When she started at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Marcia Fudge said, the first order of business was staffing up and boosting morale to confront a pandemic that has left millions of Americans economically fragile.
“We were just trying to figure out where all the pieces were, where was a good place to start, because we didn’t have the transition,” Fudge said.
Fudge, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm sat down virtually with The 19th to discuss their first few months in office, how women are leading and working together in the new administration, and how their agencies are responding to a pandemic that has had a disproportionate impact on women, people of color and the LGBTQ+ community.
Raimondo and Granholm both described similar challenges. Raimondo, the former governor of Rhode Island, estimated that the Commerce Department had “hundreds” of vacant positions when she arrived. But the vacancies also presented an opportunity to improve on agency diversity in a department that has been staffed by mostly men and White people, Granholm said.
“We have made a concerted effort to try to add and make sure the right voices are at the table,” Granholm said, adding that 56 percent of new hires have been people of color, 60 percent have been women and 21 percent have been LGBTQ+.
“Representation is important. We want to insert, intentionally, people who are making these decisions and designing these solutions who look like all of America,” she continued. “I think that’s a really important first step to making sure the policy is right.”
Fudge, Granholm and Raimondo are among the five women serving as secretaries in the Biden-Harris Cabinet, and each said they bring their lived experience to the role. Raimondo, a business owner before getting into politics, said she was often the only woman in the boardroom and juggled being a young entrepreneur with being a mother to two small children.
“That’s what I take to my job,” Raimondo said while praising Biden’s American Families Plan for including support for caregiving. “We are on the team that is going to try to break down those barriers so women can go to work and provide them with support. It makes me work a little harder to get the jobs package and the family package passed.”
Fudge spoke about her upbringing in inner-city Cleveland, about being the granddaughter and daughter of women committed to serving others, and about her tenure as mayor of a majority-Black suburb as experiences that have informed her approach to leading HUD.
“You grow up understanding that you have a responsibility and an obligation,” Fudge explained. “Coming to HUD was just very natural for me. I know what it takes to make a difference. I still talk to people, I talk to tenants.”
Fudge pointed to the $40 billion proposal in the American Jobs Plan to eradicate mold, lead and radon in public housing units and Biden’s plan to build 200,000 new public housing units as “bold” and “visionary.”
The women secretaries, all part of Biden’s Jobs Cabinet, are also getting to know each other as they continue to make their way to Washington as the pandemic subsides. And working with women means “fewer egos and you can get more stuff done,” Granholm said.
Raimondo hinted at a future gathering over dinner or drinks for Washington newcomers like her to get to know her colleagues better. Fudge, a veteran House lawmaker, had relationships with fellow Cabinet members but said she welcomed the opportunity to serve with such a diverse group.’
“What we do … on any major issue is an all-agency effort,” Fudge said. “We don’t work in silos, no matter the agency.”