Mitch McConnell and Elaine Chao honored with Titan of Service Award

Elaine Chao and Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., received the Titan of Service Award at the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation Titan of Public Service Award Gala on Aug. 22, 2023.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell stood in a chapel adjacent to the University of Utah campus to pay tribute to his friend, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, 15 months ago. The solemn occasion marked the funeral service for the longest serving Republican senator in the nation’s history — the honorable senator from Utah.

“Orrin took his legislation to the same place where our Savior took his ministry: to the margins, to the periphery, serving the ‘least of these,’” McConnell said, as reported in the Deseret News, pointing to Hatch’s work on children’s health insurance, Americans with disabilities and HIV/AIDS, among other concerns.

Tuesday night in Salt Lake City the focus again turned to service, but this time it was in praise of McConnell, 81, and Elaine Chao, 70, a former transportation secretary and labor secretary. The couple, married for 30 years, were honored together with the first Titan of Service Award for their careers in public service that span decades and continue to influence the nation.

The honor was bestowed during a private dinner at the Grand America by the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation, established to promote civility in pursuit of solutions to the nation’s problems, in honor of the late Sen. Hatch who died April 23, 2022, at age 88. Hatch was often referred to as the “Titan of the Senate,” as echoed in the book by William Doyle.

“The award honors individuals who have demonstrated exceptional commitment to civic leadership. It’s a celebration of those who have spent their lives promoting our shared American values. I can think of no more appropriate recipients for this award than McConnell and Chao,” wrote Matt Sandgren, foundation executive director and board member, in an op-ed published in the Deseret News in July.

He repeated those words Tuesday night, in an evening highlighting the accomplishments of not only McConnell and Chao, but also Hatch, whom they honored even as they received the service recognition.


Elaine Chao.
Elaine Chao, secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, waves to the crowd after speaking during the Golden Spike Sesquicentennial Celebration and Festival at Promontory Summit on Friday, May 10, 2019. | Steve Griffin

“I’m here for Orrin,” McConnell said, noting that his former colleague in the Senate played the long game, just as he himself plays the long game. Earlier this year, he became the longest-serving Senate leader — a 17 year run in leadership — protecting the institution of the Senate and lamenting the erosion of civility, which he said makes it difficult to foster debate and compromise.

“It’s like being the groundskeeper at a cemetery. Everyone’s under you, but nobody’s listening,” he joked, to an audience that included both of Utah’s senators, Mike Lee and Mitt Romney, as well as a who’s who of Utah political leaders, dignitaries and guests. His comments came during a conversation between Chao, McConnell and former Oregon Sen. Gordon H. Smith, a colleague of McConnell’s in the Senate from 1997 to 2009.

McConnell is Kentucky’s longest-serving senator, first elected in 1984. Since that time his leadership has been praised by Republicans and conservatives, and challenged by Democrats and liberals, particularly for his influence over the judiciary, which was praised at the event Tuesday.

As his Senate webpage states: “McConnell led a transformation of the federal judiciary in a victory for the rule of law and the Constitution. His consequential decision to follow precedent and keep a Supreme Court vacancy open during the 2016 presidential election gave him the opportunity to confirm three justices as majority leader. In four years, he also prioritized the confirmation of 30% of circuit court judges nationwide and a total of 234 lifetime appointments to the federal bench.”

He shares influence of the judiciary with Hatch, who served as a longtime member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and as its chairman through many Republican Senate majorities.

“At the time of his retirement, (Hatch) had participated in the confirmation of more than half of all federal judges who had ever served and played a central role in 13 Supreme Court confirmation hearings,” states the foundation website that bears his name.

Elaine Chao’s remarkable story

Chao’s distinguished career begins with a compelling personal history; she is an immigrant who came with her mother and two sisters to America at age 8 from Taiwan. Her father had come three years earlier and the family would make a go of it in America, which meant learning a new language and culture for young Elaine.

She became a U.S. citizen at age 19. Her studies would take her to Harvard Business School, which laid a foundation for both private and public service success.

She served in the cabinets of two administrations, as the 18th U.S. Secretary of Transportation and the 24th U.S. Secretary of Labor. She was the first Asian American woman appointed to a cabinet in American history. Those appointments followed a steady rise from a banking career to her first appointment in Washington, D.C., as deputy maritime administrator, to director of the Peace Corps.

She, too, lauded her association with Hatch, calling him “a tremendous ally” as she worked in two presidential cabinets, particularly during her years as labor secretary under President George W. Bush.

“(Hatch) was unfailingly smart, strategic, effective, and he was a tremendous ally to have when I was in the administration. So for gratitude to him for having helped so much when I was Secretary of Labor and Secretary of Transportation, I’m very humbled and very honored to be here to remember Orrin Hatch. A great American. A great patriot,” Chao said.

As transportation secretary, she dealt with the unprecedented challenges brought by COVID-19 and a pandemic that hit every aspect of society. She listed three key objectives necessary to keep the country moving forward during a time of shutdown.

First, keep airspace open, requiring a total rethinking of air traffic controller schedules and redundancies to prevent against the spread of the virus.

Second, focus on the supply chain, which means keeping trucks on the road, which carry about 70% of America’s goods (with rail carrying about 30%).

Third, overcome various state regulations and keep truckers licensed to drive, by extending licenses. She worked to keep rest stops open too — seemingly simple things that required amazing coordination.

McConnell and Chao were married Feb. 6, 1993, and are often named among Washington, D.C.’s most influential power couples. They spoke sparingly of their personal story, but it was perhaps summed up best by Smith, who noted: “These are very historic people.”