August 28, 2003 - USA Today: Profile of former Peace Corps Director Elaine Chao

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Profile of former Peace Corps Director Elaine Chao

Read and comment on this story from the USA Today on former Peace Corps Director Elaine Chao. In 1991 during the first Bush administration, she oversaw the organization as it established its first presence in the Baltic nations and the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union. She sent the first volunteers to countries such as Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and Uzbekistan. Read the story at:

For Chao, it's a labor of love as she initiates big changes*

* This link was active on the date it was posted. PCOL is not responsible for broken links which may have changed.

For Chao, it's a labor of love as she initiates big changes

By Stephanie Armour, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON The odds seemed against Elaine Chao as an 8-year-old immigrant from Taiwan who spoke no English. Unable to understand her lessons, the third-grader quietly copied every letter from the blackboard to her notebook. Then she would wait up until her father, who worked three jobs, came home to their one-bedroom apartment in Queens and explained what each word meant.

Labor Secretary Elaine Chao rose from immigrant roots to take on tough labor issues.
By H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY

More than 40 years later, Chao runs the U.S. Department of Labor, where she is initiating some of the biggest changes in decades to federal laws covering American workers. (Related story: Chao takes on issues such as OT, union disclosure)

The odds seem against her again. She wants to overhaul a federal law governing overtime pay for white-collar workers that hasn't been significantly updated in 54 years. She wants to revise 40-year-old financial disclosure requirements for large unions. And she is heading the department during a difficult time in the nation's economy, when more than 9 million Americans are out of work.

Her tenure has also been marked by criticism from vocal labor leaders. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney commented in February, "I've never seen a secretary of Labor who's so anti-labor."

Sweeney says, "Since taking office in January of 2001, she's changed, and I have to say it's because of the Bush administration, which has sided with business interests at the expense of working families. They've tried to erase protections for workers."

But Chao, 50, says she has forged good relationships with many unions, working together on safety and health initiatives, and she says the reforms she's pursuing will help American workers.

"I've held over 100 meetings with members of organized labor," she says. "Regardless of what anybody says, I think they'll all say I've been very open and accessible. I'm always available to talk, and I have an open mind."

Shaped by immigrant experience

While business groups and labor leaders follow her labor policy initiatives, Chao remains a low-key presence whose personal life remains largely out of the limelight. Her political influence is well known, but interviews with friends, staff and family portray another side a woman strongly shaped by a childhood immigrant experience that taught her the value of hard work.

Elaine Chao, left, with her mother and two sisters on the freighter they took to the USA in 1961.

"She once showed me a picture of her parents and sisters. She said, 'This is when we lived in a one-bedroom apartment, and I thought we were rich,' " says Nancy Kennedy, a former colleague from the Peace Corps and United Way who lives in Alexandria, Va. "Her background instilled in her that she could succeed in anything."

Chao sailed with her mother, Ruth, and two siblings in 1961 to the USA to join her father, Chinese student James Chao, when she was 8. He had come to New York three years earlier while the rest of the family waited in Taiwan until he had saved enough money to send for them. Her parents had three children in the USA; Chao is the oldest of six girls.

It was a culture shock. One afternoon in October, Chao and her sisters opened the door to find other children dressed in ghost and goblin costumes, holding out bags. Believing they were being robbed, they gave the trick-or-treaters their meager weekly provisions of food, including cereal and bread.

An indomitable personality

Today, the shy and studious student who was never asked to a prom is the first Asian-American woman ever appointed to a president's Cabinet. She is half of one of Washington's Republican power couples, married to Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, whom she met on a blind date in Washington and married in 1993. (It was her first marriage; he has three children from an earlier marriage. They have no children of their own.) And she oversees a vast governmental regulatory agency with a $72.6 billion budget and responsibilities for such labor issues as worker safety, child labor, overtime pay, retirement benefits and job training.

"I understand what it's like to be an outsider and not know anybody and not even know where to turn for help," says Chao, sitting on a flowered couch in her office with its panoramic view of the white-domed Capitol. "Everything I do in this department is with an eye to helping those who are disenfranchised."

Political leaders describe her as an indomitable personality who doesn't flinch in the face of criticism.

"She is trying to undertake serious reforms," says Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C. "She's a compassionate person who wants to help people make a difference. ... She's willing to take on the tough assignments."

Adds Office of Management and Budget Director Josh Bolten: "It's not an easy job. She's one of the most focused and disciplined government officials I've ever worked with."

Staffers say Chao is so focused that she sometimes gets up at 2 a.m. to dash off half a dozen e-mails before returning to bed. She receives up to 200 e-mails a day and answers her own messages. Chao is able to remember obscure numbers and details, recalling them during speeches or meetings to bolster her arguments for labor reform.

"She is an intensely methodical person. She is a collector and analyzer of information," says Steven Law, Labor Department chief of staff. "The secretary is very focused on achieving goals."

Chao is also involved with her staff. She helps pull off surprise birthday bashes luring unsuspecting employees to a conference room for a party and stops occasionally to pick up frozen yogurt for her security detail. Chao is known for carefully selecting her team in at least one case bringing on staffers from her husband's political staff and for expecting a great deal from employees, some of whom have stayed with her since the 1980s.

On her downtime, she flies most weekends to her adopted home of Kentucky. There, she spends time with friends at tailgating parties before University of Louisville football games. Chao, who isn't known for her cooking, brings prepared meals such as smoked salmon and crackers. Movies she enjoys light-hearted fare such as Babe over action flicks TV shows such as Star Trek and puttering in the garden provide a respite from the Washington pace.

"They (Chao and her husband) come to Kentucky a lot and do a lot of their normal stuff here," says longtime friend and fellow tailgater Dee Kern of Louisville. "They seem to balance each other out. They're very close."

Described as a turnaround artist, Chao took over the United Way of America in 1992. The organization was in the throes of a severe public image crisis. For the first time since World War II, contributions were waning and the agency's president, William Aramony, had resigned amid charges he misappropriated funds. He was later convicted of defrauding the agency.

As CEO and president, Chao initiated fiscal reforms and worked to rebuild connections with estranged local chapters, making more than 100 trips to repair relations.

She had taken on challenges before. In 1991 during the first Bush administration, she became director of the Peace Corps overseeing the organization as it established its first presence in the Baltic nations and the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union. She sent the first volunteers to countries such as Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and Uzbekistan.

Ambitious, and contentious, agenda

That same desire to initiate change has followed her to the Labor Department, where she's embarked upon an ambitious and contentious agenda. Few other Labor secretaries in recent years have come under such public fire from top labor leaders. In a February presentation before the AFL-CIO executive council, Chao defended a plan that would require more financial disclosure from unions. Her talk left tensions flaring. Sweeney says she was "arrogant" in response to union leaders' questions.

"This administration has been different," Sweeney said in a recent interview. "They're clearly out to break unions. She's not doing this by herself. She's being dictated to by the White House."

But some union members say they applaud the efforts Chao has undertaken, from meeting with them at Ground Zero in the two weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to concentrating on safety and health issues.

Says Don Carson of the International Union of Operating Engineers: "She definitely looks out for the welfare of workers. She's been very progressive. She's making a big difference."

David Fortney, former acting solicitor general of Labor and a Washington-based employment lawyer, says criticism is coming in part because, "Many administrations have given the AFL-CIO a wider role out of political convenience. She hasn't done that."

At the same time, he says, she's embarking on major change. "Secretary Chao has tried to reposition and rethink the very role of the Labor Department," he says.

Chao has said she's surprised by the resistance she's seen to some of her proposals, such as revamping overtime regulations. But she also says the reforms would benefit millions of employees.

"All of our initiatives have as their goal to improve the lives of American workers," she says.

She is also very involved in reaching out to the Asian-American community.

"She gets an Arnold Schwarzenegger reaction from Asian-Americans. They want to meet her, have their picture taken with her," McConnell says. "She knows many have had similar experiences to what she had."

It's part of her belief in reaching out to others experiencing the same adjustment she went through as a girl new to America.

She still recalls how her father took her to her first day of school in the USA and told her to greet the third-grade teacher. Unsure of what to do, she bowed. The other students laughed at her.

Two years later, Chao was class president.

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