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Biden Picks Marcia Fudge for HUD and Tom Vilsack for Agriculture Secretary

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Ms. Fudge, a House member from Ohio, would be the second African-American Biden cabinet member chosen in two days. Mr. Vilsack would reprise his role from the Obama administration.

Credit…J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

  • Dec. 8, 2020

WASHINGTON — President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. has selected Representative Marcia L. Fudge, Democrat of Ohio, to serve as the secretary of housing and urban development, people familiar with the transition said on Tuesday, the second African-American he has chosen for his cabinet in two days.

Mr. Biden also chose Tom Vilsack, who served as the secretary of agriculture for eight years under former President Barack Obama, to lead that department again, according to two people familiar with the president-elect’s deliberations. Mr. Vilsack, 69, a former governor of Iowa, is the seventh member of his cabinet Mr. Biden has now chosen.

If Ms. Fudge, 68, is confirmed by the Senate, she would join retired Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III of the Army, who would be the first Black defense secretary, and Xavier Becerra, the son of Mexican immigrants and nominee for secretary of health and human services, as the embodiment of Mr. Biden’s campaign pledge to assemble an administration that will “look like America.”

But even as he rolls out his picks for the cabinet and key White House jobs, Mr. Biden is under increasing pressure from a variety of interest groups, liberal activists and Democratic lawmakers who have different opinions on what it means to make good on that promise.

For Mr. Biden and his transition team, the selection of key jobs has become a constantly shifting puzzle as they search for candidates who are qualified, get along with the president-elect, and help create the ethnic and gender mosaic that would be a striking contrast with President Trump’s administration.

Allies of Ms. Fudge, including Representative James E. Clyburn, Democrat of South Carolina and one of Mr. Biden’s most prominent Black supporters during the 2020 campaign, had urged the president-elect to put Ms. Fudge at the Agriculture Department, where she had hoped to shift the agency’s focus away from farming and toward hunger, including in urban areas.

Instead, Mr. Biden settled on Mr. Vilsack, who is white and from an important rural farming state.

But the decision to instead put Ms. Fudge at HUD, which is viewed by some advocacy groups as a more traditional place for a Black secretary, has the potential to disappoint those pushing for her, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus, of which she is a former chairwoman. The current housing secretary, Ben Carson, is Black.

Just hours after Mr. Biden made official his historic choice of General Austin for defense secretary, a group of Black civil rights activists urged Mr. Biden to nominate a Black attorney general and to make civil rights a higher priority.

“He said if he won, he would do something about criminal justice, police reform and specifically mass incarceration,” the Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights leader and talk show host, said in an interview on Tuesday before a meeting with Mr. Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. “He flew to Houston to meet before I did the eulogy for George Floyd. He made specific commitments. I’m saying, promises made, let’s see if promises are kept.”

Mr. Biden has not said whom he will pick to lead the Justice Department, though he is considering Senator Doug Jones, who lost his bid for re-election in Alabama; Sally Q. Yates, a former deputy attorney general; and Judge Merrick Garland, whom Mr. Obama unsuccessfully nominated to the Supreme Court.

But Jeh C. Johnson, who served as Mr. Obama’s secretary of homeland security, and is Black, took himself out of consideration to be attorney general on Tuesday, according to people familiar with his discussions.

In an interview with CNN last week, Mr. Biden noted that “every advocacy group out there is pushing for more and more and more of what they want. That’s their job.” He defended his picks to date as “the most diverse cabinet anyone in American history has ever announced.”

But advocates are not leaving anything to chance. The meeting that the president-elect and vice president-elect held with Mr. Sharpton and other civil rights leaders lasted close to two hours and was an opportunity to make their case.

In a news conference following the meeting, Mr. Sharpton said he told the president-elect that the only way to respond to the “most racist, bigoted administration in memory” was to appoint an attorney general “that has a background in civil rights.” He added, “My preference is to have a Black attorney general.”

The Presidential Transition

Updated 

Dec. 10, 2020, 3:29 p.m. ET

And during the meeting, Derrick Johnson, the president of the N.A.A.C.P., pressed Mr. Biden to create a civil rights envoy position in the West Wing that would report directly to the president.

“He appointed John Kerry to be the climate envoy, reporting directly to him,” Mr. Johnson said in an interview before the meeting. “We believe a national adviser on racial justice should be something equivalent.”

During the Democratic primary season, Mr. Biden benefited from Mr. Sharpton’s decision to stay neutral rather than endorse Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. During the general election campaign, Ms. Harris was aided by Mr. Sharpton’s decision to advocate more generally a Black woman on the ticket, rather than to publicly endorse Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia House minority leader, as he had been set to do.

That has given Mr. Sharpton some leverage with the Biden-Harris transition team as it fills out the administration.

Also on Tuesday, a group of more than 1,000 high-profile Black women signed a letter to Mr. Biden saying they were “deeply troubled” by the small number of Black women mentioned as possible candidates for top jobs in his administration. They urged him to do better.

“It is long past time that the effective, accomplished leadership of Black women currently serving in areas of significant policy that impacts our nation are recognized and given full consideration for the statutory positions in your administration’s cabinet,” the women wrote in the letter.

Ms. Fudge, who has been in the House since winning a special election in 2008, was among the officials the women recommended and had openly campaigned to become Mr. Biden’s agriculture secretary, telling The Cleveland Plain Dealer that she would put her experience working on farm bills “against almost anybody’s.”

But Ms. Fudge, a former mayor of Warrensville Heights, Ohio, told reporters after news of her selection at HUD leaked out that “if I can help this president in any way possible, I am more than happy to do it. It’s a great honor and a privilege to be a part of something so good.”

In 2018, Ms. Fudge mulled a challenge to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, before ultimately dropping the idea and endorsing her.

Ms. Fudge said she had changed her mind after Ms. Pelosi gave her the opportunity to play a key role in safeguarding voting rights and assured her that Black women would “have a seat at the decision-making table” in Congress.

Now, she will leave to lead the nation’s sprawling housing agency instead.

Her departure will add to another puzzle: how to maintain the Democratic Party’s slim majority in the House, which has shrunk to just a handful of seats since the elections in November.

Mr. Biden’s decision to pick Representative Cedric L. Richmond, a Black Democrat from Louisiana, to be a senior adviser in the White House already meant the party would have to defend that seat. Mr. Biden’s decision to pluck Ms. Fudge for his cabinet means Democrats must win another special election to fill her seat.

Luke Broadwater contributed reporting.

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