Elaine Chao

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2/26/01 The New York Times: Public Lives: Family History Forges Labor Secretary's Convictions "I know what discrimination is," says Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao.
    JUST weeks into her new job as secretary of labor, Elaine L. Chao is reluctant to discuss pressing issues she faces, like new safety regulations meant to reduce ergonomic injuries in the workplace. "I'm still in the process of reviewing them," she said.       
   Expanding the guest worker programs elicited a similar response: "That's only a small part of the question about the major demographic shift coming in the next decades when we will face a shortage of workers."
    But on the question of affirmative action, which touches many programs her department oversees, Ms. Chao speaks comfortably and expansively. She favors outreach and access, she said, not racial quotas or numerical goals, a position that is not only a cornerstone of her political philosophy but also the essential lesson she has drawn from growing up as a Chinese- American.
    "I was very lucky to grow up in a family that believed in hard work and education," she said, recounting her family's story, which begins with her parents leaving war-torn China and explodes with success after success when they reach America.  Prosperity for her father's shipping firm. The honor of five of the six Chao daughters receiving degrees from Harvard. The fame of the eldest, Elaine, now 47 years old, being appointed to President Bush's cabinet.
    "The American philosophy is equal opportunity for everyone, but you can't guarantee results," she said. "We are a meritocracy."
   As an Asian-American who believes affirmative action has held back her community rather than helped it, Ms. Chao believes her family's life is a testimony to the value of rising on merit and education. "One of my things is to help promote and encourage workers to get into the practice of lifelong learning," she said.
    Her father, James Chao, sailed from Shanghai as an apprentice merchant seaman in 1949 but never returned after Mao Zedong's forces carried out the Chinese revolution. Instead he settled in Taiwan, where he met and married her mother, Ruth, another Chinese refugee. Seven years later James moved to Long Island, where he worked three jobs to prepare for his family's arrival when Elaine was 8 years old.
    "Growing up with their stories gave me a tremendous appreciation for the sacrifice of my parents," Ms. Chao said. "The story of China is one disaster after another."
    Once the Chao family settled in America, there were few disasters except racial discrimination. Speaking no English on her first day at school, Ms. Chao was accompanied by her father, who instructed her to greet the teacher. A respectful 8-year-old, she bowed from her waist and heard the laughter of her schoolmates.
    "I know what discrimination is," she said.
    Within two years, however, she was elected her class president. With her father reviewing her work, Ms. Chao rapidly adapted to American life. "As the eldest, I was a child with a heightened sense of responsibility," she said.
   She earned an economics degree from Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., and an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School. Under President Ronald Reagan she served as deputy maritime administrator and then chairwoman of the Federal Maritime Commission. Under President George Bush she rose to deputy secretary of the Department of Transportation and then director of the Peace Corps. After the Republicans lost the White House, she became president of the United Way of America, reviving the charity from a scandal with her trademark optimism and hard work.
    Then Ms. Chao was recruited to serve on an alumni board for Harvard. That experience, Ms. Chao said, showed her how Harvard's racial goals for admission meant that Asian-Americans were held back. Even though Asian-Americans had the highest test scores and highest grade-point averages, she said, they had the lowest admission rate because the school did not want to go over its goals for Asian-Americans.
    (In December 2000, when Harvard admitted 1,105 new students on an early basis for the new freshman class, 18.4 percent were Asian-American, 7.2 percent were Hispanic, 6.1 percent were African-American and 0.8 percent were Native Americans, according to the school's admissions office.)
    "The goal concept means you'll be subject to a higher standard of achievement for admission," said Ms. Chao, defining the particular glass ceiling and racial discrimination her community has faced since Asians first came to this country.
    Ms. Chao brought her grievances to the national arena in 1997 during an Oval Office meeting on race relations with President Bill Clinton. While acknowledging the good intentions of affirmative action, she asked him, "What happens when good programs in the process hurt other people?"
    SHORTLY after Ms. Chao took over the United Way she married Senator Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican and a leading conservative in Congress.
    His influence could be felt at the Labor Department, where Ms. Chao has hired his former chief of staff and press secretary to perform those jobs for her.
    "My husband has one of the subtlest political minds in the country," she said. "I'm interested in finding the best people, and I can't help it if I'm poaching from his staff."
    As one half of Washington's newest power couple, Ms. Chao says she has learned the price of steady striving and achievement. A few years ago she became a fellow at the Heritage Foundation in part to slow down the pace of life and start a family. It didn't work, and she was unable to have child.
    "Women think they can order their lives in a sequence, but sometimes nature doesn't cooperate," she said. "That was an important lesson for me."