A Kentuckian is poised to become a cabinet member in the Donald Trump Administration after the inauguration in January. The president-elect has asked Elaine Chao to head the Transportation Department.
Chao will bring a wealth of federal government experience to her work as the new U.S. Secretary of Transportation. She has served as director of the Peace Corps, Deputy Transportation Secretary, and Labor Secretary. She is also the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the senior senator from the commonwealth.
In early 2015, Chao sat down with KET’s Renee Shaw to discuss her life and career in public service.
Chao’s parents fled their native China after the 1949 Communist Revolution and lived for several years in Taiwan, where Chao was born. The family immigrated to the United States when she was 8 years old.
Because her parents lost so much in the Chinese civil war, Chao says the family had very little when they arrived in America. She’s never forgotten the fear and anxiety of those early years, which she says helped shape her world view and made her a more empathetic leader.
“We had incredible hope, incredible optimism, and I think that was fueled in great part by the secure family environment in which I grew up,” Chao recounts. “We had difficult times, but we never, ever thought that tomorrow would not bring a better day.”
Since she spoke no English, Chao would sit in her third-grade classroom, copying words she didn’t understand into her notebook. Then her father would teach her those words when he got home from work late at night. After a year of his tutoring, Chao was able to speak English.
From Reagan Republican to Civil Servant
Chao went on to earn degrees from Mount Holyoke College and Harvard Business School. She was working for Citibank when a friend encouraged her to apply to be a White House Fellow in the Reagan Administration. Prior to that, Chao says she wasn’t interested in politics, but as she read Ronald Reagan’s speeches, she found she agreed with the president’s policies. She became a Republican who was committed to smaller government, lower taxes, a strong military, and a stable monetary policy.
“I believe that the government should not make it more difficult for people to achieve their dreams,” Chao says. “A smaller government that doesn’t place burdens on individuals but that empowers them to reach their full potential, that more money is not taken out of the pockets of moms and dads so they can provide for their children, that is what I think will help people achieve their full potential and their dreams.”
Chao later served as the Deputy Secretary of Transportation and as director of the Peace Corps under President George H.W. Bush. Several years later, she became U.S. Secretary of Labor under the second President Bush. She held that post for eight years, which made her the longest serving Labor Secretary since World War II.
A Life in the Public Arena
A family friend introduced Chao to Sen. McConnell in the early 1990s and the two married in 1993. She describes the Louisvillian as a man with an unerring sense of integrity and principle, a great sense of humor, a love for basketball and football, and a deep curiosity about America’s past.
“He studies history so that he can be a better leader himself,” Chao says. “He studies our country’s history [and] what we’ve gone through to give him wisdom and foresight about current events and our future as a country.”
Chao frequently accompanied McConnell during his latest re-election bid in 2014. She says the campaign was a wonderful opportunity for her to travel to all parts of the state and meet a wide variety of Kentuckians. She’s less sanguine, though, about how she thinks the media treated McConnell during his race against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes.
“I think he’s been pretty unfairly treated,” Chao explains. “I wish that the media would be kinder to him – not in a favored sense, but just to be fairer to him.”
In addition to supporting her husband, Chao is active with her family’s philanthropy, the Ruth Mulan Chu Chao Foundation, and she sits on several corporate and non-profit boards, including Wells Fargo, News Corp, and the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government, Institute of Politics. She says she also gives speeches about the economy and job creation.
Chao doesn’t think she’ll run for office, but she says she does counsel other Asian-Americans and people of color about a life in politics. She says it’s not just the fundraising that makes running for and holding elected office difficult.
“It’s having the internal fortitude that you really believe… you are the best for this job,” Chao explains. “To have the buoyancy to come back after an attack and to just keep on going, just to have the toughness of spirit, I think that is the most important aspect about being in the public arena.”