WASHINGTON – In the weeks since she was named White House Asian American and Pacific Islander senior liaison, Erika Moritsugu has quietly moved through the West Wing tackling everything from confronting a dramatic increase in attacks on Asian Americans to India’s spiraling COVID-19 crisis. 

Though the issues she’s working on have largely dominated national headlines, Moritsugu has managed to stay out of the spotlight as she settles into a nebulous role that requires constant coordination with an exhaustive list of congressional offices, executive agencies, policy councils, communications teams, and the first and second couple’s offices. 

Even her high-profile appointment – which came after two AAPI Democratic senators threatened to block the president’s non-diverse nominations over frustrations with AAPI representation in the Cabinet – was announced with little fanfare. 

But a year-long spike in violence targeting people of Asian descent has heightened discussions of prioritizing AAPI inclusivity at the highest levels of government, culminating with a rare, bipartisan moment in which Biden signed the first new federal hate crimes law in 12 years, designed to address attacks on Asian Americans during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Administration officials, advocates and former colleagues say Moritsugu has provided a much-needed lifeline for AAPI groups, and has eased into the newly created role, in part because of her experience as a seasoned hand straddling the non-profit and government worlds. 

Moritsugu concedes her career has been anything but linear, but describes her appointment as a “culmination of a lot of different little pinpoints in my biography and professional and volunteer experience.”

“It’s something that honestly I’ve done de facto my whole career,” she told USA TODAY. “By being maybe the only Asian American in a mainstream dominant culture room and finding my own voice and successes that way.” 

Erika Moritsugu
It’s something that honestly I’ve done de facto my whole career. … By being maybe the only Asian American in a mainstream dominant culture room and finding my own voice and successes that way.

The Hawaiian-born lawyer’s most recent stints include executive roles at the National Partnership for Women & Families and the Anti-Defamation League. But Moritsugu also served as general counsel for Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., assistant secretary for congressional and intergovernmental relations at the Department of Housing and Urban Development under the Obama administration – a Senate confirmed position – and as an aide for the late former Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii. 

“She’s like a walking briefing book. She has a gift for moving between issues like civil liberties, minority concerns to broader national security concerns,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the ADL and a former Obama White House adviser. 

“She’s a lawyer so she has the legal perspective, she’s drafted legislation but she’s also got real political chops so she’s in a role at the White House where she’s able to flex all those muscles.” 

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