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Prominent Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Who Have Served in the Federal Government

May 20, 2021

By Danna Subia

In recognition of May as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, here is a list of prominent Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who have served in the federal government.

Elaine Chao – Secretary of Labor and Secretary of Transportation

President George W. Bush appointed Chao to be secretary of Labor in 2001, making her the first Asian American woman and first Taiwanese American in U.S. history to be appointed to a Cabinet position. President Donald Trump later appointed Chao to be secretary of Transportation in 2017. Prior to holding those positions, Chao had been a successful businesswoman, the director of the Peace Corps and served in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Hiram Fong – Senator from Hawaii

In 1959, Fong was the first person of Chinese descent elected to Congress and the first Asian Pacific American elected to the Senate, where he served for nearly two decades. In 1964, he was the first Chinese American candidate for the presidency, and he is the only Republican to serve as the senator from Hawaii.

Kamala Harris – Vice President

Harris became the highest-ranking female official in U.S. history when she was elected vice president in 2020. Harris – whose mother was born in India – also became the first Asian American and African American vice president. Harris was the attorney general of California from 2011 to 2017 and a senator from California beginning in 2017.

Mazie Hirono – Senator from Hawaii

Hirono has been a senator from Hawaii since 2013. She was the first Asian American woman elected to the Senate and the first elected female senator from Hawaii. She was elected to the House in 2006. Hirono was born in Japan and was the only person of Asian ancestry serving in the Senate from 2013 until 2017.

Daniel Inouye – Senator from Hawaii

Inouye became the first Japanese American to serve in the House of Representatives in 1959 and the first Japanese American to serve in the Senate in 1962. He did not lose an election in 58 years. Prior to holding office, Inouye served in the Army during World War II and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart with Cluster.

Chris Lu – Deputy Secretary of Labor

Lu was confirmed as deputy secretary of Labor under President Barack Obama in 2014, making him the second Asian American to hold such a position in a Cabinet department. From 2009 to 2013, Lu was assistant to the president and the White House cabinet secretary. He also co-chaired the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Lu is currently President Joe Biden’s nominee to serve as the representative to the U.N. for management and reform.

Norman Mineta – Secretary of Transportation

Appointed by President Bill Clinton in 2000 to be secretary of Commerce, Mineta was the first Asian American and Pacific Islander to be appointed to a Cabinet position. He was later appointed in 2001 by George W. Bush to be secretary of Transportation and went on to serve in this position for the longest amount of time in the department’s history.

Pat Saiki – Administrator of the Small Business Administration

George H. W. Bush appointed Pat Saiki to be administrator of the Small Business Administration in 1991. In 1986, Saiki was the first Republican elected to represent Hawaii in the House since it gained statehood.

Eric Shinseki – Secretary of Veterans Affairs

Eric Shinseki was Obama’s choice for secretary of Veterans Affairs in 2009, making him the first Asian American to serve in that position. Previously, Shinseki had a long career in the military, where he served as the 34th chief of staff of the Army and was the first Asian American four-star general. He served two tours in the Vietnam War for which he was awarded three Bronze Star Medals for valor and two Purple Hearts.