The Biden Administration Gives Marcia Fudge a Job She Didn’t Ask For

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I was blindsided, like many, by the news that Marcia Fudge, the high-powered member of the House who has been pushing the Democratic Party in important and meaningful ways over the last few years, would be nominated to be Joe Biden’s Secretary for Housing and Urban Development. (If you’re not familiar with Marcia Fudge or only know her as the emergency replacement DNC chair in 2016, I’d encourage you to start with this video of her questioning Betsy Devos in 2018.)

I found this odd. Rep. Fudge had unequivocally expressed interest in a completely different Cabinet post, that of Secretary of Agriculture. I know that some folks found this initially confusing. But it makes sense if you know that Rep. Fudge is a senior member of the House Committee on Agriculture, senior enough that it was notable that she wasn’t pursuing the committee chairmanship with the defeat of longtime chair Collin Peterson after his defeat this cycle.

Instead, Rep. Fudge is being asked to lead a department that has no overlap with the committees that she serves on. Neither the Appropriations nor the Financial Services subcommittees that interact with HUD have ever counted Rep. Fudge as a member. The headlines tomorrow will focus on the representation in Biden’s Cabinet and will mention that Rep. Fudge is only the second Black woman to head HUD, but even squinting, I’m having a difficult time seeing the fit. (Note that Black women have only ever led six of the 15 Cabinet departments.)

HUD has a lot of disparate initiatives to oversee, including housing programs for Native populations, fair housing enforcement, lead and other hazard abatement, and many more. While I don’t think that we should require the Secretary to be a subject matter expert, some demonstrable background is going to be useful.

Marcia Fudge has had a substantial legal career, working for various municipalities and government organizations in Northeast Ohio, before becoming mayor of Warrensville Heights in 2000. She then succeeded her mentor, Stephanie Tubbs-Jones, in Congress after Tubbs-Jones’s untimely death in 2008. But if you Google “Marcia Fudge HUD” and limit your search to before November 3, 2020, very few results appear.

The Biden camp announced simultaneously that Tom Vilsack would be reappointed as Secretary of Agriculture, after he served in that role for all eight years of Obama’s presidency. I can’t profess to know the Biden camp’s reasoning here, but this is consistent with other efforts to recreate the Obama administration. (As an aside, this concerns me in particular given that most present-day wistfulness about the Obama administration seems to focus very little on the actual policies of the Obama administration.) But Vilsack once attempted to resign from the Obama administration because he felt that as Secretary of Agriculture, “[t]here are days when I have literally nothing to do.”

Perhaps this speaks to a deeper truth about the position itself, and perhaps Rep. Fudge could not have escaped that. But she articulated a clear vision for what she believed the USDA should be doing, what needed to change, and why she would be valuable in that role.

Meanwhile, HUD has often been the department where non-white Cabinet members can be found. Indeed, HUD has had five prior Black Secretaries, with no other department ever having had more than three. (Transportation is the only one to have had more than two.)

The Trump administration was criticized, rightly, for nominating Ben Carson as HUD secretary. Carson’s experience was a poor fit for the role. His nomination seemed like an attempt at tokenism within the Cabinet. And perhaps most insidiously, his nomination perpetuated myths of HUD as jurisdiction of Black concern. It’s not a stretch to extrapolate that into even more dangerous assumptions, such as assigning responsibility for Black poverty to the impoverished rather than to an ever-churning meatgrinder of capitalism and racism.

I see no reason to consider Rep. Fudge’s nomination much differently here. Remember how I said she was mayor of Warrensville Heights? Warrensville Heights is 15 miles outside of the city center of Cleveland. She represents an urban district, but even this connection to the mission and the work of HUD is tenuous.

And it’s not like there is a dearth of women of color who were on those two HUD-adjacent House committees. Notably, fellow Ohio House Rep. Joyce Beatty, herself an experienced member of the House who was pepper-sprayed by Columbus police during the protests this summer, is a senior member of the Financial Services Subcommittee on Housing, Community Development and Insurance. Rep. Beatty’s experience on the Joint Economic Committee would likely also come in handy at HUD.

I’m struggling to come up with a compelling reason that supports Rep. Fudge’s selection. Yes, she represents an urban district, but even that is dicey. Representation matters, but Rep. Beatty is just one example of the women of color who have more specialized experience than Rep. Fudge.

This leaves me with only one possible conclusion: that this appointment was a purely political calculation, one meant to compromise where compromise was not only unnecessary, but actively detrimental to good policymaking.

And this kind of political calculation doesn’t seem possible unless somebody with some power is falling into the trap of “HUD = Black”.

I can tell you as a native Clevelander that Rep. Fudge is an exceptional public servant and I trust her to do well at HUD based on her work in the House.

But it’s not the job she asked for. And there’s a reason for that.

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