WILMINGTON, Del. — President-elect Joe Biden signaled on Sunday he plans to move quickly to build out his government, focusing first on the raging pandemic that will likely dominate the early days of his administration.
Biden named a former surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, and a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, David Kessler, as co-chairs of a coronavirus working group set to get started, with other members expected to be announced today.
Transition team officials said that also this week Biden will launch his agency review teams, the group of transition staffers that have access to key agencies in the current administration to ease the transfer of power. The teams will collect and review information such as budgetary and staffing decisions, pending regulations and other work in progress from current staff at the departments to help Biden’s team prepare to transition. White House officials would not comment on whether they would cooperate with Biden’s team on the review.
“People want the country to move forward,” said Kate Bedingfield, Biden deputy campaign manager, in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press, and see Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris “have the opportunity to do the work, to get the virus under control and to get our economy back together.”
It’s unclear for now whether President Donald Trump and his administration will cooperate. He has yet to acknowledge Biden’s victory and has pledged to mount legal challenges in several closely contested states that decided the race.
Biden adviser Jen Psaki pressed for the Trump-appointed head of the General Services Administration to quickly recognize Biden as the president-elect, which would free up money for the transition and clear the way for Biden’s team to begin putting in place the transition process at agencies.
“America’s national security and economic interests depend on the federal government signaling clearly and swiftly that the United States government will respect the will of the American people and engage in a smooth and peaceful transfer of power,” Psaki said in a Twitter posting.
A GSA official said Sunday that step had not been taken yet.
A bipartisan group of administration officials from the Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton administrations on Sunday called on the Trump administration to move forward “to immediately begin the post-election transition process.”
“This was a hard-fought campaign, but history is replete with examples of presidents who emerged from such campaigns to graciously assist their successors,” members of the Center for Presidential Transition advisory board said in a statement.
The statement was signed by Bush White House chief of staff Josh Bolten and Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt as well as Bill Clinton-era chief of staff Thomas “Mack” McLarty and Obama Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker.
Biden aides said the president-elect and transition team had been in touch with Republican lawmakers. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, one of Trump’s closest allies, opened a Cabinet meeting on Sunday by congratulating Biden, a former vice president and longtime senator.
“I have a long and warm personal connection with Joe Biden for nearly 40 years, and I know him as a great friend of the state of Israel,” Netanyahu said. “I am certain that we will continue to work with both of them in order to further strengthen the special alliance between Israel and the U.S.”
George W. Bush, the sole living Republican former president, also wished Biden well.
“Though we have political differences, I know Joe Biden to be a good man, who has won his opportunity to lead and unify our country,” Bush said.
Biden faces key staffing decisions in the days ahead. The always-frenzied 10-week transition period before Inauguration Day on Jan. 20 already has been shortened by the extra time it took to determine the winner of Tuesday’s election.
The second Catholic to be elected president, Biden started his first full day as president-elect by attending church at St. Joseph on the Brandywine near his home in Wilmington, as he does nearly every week. After the service, he visited the church cemetery where several family members have been laid to rest, including his late son, Beau.
Beau Biden, a former Delaware attorney general, died in 2015 from cancer. Before his death, he had encouraged his father to make a third run for the White House.
Joe Biden said Saturday in a victory speech that he would announce a task force of scientists and experts Monday to develop a “blueprint” to begin beating back the virus by the time he assumes the presidency. He said his plan would be “built on bedrock science” and “constructed out of compassion, empathy and concern.”
Murthy, who had advised Biden during the campaign, was named to a four-year term as surgeon general in 2014 by President Barack Obama. Murthy was asked to resign by Trump months into the Republican’s term. Kessler was appointed as FDA commissioner by President George H.W. Bush and served in the position through President Bill Clinton’s first term in the White House.
Biden senior adviser Ted Kaufman said the transition team will focus on the “nuts and bolts” of building the new administration in coming days.
Biden may not make top Cabinet choices for weeks. But he built his presidential run around bipartisanship and he has spent the days since Tuesday’s election pledging to be a president for all Americans. That suggests he could be willing to appoint some Republicans to high-profile administration positions.
Many former Republican officeholders broke with Trump to endorse Biden’s campaign. Biden’s selection of some of them to join the new government could appease Senate Republicans, who may have to confirm many of Biden’s choices for top jobs. The GOP could retain control of the chamber after two special elections in Georgia on Jan. 5.
Still, too much across-the-aisle cooperation could draw the ire of progressives. Some already worry that uncooperative Senate Republicans could force Biden to scale back his ambitious campaign promises to expand access to health care and lead a post-pandemic economic recovery that relies on federal investment in green technology and jobs to help combat climate change.
“I think there will be a huge misuse of the word ‘unity’ to imply that we need to water down the ideas that Joe Biden just campaigned on,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. He said the country was more united around bold solutions to big problems than small-scale efforts.
Biden’s efforts at bipartisan reconciliation could still be derailed by Trump’s refusing to concede the race.
Symone Sanders, a Biden campaign senior adviser, said that while several Republican lawmakers have been in contact with the president-elect in recent days, the campaign has yet to hear from White House officials.
“I think the White House has made clear what their strategy is here and that they are going to continue to participate and push forward these flailing and, in many — in many respects, baseless legal strategies,” Sanders said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said Trump had a right to pursue recounts and legal challenges. But he noted that those efforts will unlikely change the outcome and he urged the president to dial back his rhetoric.
“I think one has to be careful in the choice of words. I think when you say the election was corrupt or stolen or rigged that that’s unfortunately rhetoric that gets picked up by authoritarians around the world. And I think it also discourages confidence in our democratic process here at home,” Romney said on NBC.
EAU CLAIRE — Kaye Olson prepared to celebrate a surprise honoree at a recent Chippewa Valley Veterans Tribute event. A speaker talked about the person‘s years of service, and Olson planned to capture the moment when the name was called.
“I had my cellphone all ready to take pictures,” Olson said.
So it came as a shock to Olson when she was announced as the honoree. Olson was presented with a small Gold Star mother sculpture, and the significance of the gesture overwhelmed her.
“When I opened up that box and saw that, I plain cried,” Olson said. “I was so happy and very honored that they would do that for me.”
Olson is a Gold Star mother, meaning she has lost a child in war. Her son Andy Stevens was killed in Iraq on Dec. 1, 2005, and Olson carries her son’s photo with her while working on veterans’ causes.
Most recently, Olson, a 26-year Army veteran and CVVT board member, played a role in bringing three bronze statues to Eau Claire that recognize veterans and their families: one of a soldier from the 32nd “Red Arrow” Infantry Division; one honoring Stevens and the Marine Corps; and one larger, identical version of the Gold Star mother maquette Olson received.
The sculptures were installed Thursday at three temporary locations: the American Legion at 634 Water St., the VFW Post 7232 building at 2900 W. Folsom St. and Prestige Auto at 3525 Highway 93. Next spring they will be moved to the Chippewa Valley Veterans Tribute at River Prairie in Altoona as part of the first phase for the multiyear, seven-figure project.
The tribute along the Eau Claire River will be built in four phases totaling at least $2.2 million over four years. Funding is covered for Phase 1, which will cost about $700,000. It will include a “wall of tears” along with an honor mall next to a field of gray and red “legacy stones” made of granite. A tribute trail will eventually be constructed, and it will begin with the Civil War and feature monuments for the 13 American wars since. The tribute focuses on veterans and their personal sacrifices.
Mark Beckfield, president of the Eau Claire County Veterans Tribute Foundation and an Eau Claire County Board supervisor, said groundbreaking for the honor mall was delayed to next spring after early snow and slowed shipment of materials because of COVID-19. Its initial slated to be completed by Veterans Day, which is Wednesday, but the new completion date is Memorial Day 2021, which is May 31.
The tribute’s main purposes are to honor, educate and remember, and CVVT members wanted to honor Olson with a Marine Corps statue modeled after Stevens.
“She gave the ultimate,” Beckfield said. “We couldn’t think of a better way to honor her and her family.”
Beckfield said the statues serve an important role of recognition and carry an ineffable quality of gratitude.
“It expresses the feelings … in something other than words,” Beckfield said. “I saw people smiling and crying when they saw these (statues)… Art brings things out. Veterans suffered a lot. Some gave their lives, and the representation of what they looked like really allows those veterans to reflect and heal and know we respect them.”
Olson, who is also president of Wisconsin Gold Star Mothers, agreed.
“We need to remember our military,” Olson said. “They gave up a lot, and we don’t want to forget that.”
Beckfield said CVVT members and local veterans wanted the statues, which each cost between $60,000 and $100,000, displayed publicly instead of in storage for several months before being placed permanently at the tribute.
“They’re beautiful, and they shouldn’t be locked away where people can’t see them,” Beckfield said.
Sutton Betti sculpted the statues. He is based in Loveland, Colorado, and has worked as a sculptor for more than 20 years, often creating military and historical pieces. Betti said it took six to eight months for the 250-pound statues to be completed from start to finish.
Much of the guiding force behind Betti’s work stems from his father, a Vietnam War veteran who died five years ago and advocated for veteran causes.
“I feel like what I’m doing now is keeping his memory alive,” Betti said.
Olson was part of the CVVT art committee that selected Betti, and she traveled to Colorado to view the statue-making process.
While there, Olson mentioned to Betti that she had a photo of the ribbons her son had earned during his nine years of service. Betti mentioned including the ribbons on the Marine statue, and Olson was delighted at the suggestion.
“What a cool thing to remember my son and other veterans,” Olson said. “For them to say, ‘Let’s use Andy’s ribbons,’ that was very heartwarming and made me feel so good and so comfortable. I can go look at that Marine and think about my son every day, and trust me, I probably will.”
Olson attended the three statue installations on Thursday and spoke with many people who expressed thanks to her and her son and awe at the quality of the sculptures.
Betti did as well and enjoyed meeting his clients and hearing their stories. He expressed gratitude at seeing their faces light up when they first viewed the statues.
When the Marine statue was being installed Thursday at Prestige Auto, Olson experienced “all kinds of emotions,” she said. “I was so excited to know that part of him is representing the veterans in the Marine Corps, and how cool and what an honor it is.”
Betti felt moved to see the strong reactions of Olson and others to his work.
“That’s gold for me,” Betti said. “I just love that, getting people’s responses.”
In addition to receiving a maquette of a Gold Star mother, Olson helped choose the Gold Star mother statue. It depicts a mother kneeling and holding a folded flag, which reminded Olson of when she visits the family cemetery in Menomonie.
“I go up there frequently and I kneel by the stone and talk to him off and on,” Olson said. “When I saw that picture, that reminded me of what I do, and I’m not the only mother that does that.”
Physical depictions play an important role in remembering veterans, and just before Veterans Day, the new statues will serve as a reminder of personal and military sacrifice.
EAU CLAIRE — Eau Claire’s elected leaders are asking a hired consultant to take a second look at city manager applicants and recommend a new batch of candidates for the job.
The Eau Claire City Council met behind closed doors Thursday evening with its executive employee recruitment expert from Baker Tilly to talk about next steps in its ongoing search to find a new top staffer.
“The council will be providing direction to Baker Tilly to take another look at the existing candidate pool and identify between eight to 12 candidates who could be brought forward for further consideration,” city Human Resources Director Victoria Seltun said in an email following the meeting.
In its nationwide search to fill the position, the city received 61 applications this summer (up from 49 that applied in the city’s 2012 external search for a manager). Baker Tilly forwarded its recommended picks to the council, which identified two candidates on Oct. 12 that it wanted to invite to Eau Claire for in-person interviews. One candidate withdrew from consideration for personal reasons though, leaving the council with just one left. The council opted on Oct. 16 to pause its search so it could consider its options for moving forward.
While it is opting for a second look at those who already applied for the job, the council did not rule out the possibility of starting over next year.
“If Baker Tilly is not able to produce a pool of candidates acceptable to the City Council, the council will consider pausing the search process until after the first of the year,” Seltun wrote.
The city would then re-advertise the position to attract new applicants with the hope of attracting people who may not have sought the job before due to personal circumstances or COVID-19 related considerations, she added. Those who applied this summer would also be asked if they want to be considered for the 2021 search as well.
The city began its search process in February after Dale Peters announced he would be retiring in May. When the coronavirus pandemic hit in March the search was put on hold and Peters agreed to stay on as city manager during the public health crisis.
In late June, the council resumed its recruitment process and accepted applications during summer. Deciding that the city was set to continue dealing with the pandemic without his leadership, Peters announced in September that he would retire the following month. After about five years as city manager and a long career in Eau Claire’s city government, Peters retired on Oct. 21. Since then Dave Solberg, city engineer, has served as interim city manager until the council names a permanent successor for the position.
The new city manager would get a maximum salary of $175,000, according to the advertisement for the job. In Peters’ final year on the job, his salary was $158,787 plus $4,764 in deferred compensation and a $6,000 annual car allowance.