
PresidentGeorge W. Bush
Preceded byAlexis Herman
Succeeded byHilda Solis
12th Director of the Peace Corps
In office
October 8, 1991  November 13, 1992
PresidentGeorge H. W. Bush
Preceded byPaul Coverdell
Succeeded byCarol Bellamy
United States Deputy Secretary of Transportation
In office
April 19, 1989  October 8, 1991
PresidentGeorge H. W. Bush
Preceded byMimi Weyforth Dawson
Succeeded byJames B. Busey IV
Chair of the Federal Maritime Commission
In office
April 29, 1988  April 19, 1989
PresidentRonald Reagan
George H. W. Bush
Preceded byEdward Hickey
Succeeded byJames Carey
Commissioner of the
Federal Maritime Commission
In office
April 29, 1988  April 19, 1989
PresidentRonald Reagan
George H. W. Bush
Preceded byEdward Hickey
Succeeded byMing Hsu
Personal details
Elaine Lan Chao

(1953-03-26) March 26, 1953
Taipei, Taiwan
Political partyRepublican
Mitch McConnell (m. 1993)
ParentsJames S. C. Chao
Ruth Mulan Chu Chao
EducationMount Holyoke College (BA)
Harvard University (MBA)
Net worth$24 million[1]
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese趙小蘭
Simplified Chinese赵小兰

Born in Taipei to Chinese parents who had left mainland China following the Chinese Civil War, Chao immigrated to the United States at age 8. Her father founded the Foremost Group, which eventually became a major shipping corporation. Chao was raised on Long Island, New York and subsequently attended Mount Holyoke College and Harvard Business School. She worked for a number of financial institutions before being appointed to several senior positions in the Department of Transportation under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, including Deputy Secretary. She next served as Director of the Peace Corps. Chao was president of the United Way of America from 1992 to 1996. While not in government, Chao has served on several boards of directors and worked for The Heritage Foundation and the Hudson Institute, two conservative think-tanks. Chao served as Secretary of Labor for the duration of George W. Bush's presidency and serves as Secretary of Transportation under President Donald Trump. Chao was the first Asian-American woman and the first Chinese American in U.S. history to be appointed to a President's Cabinet.

Chao married Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in 1993.[3]

Early life and education

Elaine Chao immigrated to the United States when she was eight years old.[4] The eldest of six daughters, Chao was born in Taipei, Taiwan, to Ruth Mulan Chu Chao, a historian, and James S.C. Chao, who began his career as a merchant mariner and in 1964 founded a shipping company in New York City. The company, Foremost Maritime Corporation, developed into the Foremost Group; as of 2013, James S.C. Chao continued to serve as its Chairman,[5] later succeeded by Elaine's sister Angela.[6] James first met Ruth when she and her family relocated to Shanghai during World War II. In 1949, James and Ruth relocated separately to Taiwan at the culmination of the Chinese Civil War. They married in 1950. In 1961, Elaine came to the United States on a 37-day freight ship journey along with her mother and two younger sisters. Her father had arrived in New York three years earlier after receiving a scholarship.[7][8]

Chao attended Tsai Hsing Elementary School in Taipei for kindergarten and first grade,[4][9] and subsequently attended Syosset High School in Syosset, New York, on Long Island.[10] She was naturalized as a U.S. citizen at the age of 19.[11]

Chao received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics from Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, in 1975. In the second semester of her junior year, she studied money and banking at Dartmouth College. She received an MBA degree from Harvard Business School in 1979.

Chao has received 37 honorary doctorates,[12] including an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Georgetown University in 2015.[13]


Early career

Before entering public service, Chao was Vice President for syndications at Bank of America Capital Markets Group in San Francisco, and she was an International Banker at Citicorp in New York for four years.[14]

She was granted a White House Fellowship in 1983 during the Reagan Administration.[15]

In 1986, Chao became Deputy Administrator of the Maritime Administration in the U.S. Department of Transportation. From 1988 to 1989, she served as Chairwoman of the Federal Maritime Commission.[16] In 1989, President George H. W. Bush nominated Chao to be Deputy Secretary of Transportation; she served from 1989 to 1991.[17] From 1991 to 1992, she was the Director of the Peace Corps.[16] She was the first Asian Pacific American to serve in any of these positions. She expanded the Peace Corps' presence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia by establishing the first Peace Corps programs in Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union.[18][19]

Between Bush administrations

Following her service in President George H.W. Bush's administration, Chao worked for four years as President and CEO of United Way of America.[20][21] She is credited with returning credibility and public trust to the organization after a financial mismanagement scandal involving former president William Aramony. From 1996 until her appointment as Secretary of Labor, Chao was a Distinguished Fellow with The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.[22] She was also a board member of the Independent Women's Forum.[23] She returned to the Heritage Foundation after leaving the government in January 2009.[24]

U.S. Secretary of Labor (2001–2009)

Chao was the only cabinet member in the George W. Bush administration to serve for the entirety of his eight years.[25] She was also the longest-serving Secretary of Labor since Frances Perkins, who served from 1933 to 1945, under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.[26]

The Washington Post wrote towards the end of Chao's tenure as Labor Secretary that the Labor Department under her was "widely criticized for walking away from its regulatory function across a range of issues, including wage and hour law and workplace safety".[27]

Union disclosure requirements

In 2002, a major West Coast ports dispute costing the U.S. economy nearly $1 billion daily was resolved when the Bush administration obtained a national emergency injunction against both the employers and the union under the Taft–Hartley Act for the first time since 1971.[28] Led by Chao In 2003, for the first time in more than 40 years, the Department updated the labor union financial disclosure regulations under the Landrum–Griffin Act of 1959, which created more extensive disclosure requirements for union-sponsored pension plans and other trusts to prevent embezzlement or other financial mismanagement.[29]

In 2004, the Department issued revisions of the white-collar overtime regulations under the Fair Labor Standards Act.[30]

Government Accountability Office reports

After analyzing 70,000 closed case files from 2005 to 2007, the Government Accountability Office reported that the Department's Wage and Hour Division (WHD) inadequately investigated complaints from low- and minimum-wage workers alleging that employers failed to pay the federal minimum wage, required overtime, and failed to issue a last paycheck.[31][32]

A 2008 Government Accountability Office report noted that the Labor Department gave Congress inaccurate numbers which understated the expense of contracting out its employees' work to private firms during Chao's tenure.[33][34]

Mining regulation

A 2007 report by the department's Office of Inspector General (OIG) found that mine safety regulators did not conduct federally required inspections at more than one in seven of the country's 731 underground coal mines in 2006, and that the number of worker deaths in mining accidents more than doubled to 47 in that year.[35][27][36] The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) "missed 147 inspections at 107 mines employing a total of 7,500 workers".[35] A separate audit of 21 inspection reports determined that documents were missing, misdated, or mislabeled and that "MSHA officials misstated inspection statistics in reports and on the agency's Web site."[35]

Mining disasters in 2006 and 2007 included West Virginia's Sago Mine explosion, which killed 12 in January 2006;[35] West Virginia's Alma Mine fire, which killed two in January 2006;[37] the Darby Mine No. 1 explosion in Kentucky, where five miners died in May 2006;[35] and the Crandall Canyon Mine collapse in Utah, which killed six workers and three rescuers in August 2007.[35]

In 2010, the widows of the two men killed in the Alma Mine fire sued the federal government for wrongful death, citing lack of inspections, failure to act against violations, and conflicts of interest.[38][39] "MSHA's review of the fire acknowledged significant lapses by inspectors, supervisors and district managers" at the mine but the agency did not admit liability for the negligent inspections.[40][41] In 2013, the appeals court ruled that MSHA can be held liable "when a negligent inspection results in the wrongful death of a coal miner".[41] The suit was settled in 2014, with MSHA agreeing to pay the two widows $500,000 each and to allow them to see OIG interviews pertaining to the fire; MSHA also agreed to develop a training course on preventing fires in underground mines.[39][41]

Workplace safety

The Labor Department was widely criticized for "walking away from its regulatory function across a range of issues, including wage and hour law and workplace safety".[27] A 2009 internal audit appraising an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) initiative focusing on problematic workplaces for the past six years stated that employees had failed to gather needed data, conducted uneven inspections and enforcement, and failed to discern repeat fatalities because records misspelled the companies' names or failed to notice when two subsidiaries with the same owner were involved; it also noted that after rules changes in January 2008 the number of targeted companies declined by almost half.[42]

Post-Bush administration (2009–2017)

In 2009 Chao resumed her previous role as a Distinguished Fellow at The Heritage Foundation,[24] and she contributed to Fox News and other media outlets.[43]

She also served as a director on a number of corporate and non-profit boards,[14][44] including the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Wells Fargo,[45] New York–Presbyterian Hospital, News Corp,[46] Dole Food Company,[47] and Protective Life Corporation.[48][49][50] According to financial disclosure forms, Chao was slated to receive between $1–5 million for compensation for her service on the board of Wells Fargo.[51] In June 2011, she was awarded the Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service.[52]

In January 2015 she resigned from the board of Bloomberg Philanthropies, which she had joined in 2012,[53] because of its plans to significantly increase support for the Sierra Club's "Beyond Coal" initiative.[54]

In February 2017, it was reported by the Associated Press that Chao in addition to former Joint Chiefs of Staff General Hugh Shelton, Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps General James T. Conway, President Obama's former National Security Advisor General James L. Jones, former CIA Directors Porter Goss and James Woolsey, former FBI Director Louis Freeh, former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and former Governors Howard Dean of Vermont and Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania had addressed organizations linked to the People's Mujahedin of Iran (aka Mojahedin-e Khalq or MEK), a group exiled from Iran after actions in the 1970s against the Shah of Iran and the Ayatollah Khomeini. Chao was paid a total of $67,000 for the two speeches, which took place in 2015 and 2016.[55][56][57][58]

Chao served as a distinguished fellow at the Hudson Institute until she was sworn in as U.S. Secretary of Transportation on January 31, 2017.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation (2017–present)

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump announced on November 29, 2016, that he would nominate Chao to be Secretary of Transportation.[59] The U.S. Senate confirmed Chao on January 31, 2017, by a vote of 93–6, with her husband Senator McConnell abstaining.[60]


An October 2018 Politico analysis found that Chao had more than 290 hours of appointments which were labelled as "private" during working hours on working days for her 14 first months. The hours were equivalent to seven weeks of vacation. Former Department of Transportation officials described it as unusual. Current DoT officials stated the slots existed to help ensure Chao's security, by obscuring her actual activities.[61]

Conflicts of interest

As Secretary of Transportation, Chao appeared in at least a dozen interviews with her father, James, a shipping magnate with extensive business interests in China.[62] Ethics experts said the appearances raised ethical concerns, as public officials are prohibited from using their office to profit others or themselves.[62] The company her father founded (and which her sister, Angela, currently runs), The Foremost Group, has extensive ties to the Chinese state and Chinese elites.[63] The company has obtained hundreds of millions of dollars worth of loans from a bank owned by the Chinese state, has substantial interests tied to a major Chinese shipyard funded by the Chinese state, and long-term contracts with a Chinese state-owned steel producer. In what The New York Times described as "a rarity for foreigners", Angela and James Chao have served on the boards of a Chinese state-owned shipbuilder, and Angela has been on the board of the Bank of China, as well as the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade (which was created by the government of China). From January 2018 to April 2019, 72% of the total tonnage shipped by Foremost was shipped to and from China. The Foremost Group has nearly no footprint in the United States, except its headquarters in New York.[63] At the same time that Chao has appeared with her father at promotional events for the family company, the US Department of Transportation has repeatedly sought to cut funding and loan guarantees for American shipping companies, shipyards and shipbuilders. These proposed budget cuts were rejected by Congress in a bipartisan fashion.[63]

Chao pledged in 2017 to sell the stock she had earned while she was on the board of directors of Vulcan Materials, one of the largest suppliers of road-paving materials in the United States,[64][65] by April 2018.[64][66] After the Wall Street Journal and other major news outlets reported in late May 2019 that she was still holding the stock, worth $250,000 to $500,000, she sold it on June 3, 2019,[66][65] for a gain of $50,000 since April 2018.[66]

In June 2019, Politico reported that in 2017 Chao had designated her aide Todd Inman as a special liaison "to help with grant applications and other priorities" for Transportation Department projects in the state of Kentucky, the only state to have such a liaison. Inman was to act as an intermediary between the Department, local Kentucky officials, and Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, who is Chao's husband. This resulted in grants of at least $78 million for projects in Mitch McConnell strongholds Boone County and Owensboro. Inman had worked on the 2008 and 2014 re-election campaigns of McConnell; McConnell and local officials brought up the grants when he announced in Owensboro in December 2018 that he was running for re-election in 2020. Imnan later became Chao's chief of staff.[67]

In September 2019, the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform began an investigation into whether she used political office to benefit her family's business interests.[68][69] The September 16 letter from the Oversight committee to Chao documented allegations that the Department of Transportation was forced to cancel a trip to China in 2017 that Chao had planned to take because State Department ethics officials challenged her attempts to include her family members in official meetings with the Chinese government.[70]

Personal life

In 1993, Chao married Mitch McConnell, the senior U.S. Senator from Kentucky and the eventual Senate Majority Leader. They were introduced by Stuart Bloch, an early friend of McConnell's, and his wife Julia Chang Bloch, a Chinese American and a future U.S. Ambassador to Nepal, the first Asian American to serve as U.S. Ambassador, who mentored Chao. Bloch described Chao as a "tiger wife", a reference to Amy Chua's 2011 book about her disciplinarian parenting style.[3]

The University of Louisville's Ekstrom Library opened the "McConnell-Chao Archives" in November 2009. It is a major component of the university's McConnell Center.[71][72]

In an interview with CNN, Chao said she sometimes regrets not having children, and she counseled young women that there are trade-offs in life.[73]

Husband's campaigning

In the two years leading up to the 2014 U.S. Senate elections, she "headlined fifty of her own events and attended hundreds more with and on behalf of" her husband and was seen as "a driving force of his reelection campaign" and eventual victory over Democratic candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes, who had portrayed McConnell as "anti-woman".[74] After winning the election, McConnell said, "The biggest asset I have by far is the only Kentucky woman who served in a president's cabinet, my wife, Elaine Chao."[75]

She has been described by Jan Karzen, a longtime friend of McConnell's, as adding "a softer touch" to McConnell's style by speaking of him "in a feminine, wifely way".[3] She has also been described as "the campaign hugger"[74] and is also known for bipartisan socializing. For example, in 2014 she hosted a dinner with philanthropist Catherine B. Reynolds to welcome Penny Pritzker as Secretary of Commerce, where she spent the evening socializing with Valerie Jarrett, Obama's closest advisor.[3]

The New York Times has described her as "an unapologetically ambitious operator with an expansive network, a short fuse, and a seemingly inexhaustible drive to get to the top and stay there".[3]

Chao's father has donated millions of dollars to Mitch McConnell's re-election campaigns.[76] Chao's extended family has given more than a million dollars to McConnell's campaigns.[76] The extended family is also a top contributor to the Republican Party of Kentucky, giving it approximately $525,000 over two decades.[63]

The Chao family

Elaine Chao is the oldest of six sisters, the others being Jeannette, May, Christine, Grace, and Angela.[77][78]

Grace is married to Gordon Hartogensis who was nominated by President Trump in May 2018 and confirmed by the U.S. Senate as director of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), a part of the Labor Department, in May 2019.[79][80][81][82] Hartogensis co-founded forecasting-software company Petrolsoft in 1989, which was purchased for $60 million by Aspen Technology in 2000;[80] he founded and led application software company Auric Technology LLC until it was sold to a company based in Mexico in 2011, and then helped govern the Hartogensis Family Trust.[82][80]

In April 2008, Chao's father gave Chao and McConnell between $5 million and $25 million,[83] which "boosted McConnell's personal worth from a minimum of $3 million in 2007 to more than $7 million"[84] and "helped the McConnells after their stock portfolio dipped in the wake of the financial crisis that year".[85]

In 2012, the Chao family donated $40 million to Harvard Business School for scholarships for students of Chinese heritage and the Ruth Mulan Chu Chao Center, an executive education building named for Chao's late mother.[86][87] It is the first Harvard Business School building named after a woman,[88] and the first building named after an American of Asian ancestry.[89] Ruth Mulan Chu Chao returned to school at age 51 to earn a master's degree in Asian literature and history from St. John's University in the Queens borough of New York City.[77]

See also


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