Chao served as Secretary of Labor under President George W. Bush from 2001 through 2009, the longest tenure in the position since World War II and the only Bush Cabinet member to serve all eight years of his Presidency. She was also the first Asian-American woman to serve in a Cabinet position. According to The New York Times, “While enjoying the praise and admiration of her colleagues, she also invited scorn from organized labor, whose leaders accused her of being too cozy with business interests.”
Chao also served as Deputy Secretary of Transportation under President George H.W. Bush from 1989 to 1991. In 1986, she became Deputy Administrator of the Maritime Administration. From 1988 to 1989, she served as chairwoman of the Federal Maritime Commission.
After she left the Bush Administration in 2009, Chao “remained quietly active in politics,” said The Times. “She has always been a close and, by many accounts, savvy adviser to her husband, immersing herself in even the most minute details of his campaigns, like who had donated and who had not.” Chao is a Distinguished Fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, whose retired economist Ron Utt is a member of Trump’s transition team, advising him on transportation. Railway Age Capitol Hill Contributing Editor Frank N. Wilner describes Utt as a person “among whose favorite piñatas was Amtrak public subsidies.”
At DOT, Chao would have a principal role in helping Trump get an infrastructure spending bill passed through Congress and start government-backed projects, “a role likely to be complicated by her relationship with McConnell, who will also be a critical player in any infrastructure bill negotiations,” according to a CNN report. She wouldn’t be the first Transportation Secretary with such a conflict. Elizabeth Dole served as DOT Secretary in the Reagan Administration from 1983 to 1987 while married to Sen. Bob Dole, Majority Leader from 1985-1987.
“The nation’s rail industry welcomes the President-elect’s selection and looks forward to working with Ms. Chao on the many critical surface transportation issues key to U.S. economic growth and prosperity,” said Association of American Railroads President and CEO Ed Hamberger. “We know based on her prior tenure at the Department of Transportation that she has a full appreciation of the vital role freight and passenger rail play in America. On behalf of the AAR and member railroads, we congratulate Ms. Chao.”
Chao was born in Taiwan, and moved to the U.S. as a child. She is the eldest of six daughters. Her parents are Ruth Mulan Chu Chao, a historian, and Dr. James S.C. Chao, who began his career as a merchant mariner and later founded Foremost Shipping, a successful shipping company in New York.
In January 2015, Chao resigned from the board of Bloomberg Philanthropies, which she had joined in 2015, reportedly because of its plans to significantly increase support for the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” initiative, a campaign to promote renewable energy. Beyond Coal has received at least $80 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies. According to the Capitol Hill newsletter Politico, early in the George W. Bush Administration, an energy task force convened by Vice President Dick Cheney advocated the construction of 200 new U.S. coal plants. The Beyond Coal campaign prevented 170 of the 200 plants from being built.