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Transportation secretary nominee Elaine Chao: what you need to know

Confirmation hearings start today


She’s been called the most “normal” of President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet nominees, a Washington insider with years of government experience in her field. Today, Elaine Chao will start confirmation hearings for transportation secretary. Here’s what you need to know about the woman who may guide the country’s Department of Transportation through some of its most revolutionary changes in history.

She has a distinguished public service resume

This will not be Chao’s first cabinet confirmation hearing. She was the first Asian American woman appointed to any presidential cabinet when she was named labor secretary under George W. Bush, serving the entire eight years he was in office. Before that, she served as deputy secretary of transportation under George H. W. Bush. She’s also been director of the Peace Corps and CEO of United Way.

She is the immigrant daughter of a shipping magnate

Born in Taipei, Taiwan, Chao came to the U.S. at the age of eight. Her father, who was born in a small village outside Shanghai, started a freight company in New York City which became a global shipping giant. Today, the Foremost Group largely ships iron and coal around the world. Some have flagged this as a potential conflict of interest—Chao’s previous leadership roles in the Department of Transportation have included maritime regulations and overseas trade.

Elaine Chao AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko

She’s affiliated with a think tank that has an infrastructure plan

The Heritage Foundation is a conservative institute where Chao has been a distinguished fellow since 2009. A statement on the foundation’s site asserts that “[Chao] knows firsthand that America can have better infrastructure policies, more roads and bridges, by turning back control of these decisions to States.”

The organization published a comprehensive vision for rebuilding the country’s infrastructure which recommends privatization of airports and rail systems, and eliminating federal funding for local projects like public transit, bike paths, and sidewalks.

She quit Bloomberg’s philanthropy because it denounced fossil fuels

In 2012, Chao joined the board of Bloomberg Philanthropies, the high-profile global foundation addressing many transportation-related issues like road safety, sustainable urban planning, and autonomous vehicles.

But in 2015, she stepped down, reportedly because Bloomberg was ramping up its Beyond Coal partnership with the Sierra Club to wean cities off fossil fuels. This may have been more about her personal allegiances: She’s the wife of Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and the fact that she was taking money from an anti-coal group did not go over well with voters as her husband was trying to woo Kentucky’s coal industry in his re-election campaign.

She has a reputation for having a “light touch” on regulations

With huge technological changes on the horizon, the transportation secretary will be responsible for overseeing the deployment of new and potentially life-saving innovations.

This mainly applies to automated and connected vehicles, which have been championed by current Secretary Anthony Foxx. While she hasn’t made any public statements about driverless vehicles, Chao’s record shows she’d be in favor of looser federal regulations and shifting more responsibility to states, which is similar to the plan for AVs laid out under Obama.

Although today’s proceedings are expected to be one of the least controversial confirmation hearings, there may be some tough questions for Chao about how she plans to address the country’s growing transportation problems. Her hearing begins at 10:15 a.m. with the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation and you can watch live here.

Update, 2:30 p.m. ET: Today’s hearings have ended but you can watch them in their entirety. Senators can now submit questions which will be answered tomorrow.

Update, 1/31: Chao was confirmed by a vote of 93-6-1. A statement from David Strickland of the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets applauded the decision. “As the next Secretary of Transportation, Elaine Chao will have the unique opportunity to advance new and transformative safety innovations like self-driving vehicles. We congratulate Secretary Chao on today’s confirmation, and we look forward to working with her on delivering the promise of self-driving technology to make our neighborhoods safer and enhance mobility for the disabled and disadvantaged.”