Elaine Chao gave Mitch McConnell’s state of Kentucky an unfair advantage after becoming transportation secretary: report

Elaine Chao gave Mitch McConnell’s state of Kentucky an unfair advantage after becoming transportation secretary: report
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao (Image via Wikimedia Commons).

Elaine Chao has a close connection to some of the top figures in the Republican Party: she serves as secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation under President Donald Trump, and she is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). And according to Politico’s analysis of Chao’s first 14 months as transportation secretary, Chao met with officials from her husband’s state, Kentucky, much more often than with officials from any other state during that period.

For Politico’s report, Tanya Snyder, Tucker Doherty and Arren Kimbel-Sannit analyzed records obtained via the Freedom of Information Act and took a close look at Chao’s calendar from January 2017 through March 2018. And according to the article, 25% of the meetings Chao scheduled during that period were with officials from Kentucky — which, the journalists note, comprises only 1.3% of the entire U.S. population. In contrast, according to calendar records Politico obtained, only 6% of those meetings were with Georgia officials — and 6% were with officials from Indiana.

E-mails from McConnell’s office to Chao’s staff, Politico’s report observes, sometimes included details about projects that the officials wanted to discuss with Chao.

Snyder, Doherty and Kimbel-Sannit explain, “The fact that Chao’s calendar shows that one out of every four meetings with local officials was with Kentuckians is significant because the Department (of Transportation) has long maintained that it and she have shown no favoritism to the state represented by her husband — even while local officials from other states have complained about having trouble getting to see her.”

The 66-year-old Chao, originally from Taiwan, has lived in the U.S. since she was eight and grew up in New York. But she gained a strong Kentucky presence after marrying McConnell in 1993. From 2001-2009, Chao served as secretary of labor under President George W. Bush.

Chao continued to be very Kentucky-friendly after the 14-month period examined in  Politico’s article — which points out that in the spring of 2019, Tom Watson (the mayor of Owensboro, Kentucky) thanked former McConnell staffer Todd Inman for bringing together “so many high level staffers. . .. (to) answer questions and give advice on transit, roads and the political process needed to move our projects along.”

Watson went on to say, “Then, the icing on the cake: time with Secretary Chao herself. What a kind and generous lady, not to mention extremely smart, a true public servant.”

Others, however, have complained that Chao has been difficult to reach. Beth Osborne, executive director of Transportation for America, told Politico, “Ever since she came in, it’s been very hard to figure out how to get time with her. At the beginning of the (Trump) Administration, we got a lot of questions about what it takes to meet with the secretary. People don’t ask anymore. It’s like they’ve given up.”


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