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Joe Biden Is Playing a Grimy Game With His Cabinet

Cabinet departments shouldn't be a consolation prize.

Photo: Bob Nichols/U.S. Department of Agriculture

When President Donald Trump picked Ben Carson as his secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, there was strong suspicion that he did so because he thinks “urban” is a synonym for “Black.” If that was the case, you could make a strong argument that President-elect Joe Biden just did the exact same thing with his own HUD nominee.

Biden has reportedly picked Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge as Carson’s replacement at HUD, even though Fudge has been campaigning very publicly to become the next secretary of the Department of Agriculture. Aside from serving as the mayor of Warrensville Heights, OH (a small suburb of Cleveland) for eight years, Fudge does not have much experience in housing policy at all.

On the other hand, Fudge is a high-ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, and chairs its subcommittee which oversees nutrition policy, including Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and the USDA. She’s been advocating for an increase in food benefits for poor families during the pandemic, and after Biden defeated Trump, Fudge again pushed for a 15% increase in SNAP benefits as well as additional funding for other programs.

What’s more, this is what Fudge herself had to say about the HUD job in an interview with Politico last month (emphasis mine):

Fudge lamented that in her view, Black politicians tend to be relegated to a limited number of cabinet positions.

“As this country becomes more and more diverse, we’re going to have to stop looking at only certain agencies as those that people like me fit in. You know, it’s always ‘we want to put the Black person in labor or HUD,'” she said.

Instead, Biden is reportedly poised to give former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack an unprecedented third term at USDA. Vilsack is a puppet of agribusiness whose current job is literally shilling for Big Dairy. A champion for food security or farmworkers, as former United Farm Workers president Arturo Rodriguez would have been, Vilsack is not.

Fudge is undoubtedly an improvement over Carson because Democrats generally don’t spend all of their time trying to blow up the Fair Housing Act. Fudge could even turn out to be a genuinely good HUD secretary, considering her advocacy for renters during the pandemic. But there’s a reason she publicly campaigned for the USDA job and not HUD.

You can’t blame Fudge for taking the HUD job, as there’s a good chance she would have either gotten double-bunked or put in a much more competitive district because of redistricting. But Fudge will undoubtedly get asked about this during her confirmation hearing, and Fudge’s nomination for a completely different agency she has much less experience with than USDA also indicates that Biden and the transition see HUD—a department overseeing federal housing policy with a budget of nearly $60 billion—as a consolation prize.

It makes zero sense, even if your actual goal is building out the most diverse cabinet in history. Making a Black woman from a large city who focuses on food insecurity the head of the USDA, rather than another white former governor from a rural state—seriously, Vilsack 2.0 would make it five straight USDA heads who were white male former governors—would show an actual, legitimate commitment not just to diversity in leadership but in using federal policy to help the most vulnerable. No, what Biden is doing can more accurately be called diversity theater.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. Biden reportedly offered the role of secretary of the Department of the Interior—which oversees, among other things, federal land policy and issues affecting Indian Country through the Bureau of Indian Affairs—to New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. Grisham reportedly wanted to be Biden’s secretary of health and human services, but that job went to California Attorney General Xavier Becerra.

Grisham’s selection would have also sidelined two other New Mexicans lobbying for that role—outgoing Sen. Tom Udall and U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, a progressive congresswoman and member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe —and there’s the small matter of healthcare policy being only tangentially related to land policy, so she turned it down.

There’s nearly unified support behind Haaland from tribal groups, dozens of Democrats spanning all wings of the House caucus, and even some Republicans like Reps. Tom Cole and Don Young—all the more impressive given her vocal support of the Green New Deal. She would also be the first Indigenous cabinet and interior secretary, something with both deep symbolism and deep relevance to the role.

But anonymous Biden advisers have been undermining Haaland every chance they get, questioning her experience, which has pissed off a ton of her backers, according to a Monday report in HuffPost. Instead, these anonymous advisers are trying to build support for former Deputy Interior Secretary Michael Connor, who became a partner at Trump-and-Mueller-connected corporate lobbying firm WilmerHale after leaving the Obama administration. (Connor would also be the first Indigenous cabinet secretary; he’s a member of the Taos Pueblo tribe, which has endorsed Haaland, according to HuffPost.)

HUD is responsible for the housing circumstances of millions of people. The Department of the Interior is responsible for the well-being of millions of Indigenous people, not to mention the entirety of our federal lands. If the incoming administration thinks they’re just extra chairs to make sure everyone who was promised a job ends up with one, well, maybe it’s not so different than the current one after all.