The former president of the nation’s largest teachers union is working to lock up support from Republican senators and Hispanic leaders in her bid to be picked as Education secretary, according to officials familiar with the talks.
Lily Eskelsen García is expected to score the backing of more than 40 Hispanic groups finalizing a letter endorsing her for the position this week. She has also strategized in recent weeks with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the retiring chair of the Senate committee that oversees education and himself a former Education secretary.
“We’ve talked with her and gave her advice on how to get bipartisan support,” said David Cleary, Alexander’s chief of staff and veteran of education policy on Capitol Hill. “There’s a good argument to be made for Lily.”
The National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, a collection of more than 40 Hispanic groups who have coalesced around Eskelsen García, are set to deliver their letter to the Biden team on Thursday or Friday.
Eskelsen García, who until this summer was president of the 3 million-member National Education Association, has also had conversations with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to build support for her nomination, according to a person familiar with those discussions. She would be the first Latina education secretary if selected and currently serves as secretary of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute.
The former union president is one of many potential Cabinet nominees jockeying for positions as President-elect Joe Biden builds out the leadership ranks of his administration. While most of those hopefuls, like Eskelsen García, have been advocating their candidacies behind the scenes without campaigning outright to be chosen, others like Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) have been more publicly vocal about their Cabinet aspirations.
A transition aide familiar with the process said Eskelsen García’s chances of clinching the nomination have improved since fellow union leader Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers personally endorsed Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) for the Democratic presidential nomination just ahead of Super Tuesday. House Democrats’ tight majority has also made it less likely that someone like Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.) would get the nod, since her departure from Congress would open a seat Republicans see as a target for flipping in favor of a GOP candidate.
Chances for Eskelsen García, a former public school teacher, are also boosted by the fact that Jill Biden is a longstanding member of the union she lead.
Jill Biden praised both of the nation’s largest teachers unions for organizing their members to help elect her husband. “Joe and I will never forget what you did for us,” she said in an online session to thank the labor groups last month.
Alexander is leaving Congress in several weeks but has made connections and overtures to fellow GOP colleagues in the Senate on Eskelsen García’s behalf, though he is not expected to publicly endorse a Democratic Education secretary nominee, according to people familiar with the process.
Alexander and Eskelsen García worked closely in 2015 on bipartisan K-12 education legislation, the Every Student Succeeds Act, S. 1177 (114), for which the National Education Association gave Alexander a major award.
While a large swath of Republican lawmakers initially would likely be outright opposed to confirming the head of a teachers union, supporters of Eskelsen García see potential GOP votes within reach in the Senate, including Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. The two moderate Republicans broke with their party in 2017 to oppose President Donald Trump’s pick of Betsy DeVos to be Education secretary, and Murkowski won the endorsement of Eskelsen García’s union in each of her past two elections.
Eskelsen García supporters are also playing up her roots in Utah, where she was teacher of the year in 1989, as a way to woo support from Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who has indicated that he does not want to obstruct Cabinet nominees just for the sake of party politics.