Bernie Sanders makes a play for Biden Labor secretary

Sen. Bernie Sanders is hoping to be a part of Joe Biden’s potential administration and has expressed a particular interest in becoming Labor secretary, two people familiar with the conversations tell POLITICO.

“I can confirm he’s trying to figure out how to land that role or something like it,” said one person close to the Vermont senator. “He, personally, does have an interest in it.”

Sanders on Wednesday declined to confirm or deny that he’s putting his name forward for the position.

“Right now I am focused on seeing that Biden is elected president,” he told POLITICO. “That’s what my main focus is.”

Former Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir said Sanders has not talked directly with anyone on the Biden campaign about a future role, but plans to push Biden, his former Senate colleague, to “include progressive voices” in both the transition and in a potential new administration.

Yet two other people close to Sanders, including one former aide, said the senator has expressed interest in being in the administration, should Biden win in November. Sanders has been making his push for the top job at the Labor Department in part by reaching out to allies on the transition team, one person familiar with the process said.

When asked about Sanders’ potential role, a spokesperson for Biden’s transition team repeated the transition’s stock line: that they are “not making any personnel decisions pre-election.”

Since ending his second bid for the Democratic nomination earlier this year, Sanders has thrown his support behind Biden, hitting the campaign trail for him in Michigan and New Hampshire, collaborating with him to create “unity task forces” to make recommendations on everything from health care to climate change, and taking the stage at the Democratic National Convention to urge progressives to back the former vice president.

“He’s 100 percent in Joe Biden’s court,” said Shakir. “We’ve had a good working relationship with the Biden team and I expect we’ll maintain that all the way through.”

Through this collaboration, Shakir said, Sanders has been able to influence both policy and personnel discussions underway among Biden transition’s staff.

“It would be great to have a unity government that takes into account that progressives are a pretty healthy portion of the electorate,” he said. “Heeding that would be good, but if Joe Biden wins, he rightly has a mandate to move in whatever direction he chooses.”

The news of Sanders’ interest in the job is certain to cheer the Democratic left, which has been pushing for progressives to take senior roles in a potential Biden administration.

“He’d be terrific,” said Robert Reich, a former Labor secretary in the Clinton administration.

Having Sanders in a senior post could also help balance out any consternation over more moderate picks — or even a Republican — that Biden’s team is already considering for other spots in the administration.

Sanders could find support from the labor movement as well, where union officials expect to have some influence over Biden’s pick to lead the DOL.

The Vermont senator — who throughout his decadeslong career has called for laws to raise the minimum wage and make it easier for workers to organize — won significant support from local unions and rank-and-file members in the 2016 Democratic primary race, even as most major national unions endorsed his rival Hillary Clinton.

In 2020, many major unions endorsed Sanders’ signature “Medicare for All” proposal — which would replace private insurance with a national single-payer system — saying the policy would help workers focus their bargaining power on wages and working conditions, rather than health benefits. When some unions came out against the policy, saying they didn’t trust the new government insurance program to offer as robust benefits as the private plans they secured through negotiations, Sanders added a provision empowering the National Labor Relations Board to make sure employers reinvested what they would save on health insurance in workers’ pay and other benefits.

“Obviously, he’s earned a lot of trust from working people across the country over the past many years,” one union official said.

The official added that joining a Biden administration could help the 79-year-old Sanders craft a legacy — “being able to help rebuild the economy in a way that works for working Americans after this pandemic.”

One person close to Sanders agreed that Sanders sees an opportunity to achieve long-held policy goals for the working class under Biden, adding: “He really does believe Biden wants to be a Roosevelt-like president.”

The Democratic presidential nominee has made labor a priority issue throughout his presidential campaign, emphasizing the need to strengthen and expand the right to join a union and rebuild America’s middle class. It’s an area where he’s fairly progressive and generally aligned with Sanders, who pledged as a presidential candidate to double union membership if elected.

Still, it could be an uphill battle for Sanders to secure the nomination at Labor or any other agency, in part because Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, would be able to appoint a temporary successor to his Senate seat.

Unlike governors in other states, who get to appoint successors to carry out the rest of the term, Scott would be required under Vermont law to hold a special election within six months of the seat becoming vacant. But even allowing Scott the opportunity to fill Sanders’ seat with a GOP lawmaker in the short term could potentially affect control of the Senate, depending on the results of November’s election.

Others see Sanders’ stubborn independence as a potential liability.

“Because of how he operates and works with other people, there’s a zero chance” of him getting tapped for the job, one person close to Sanders said. “He’s a Lone Ranger, to a fault.”

Other names that have been floated for Labor secretary in a Biden administration include Bill Spriggs, chief economist at the AFL-CIO and a Howard University economics professor; Sharon Block, a veteran of the DOL and Obama White House who is now executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard University; Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), a former union organizer and leader of Michigan’s Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth; and Seth Harris, the former deputy secretary of Labor in the Obama administration.

There has also been some discussion of Biden looking to appoint a union official to his Cabinet, possibly atop the DOL or the Department of Education.

This article originally appeared at Politico on October 22, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Megan Cassella is a trade reporter for POLITICO Pro. Before joining the trade team in June 2016, Megan worked for Reuters based out of Washington, covering the economy, domestic politics and the 2016 presidential campaign. It was in that role that she first began covering trade, including Donald Trump’s rise as the populist candidate vowing to renegotiate NAFTA and Hillary Clinton’s careful sidestep of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

A D.C.-area native, Megan headed south for a few years to earn her bachelor’s degree in business journalism and international politics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Now settled back inside the Beltway, Megan’s on the hunt for the city’s best Carolina BBQ — and still rooting for the Heels.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.