Elaine Chao, the wage earner in Mitch McConnell’s household

By Laurie Bennett

September 14, 2012 at 9:56am

Few people are in greater demand in the corporate board room than Elaine Chao.

She brings significant government and nonprofit experience - as Peace Corps director under George H.W. Bush, labor secretary under George W. Bush, and president and CEO of the United Way.

She is also married to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Chao sits on the boards of three Fortune 1000 companies - Dole Food, Protective Life, and Wells Fargo.

Next month, shareholders of News Corp. will vote on her nomination to join their board, which would increase her Fortune 1000 membership to four.

According to proxy statements, Chao received more than $340,000 last year for her corporate director posts, in addition to income as a public speaker, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a contributor on Fox News.

Elaine Chao
Elaine Chao

The Chao-McConnell household was worth at least $8.95 million in 2011, according to McConnell’s most recent financial disclosure statement. In its annual list of the richest members of Congress, Roll Call this week ranked him No. 37.

Not bad for a guy who has spent the last four decades in government service.

McConnell married Chao in 1993. The couple received a large gift, valued at $5 million to $25 million in 2008, according to McConnell’s 2009 disclosure form. (The reports list assets in broad ranges of value.)

A McConnell spokesman said then that the gift had come from Chao’s father, James Chao, in memory of his wife, who died in 2007.

The Chao family would seem to embody the American immigrant success story.

Chao, her sisters and her mother came to the U.S. from Taiwan when she was 8 years old. Her father, who had arrived three years earlier, started his own shipping company, Foremost Group.

Chao went on to receive an economics degree from Mount Holyoke College and an MBA from Harvard Business School. Her sister Angela went to work for their father’s company and married Bruce Wasserstein, the co-founder of Wasserstein Perella and former head of Lazard who died in 2009.

Yet the family’s climb to success did not begin in the U.S. As Laura Flanders wrote in her book Bushwomen: Tales of a Cynical Species, James Chao had established important connections in China before immigrating here. He attended college with Jiang Zemin, future president of the People’s Republic, and worked for the powerful Tung family.

His wife was a member of the Hsu family, which controls major shipping interests in Hong Kong.

Elaine Chao is now a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, where she worked before becoming labor secretary.

In appearances on Fox and postings on the Heritage Foundation’s web site, she has frequently criticized the Obama administration and echoed her husband’s positions in the Senate.

This comment, for example, was posted in July: “With the private sector under severe duress and payroll costs increasing due to government mandates, the outlook for new job creation is very grim if we stay on our current path. That will be sadly evident if Congress and the president do not act quickly to head off the gigantic tax increases that loom over the economy because the 2001 and 2003 tax reforms are once again set to expire at the end of this year.”

Here she is on Fox, talking about unions:

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