Women’s rights activists and allied Democrats are growing increasingly vocal about what they call the unfair targeting of women and people of color nominated by Joe Biden to top posts in his administration.
Their fears had been bubbling for weeks, as Biden’s nominees of color came under sharp attack from conservative groups or saw their nominations delayed or opposed in greater numbers. But the worries burst out into the open over the weekend as Neera Tanden’s nomination to lead the Office of Management and Budget neared defeat at the hands of a Democrat.
“There’s a double standard going on,” said Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), head of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. “Her nomination is very significant for us Asian American and Pacific Islanders. I do believe that this double standard has to do with the fact that she would be a pioneer in that position.”
On Friday, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) came out in opposition to Tanden’s nomination, citing her past tweets attacking lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Two key Senate Republicans followed suit.
Inside the White House, it did not go unnoticed that many of the lawmakers objecting to Tanden’s social media missives—including Manchin—voted to confirm Richard Grenell, the acid-tongued Trump booster, to the post of U.S. ambassador to Germany. Democrats on and off the Hill likewise argued that Tanden, who is of South Asian descent, was one of several nominees of color being treated differently than Trump-era nominees who lobbed personal attacks or expressed bigoted views.
“We can disagree with her tweets, but in the past, Trump nominees that they’ve confirmed and supported had much more serious issues and conflicts than just something that was written on Twitter,” Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) said in an interview after tweeting in frustration about Manchin’s reported hesitancy around some nominations. “This is not just about any one nominee like Neera, or whoever else — it’s just about this pattern that is happening and increasingly hard to ignore.”
A longtime fixture in Democratic politics, Tanden became an outsized figure online in recent years as she directed pointed, personal, and often extensive Twitter criticism at opponents on the left and right, including sitting senators. For that reason, her nomination to the OMB post carried obvious risks, even as Democrats won control of the Senate.
Her supporters now say that her social media presence is being used as a cover by her opponents, noting that she has apologized, deleted and taken ownership for her tweets. And Democrats argue that after the Trump years, there is little justification for having someone’s online behavior serve as a disqualifier. They point not just to the former president’s own acerbic social media presence and repeated attacks on lawmakers of color, but to Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s conduct during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing and the confirmation of former Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) as attorney general decades after he lost a bid for a federal judgeship over accusations of racism.
Kavanaugh “went nuts in the hearing on senators” said Ilyse Hogue, outgoing president of the abortion-rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America. “They’re saying that Neera cannot be confirmed because of the tone of her tweets. It feels paper-thin to me and certainly a different standard for how they expect women to speak versus the men that they voted to confirm.”
It’s not just Tanden’s nomination that is surfacing complaints of sexism and racial prejudice. Officials in the White House and those who served on the transition note that several of Biden’s nominees of color have seen their nominations slow-walked in the Senate or have already come under comparatively harsher criticism than the white men up for top administration posts.
Republicans are currently pushing back hard on former California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, Biden’s choice to run the Heath and Human Services Department, citing his views on expanding health care and abortion access to unauthorized immigrants. They also argue that Becerra, whose mother immigrated from Guadalajara and father grew up in Tijuana, Mexico, is underqualified because he is not a doctor himself. Trump’s Health Secretary, Alex Azar, wasn’t a physician.
Biden’s secretary of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, was confirmed in a largely party-line vote earlier this month. The first Latino and immigrant to serve in his post, Mayorkas had been previously confirmed by the Senate three times. But his confirmation this go-round was by the slimmest of all margins for Biden nominees to date.
Interior secretary nominee Deb Haaland may soon face even greater opposition. Republicans have accused the would-be first Native American to lead the department of being “radical,” pointing to her support for progressive environmental policies and opposition to new oil and gas drilling leases on federal land. Manchin, who is leading Haaland’s confirmation hearing Tuesday, has said he remains undecided on her nomination as well as the others — indecision that prompted a sharp rebuke and a suggestion of bias from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
Jeff Sessions was so openly racist that even Reagan couldn’t appoint him.
Manchin voted to confirm him. Sessions then targeted immigrant children for wide-scale human rights abuses w/ family separation.
Yet the 1st Native woman to be Cabinet Sec is where Manchin finds unease? https://t.co/wyki5iE36Y
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) February 22, 2021
Manchin’s office declined comment. But in an interview earlier in the day, he noted that he’d spoken to Tanden on Monday and would still oppose her.
“I’m all about bipartisanship. I really am. I told her that: This is not personal at all,” Manchin said. “There’s a time for bipartisanship to begin. We’ll see what happens on the other side.”
Derrick Johnson, president of the civil rights group NAACP, said that as nominees neared their confirmation votes, it would “become apparent whether or not those individuals who are women or people of color are receiving a different level of scrutiny.”
“I hope we will course-correct, quickly, and not allow that to be a legacy of the Senate,” Johnson added.
Democrats fear even more nominees of color could soon run into trouble, including civil rights lawyer Kristen Clarke, the nominee for assistant attorney general at the DOJ’s civil rights division, and Vanita Gupta, Biden’s nominee for associate attorney general. Gupta was the subject of a recently launched ad campaign by conservative groups, which accused her of wanting to “let convicts out of jail” and “reduce punishments on white supremacists.” The groups’ other target was Becerra. A third ad they ran accused the Biden administration of welcoming dark money.
“Vanita Gupta wants to defund the police, and instead of dealing with that extremely dangerous position, her liberal defenders are throwing up cartoonish claims to avoid the issues,” said Carrie Severino, the president of the Judicial Crisis Network, one of the groups sponsoring the ads. Gupta has not called for defunding the police.
Janet Murguía, the president and chief executive of the Latino advocacy organization UnidosUS, said she had a call with her team Monday morning where the issue of Biden’s Cabinet picks hitting roadblocks sparked a protracted conversation and growing alarm.
“It’s been incredibly disturbing to see a pattern or a trend emerging where people of color and women seem to be at the bottom of the list in terms of hearings and getting their confirmations finalized,” Murguía said in an interview. “It’s highly offensive to see this foot-dragging going on when we have such an incredible need to put these different leaders in place in these different agencies.”
“Stalling these nominations, regardless of which party, is not a good look and it raises a lot of questions about why,” she added.
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) posed the same question Monday as she listed Tanden, Haaland and Becerra as nominees “being scrutinized more heavily.”
“There seems to be a pattern here,” Hirono said. She added that if Tanden’s nomination ultimately falls, Biden’s nominee to be U.S. trade representative, Katherine Tai, would be the “the only Asian woman in the Cabinet.”
“And nobody knows who [the] trade rep is,” she said.
Burgess Everett and Meridith McGraw contributed reporting.