DOL Diplomat Once Had Harsh Words for McConnell

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By Ben Penn and Josh Eidelson

Labor Department diplomatic adviser Curtis Ellis, whose consideration for a senior agency post is causing outrage, called Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) “China’s bitch” in a 2014 tweet.

In October 2014, the Cincinnati Enquirer published an op-ed co-written by Ellis that criticized George W. Bush’s former labor secretary, Elaine Chao, for what he called “her family friendship with Beijing’s communist bosses.” He slammed Chao’s husband, McConnell, as part of “the Washington-Wall Street establishment that will do anything to stay in power and sees China as a ‘strategic partner’ and money-making opportunity.”

In a tweet that day promoting his article, Ellis said, “Mitch is China’s bitch.” When a Bloomberg News reporter called Ellis’ mobile phone May 16, a man picked up, said “Hello,” then hung up when the reporter identified himself.

Ellis’ tweet was still visible the afternoon of May 16 but was apparently deleted following Bloomberg reporters’ inquiries about it. Other controversial Ellis tweets were still live at publication time, like a September 2014 comment that “hedge funds have done more damage to USA than Al Qaeda.”

It’s not clear whether insulting the Senate’s most influential Republican and his Cabinet-member wife has any bearing on who Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta will choose to lead the DOL’s office that enforces worker protections abroad. Sources briefed on the matter told Bloomberg BNA in recent days that Ellis is one of two finalists to head the DOL’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs, a little-known but critical job in U.S. trade policy that doesn’t require Senate confirmation.

Ellis is scheduled to join Acosta at the G20 meeting in Germany this week, amid warnings from stakeholders that the Steve Bannon-aligned activist’s claims about race and immigration undermine U.S. interests on the global stage. Sources told Bloomberg BNA that Ellis, who in 2016 accused Democrats of plotting the “liquidation of white, blue-collar working families,” is one of two finalists to run ILAB. He also once penned a column titled, “legal immigration threatens our society.”

Chao is the current transportation secretary.

“Secretary Chao is the embodiment of the American dream and her outstanding service to this country throughout her career speaks for itself,” Transportation Department spokeswoman Marianne McInerney told Bloomberg News. A spokeswoman for McConnell didn’t provide a comment.

McConnell, Chao Attacks

Republicans have yet to publicly react, while opposition from a handful of labor leaders, Democrats and nonprofits trickled out May 16, the day after Bloomberg BNA first reported that the controversial figure is in line to head ILAB.

Ellis’ 2014 comments came a month before McConnell’s re-election, during a campaign marked by attack on Chao’s Chinese heritage from a Democratic political action committee. After McConnell was re-elected, Ellis adapted his Cincinnati Enquirer essay into an article for WorldNetDaily bashing McConnell’s trade stance, where he quipped, “A wag would be forgiven for saying the TransPacific Partnership describes the majority leader’s marriage to Elaine Chao.”

The other finalist to run ILAB is said to be Martha Newton, a Republican ILAB official under President George W. Bush. Newton’s experience makes her the more mainstream pick, and she is seen by some sources as the more attractive pick for Acosta, a traditional conservative.

Regardless, Ellis remains a temporary DOL appointee representing the U.S. to foreign governments. If passed over for the top job, he could still get appointed to one of the several other senior political posts at ILAB.

GOP labor committee chairpersons in the House and Senate both declined to comment through their spokespersons.

The U.S. Council for International Business, one of ILAB’s chief employer-side stakeholders, also declined to comment on the 2014 Ellis op-ed.

However, business sources familiar with the bureau and DOL politics said they don’t think the harsh words about the majority leader and transportation secretary necessarily hurt Ellis’ chances.

The real answer on who gets the job may lie in who controls executive branch personnel matters. Ellis is a loyal Trump surrogate and his writing has been promoted by Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist.

McConnell, referring to the administration generally, said he would like to see “less drama” from the White House, in a May 16 interview with Bloomberg News.

Labor, Democrats React

Democrats on May 16 denounced Ellis. “It’s deeply concerning, and he’s obviously the wrong choice,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) told Bloomberg News. “The Bureau is designed to show that you can improve labor standards in the United States and also improve the working conditions across the world, that America stands for strong labor here and abroad.”

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the ranking member of the Senate’s labor committee, said in a statement that selecting Ellis would be “a threat to workers here and abroad.”

The prospect of Ellis being the face of the Labor Department to other nations has also been met with alarm by some DOL staff and outside stakeholders. “Ellis’ racially charged statements should disqualify him for the ILAB job, which requires diplomacy and tact in a very diverse global environment,” said Eric Gottwald, legal and policy director for the International Labor Rights Forum, a nonprofit that brings complaints to ILAB.

Union leaders, some of whom are trying to maintain a working relationship with the White House, have so far been slow to speak publicly about Ellis. Spokespeople for the AFL-CIO and for trade-focused unions including the United Steelworkers, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, and the Communications Workers of America declined to comment or did not respond to inquiries.

Daniel Brito, policy and communications director for the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, the AFL-CIO’s Latino constituency group, urged Trump’s labor secretary not to tap Ellis.

“This really is going to be an initial test for Acosta at the Department of Labor--whether he is going to go with these really extremist voices that are in the base of the Trump coalition, or if he’s going to try and steer in a more mainstream direction,” Brito told Bloomberg News. “It’s very important that this man not take this position, and that we don’t go any farther down this very scary road.”

Hector Figueroa, the president of the Service Employees International Union’s East Coast property services affiliate, said an Ellis appointment would pose a dilemma for organized labor.

“If Curtis Ellis were to make a deal with labor unions around trade while at the same time reinforcing the abuse of workers’ rights abroad--by tolerating the incarceration of trade unionists, by tolerating child labor practices--that would be a shame,” said Figueroa. Given Ellis’ “incendiary, racist, belligerent” views, he said, “It would be difficult to work with him in good conscience. That does not mean that unions will not try.”

Trip to Germany

Ellis and Acosta’s appearance at the G20 labor and employment ministerial meeting in Hamburg sets up their first face-to-face meeting since Ellis’ potential appointment was reported.

“The Secretary will discuss a range of topics with labor and employment ministers that are important to strengthening the American workforce, such as apprenticeships and job training programs,” the DOL spokeswoman said via email. “Additional U.S. Department of Labor representatives include Bob Shepard, Claudia Calderon, Mark Mittelhauser and Curtis Ellis.”

The DOL has yet to comment on the concerns expressed about Ellis, who has written extensively on a website known for publishing stories questioning former President Barack Obama’s citizenship. But Ellis’ appearance in Germany illustrates he is still representing the U.S. government overseas.

The DOL also didn’t comment on whether Acosta is still considering naming Ellis to run ILAB.

To contact the reporters on this story: Ben Penn in Washington at bpenn@bna.com and Josh Eidelson at jeidelson@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Christopher Opfer at copfer@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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