From Shanghai to a Senate-confirmed government post

U.S. government photo

COMMENTARY | Steve Kelman presents the story of another fed who’s been around for years since leaving the Kennedy School.

I have written two posts recently presenting the federal careers of two former students of mine at the Kennedy School – Dave Lebryk of Treasury and Andrew Vogt of the National Nuclear Security Agency – who both graduated from the Kennedy School about 30 years ago and have been feds ever since. As far as I know, I have had over these many years only three students who fit that bill. The third is Chantale Wong, Kennedy School class of 1988, whom I would like to present today.

The three represent quite different federal career paths. Vogt has been at many agencies and many locations (including Kyiv) but his work the whole time has been on combating nuclear weapons proliferation. Lebryk has been at Treasury the whole time, but has had a wide range of different responsibilities. Wong has held a wide variety of special assistant and political appointee positions at the Office of Management and Budget and the Environmental Protection Agency. Most recently she has served in a Senate-confirmed position as U.S. executive director of the Asian Development Bank in Manila, with the title of ambassador. (Thirty-one of the 49 Republicans in the Senate voted against her confirmation.)

Wong was born in Shanghai,  At the age of five, she traveled with her grandmother to Shenzhen, a Chinese city and from there to Hong Kong, where she was taken in by priests, given the English name Chantale, and taught English. She left Hong Kong “because of a scandal in the family,” she said, and moved to Okinawa, where she helped her family sell items to soldiers stationed there.

She moved to the U.S. South Pacific possession of Guam when her parents thought. In her high school in Guam, she was elected student body president and was thus in charge of organizing the school’s celebration of the bicentennial in 1976, which was her first exposure to government. As part of the celebration, her student government took over the government of Guam for the day, and through that she met the governor. Through the governor she became involved in Democratic Party politics.

After high school, she got a scholarship from the American Society of Military Engineers to study civil engineering at the University of Hawaii and then got a job in Seattle with Boeing, her first time in the continental U.S.. 

“But it was too dark there, so I moved to San Francisco," she said. She got a job with Bechtel as an engineer at a petrochemical plant. She decided to go back to school to get a master’s at Berkeley, to study sewage treatment. She went to work at the EPA and then in the Executive Office of the President at the Council on Environmental Quality. 

“I decided I want to fix Washington,” she told me laconically. After a few years, she decided to attend the master’s in public policy program at the Kennedy School (where I met her).

Wong met Alice Rivlin, a self-described “fanatic, card-carrying middle of the roader” – who at the time was first director of the Congressional Budget Office and later director of OMB under President Bill Clinton, when she took Rivlin’s course at the Kennedy School. “She was my mentor for 30 years.” Rivlin brought Wong to OMB, first as a budget examiner for air and later as her chief of staff. (Rivlin was one of my two bosses when I was in government in the 1990s.) Rivlin died in 2019 at the age of 88.

Wong describes herself as “the first out lesbian and the first out person of color Ambassador of the United States,"  noting that “there have been over two dozen gay white men that have been U.S. ambassadors but never a woman and never a person of color.” She has a long-time interest in photography and served as photographer for the late Congressman John Lewis during the last four years of his life.

She has had a busy life, a life well-lived.