Asian American members of Congress had pushed hard for Su to lead the Labor Department at the beginning of the Biden administration before the president picked Walsh, whose impending departure prompted the lawmakers to again lobby for Su.
Influential labor unions like SEIU had also rallied around Su. Others in organized labor were generally supportive of her becoming Labor secretary, even if they stopped short of a formal endorsement.
Though Su quickly emerged as the frontrunner to succeed Walsh, the Biden administration did explore several alternatives. Among those were Sara Nelson, the leader of Association of Flight Attendants-CWA who had the backing of Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chair Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), whose committee will handle Biden’s nomination.
Sanders said in an interview that he wasn’t sure when Walsh was leaving but he’d try to move Su’s nomination as soon as possible.
“She was not my first choice, but I’ve every confidence she’s going to do a great job,” said Sanders, who had pushed for Nelson.
Su is already in line to become acting Labor secretary once Walsh leaves mid-March, and she has taken on an increased presence in recent weeks as the agency prepares for the handoff.
The two were scheduled to appear together midday Tuesday in Houston for a tour of a local apprenticeship program, alongside the heads of the Teamsters union and United Airlines.
Until recently, Su rarely traveled outside of the capital while Walsh was a frequent presence for the Biden administration across the country and regularly appeared with the president at high-profile events, according to a POLITICO review of the pair’s public schedules.
If confirmed, Su would be the Biden administration’s first AAPI Cabinet secretary, though she would join fellow AAPI Cabinet members Vice President Kamala Harris, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai and Office of Science and Technology Policy Director Arati Prabhakar.
Before joining DOL, Su served in several top posts in California state government, including as labor secretary under Gov. Gavin Newsom. Prior to that she worked as a lawyer for low-wage and immigrant workers, including at a legal aid nonprofit in Los Angeles. During that span, she represented more than 70 undocumented Thai garment workers forced to work under sweatshop conditions — a case that gained widespread attention at the time and helped lead to the creation of new visa classes for victims of human trafficking or other crimes.
However, her tenure in California government was a major reason her confirmation to the number two job at DOL only scraped by on a party-line vote. Su’s opponents seized on her support for a controversial law classifying many gig workers as employees, instead of independent contractors, and overseeing the state’s unemployment system, which struggled to properly administer benefits during the pandemic.
Her record is likely to face even more scrutiny this go around, and she will have to answer for moves made by DOL during Walsh’s tenure. Among those moves will be the Biden administration’s handling of the freight rail labor standoff last year, in which Su played a central role.
The White House has had an imperfect record shepherding through key labor nominees through the closely-divided Senate. Last year, a trio of Democrats — West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Arizona Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly — joined Republicans to sink David Weil’s candidacy to helm DOL’s Wage and Hour Division. And earlier this month, the president’s replacement for Weil — Jessica Looman — failed to advance out of the HELP committee due to the absence of Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), who was recovering from cancer surgery.
The forthcoming nomination fight could also be impacted by Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.), who is receiving inpatient treatment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for depression following a stroke during his election campaign. Fetterman’s staff recently said that he is progressing well, though it is uncertain when he will be able to return to Congress.