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Deputy Commerce Secretary Don Graves has deep roots in Cleveland and Washington

His formerly enslaved ancestors ran business on land where he now works.

CLEVELAND — As President Biden’s deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce, Don Graves shares responsibility for rebuilding the nation’s pandemic-choked economy.

In his job, Graves helps oversee tens of thousands of employees, enacts policies to boost small businesses and train workers for in-demand jobs, especially related to healthcare and manufacturing.

His experience suits the new job. He led President Barack Obama’s efforts to create jobs as his executive director of the Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. He also worked on small business and economic development issues for the Treasury Department and was the administration’s point person to lead Detroit out of bankruptcy.

The Georgetown law school graduate and former Key Bank executive told 3News he’s never forgotten that government work is about people, a point crystalized years ago while flying to Cleveland aboard Air Force One. Moments after Obama unexpectedly asked him to lead his job creation efforts, he stared out the window, trying to digest the gravity of the new position.

“We just happened to be flying over the East Side of Cleveland,” he said. “I'm literally looking down at the neighborhoods in which I grew up. I can see the blocks on where I used to ride my bike or play ball with the kids in the neighborhood. And it just hit me at that point that there are kids down there today that are looking up and they see this plane, but they have no connection to what it can mean for their lives. They have no ability to believe that their hopes and dreams can mean anything. In reality, they may aspire to be a great scientist. They may aspire to be the head of a major corporation or to start a small business. But the reality of their lives is that they can't get from where they are to that dream. And so it sort of drove home the point that I need to do everything that I could to make certain that we found ways to help bring home that economic opportunity for people so that they could live out those dreams.”

Working for the Commerce Department is also deeply personal.

Graves is the four-time great grandson of Lynch and Polly Wormley, former slaves who started a horse and buggy taxi service in D.C. Their business and house were on the very land on which commerce department now sits and Graves works.

“So, it feels like it's full circle that they have the ability to start their business and provide for their family,” Graves said. “And I'm coming back to those same roots where I can do the same thing for all Americans, give people the opportunity to start and grow businesses, provide for their family so that they have economic opportunity because that's all Americans really want.”

Racial tension in D.C. fueled his ancestors’ move to Cleveland, where Graves was born and raised. (The Washington Post took a close look at Graves’ family roots in Washington. You can read that story here.)

When Biden nominated Graves in January to be his deputy secretary of Commerce, he described him as a “longtime trusted advisor.” (For more about how they first met, see the 3News video at top of the story.) Part of his job is helping sell the president’s jobs and infrastructure plans.

“Certainly, we need to invest in our bridges,” he said. “I know that that we have the guardians of traffic on the Hope Memorial Bridge, but there are there are hundreds of other bridges and roads and tunnels that need investment all around Cleveland and in Ohio.”

RELATED: 'We have a deal': Biden, bipartisan senators on infrastructure

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