Senate approves Michigan's Cella to be Fiji ambassador

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — The U.S. Senate on Tuesday confirmed Michigan's Joseph Cella to be the ambassador to Fiji and four other Pacific island nations. 

Senators voted 56-38 to approve Cella as ambassador to Fiji, an archipelago of more than 300 islands northeast of New Zealand, as well as the republics of Kiribati and Nauru, the kingdom of Tonga and Tuvalu.

Joe Cella

Michigan Sens. Debbie Stabenow of Lansing and Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township voted no, along with most other Democrats in the chamber. 

Cella was raised in Richmond in Macomb County, graduated from Hillsdale College and lives outside Ann Arbor in Augusta Township in Washtenaw County.

He led President Donald Trump campaign’s Catholic advisory council during the 2016 election. Trump nominated him to the posts in February 2018. 

Cella founded the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in 2004 and has served as principal of a consulting firm, the Pontifex Group, since 2010.

He co-founded the Catholic advocacy organization Catholic Vote, which has grown to more than 700,000 members, according to a White House biography.

Previously, Cella worked on Capitol Hill as a staffer to former U.S. Rep. Thad McCotter, a Livonia Republican, and later as a senior adviser to the House Republican Steering Committee and Republican Policy Committee.

Cella's nomination was approved 14-7 by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April, with seven Democrats voting no.

His hearing before the panel occurred in May 2018, when Sen. Bob Menendez, the panel's ranking Democrat, questioned him about comments made by Austin Ruse, a former vice president of the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast. 

Ruse in 2014 said the "hard left, human-hating people that run modern universities" should "all be taken out and shot."

Ruse has also claimed that homosexuals "want to win our children over for their very nefarious causes that come from the very pits of hell," and that LGBTQ activists are "almost pure evil," Menendez recounted. 

"Those remarks by Mr. Ruse I was unaware of until recently and occurred in 2016. And it is not anything that would pour forth from my mouth," Cella said. 

Cella stressed that Ruse is no longer vice president of the organization and has been off of the board for many years.

"And those are his words, not mine. Nor do I support them," Cella added. 

"Do we have your commitment, this committee, that those who may be LGBTQ employees in your embassy or United States citizens who request assistance from your embassy will be treated with the dignity and respect that any citizen of the United States deserves?" Menendez asked. 

"One-hundred percent, senator," Cella said. "The first pillar of the national security strategy, as you all know, involves upholding the dignity of the individual. And by my nature, since I can remember, I have treated every individual with great worth dignity and respect that they deserve. And that would continue in my post if I'm confirmed with your consent."

Menendez later voted against Cella in committee and Tuesday on the Senate floor. 

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire, asked Cella how he'd respond to the concerns of island nations about the need for collective action to limit global warming and to address rising sea levels in light of Trump withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement. 

Cella noted that Michigan is surrounded by five bodies of water containing 84% of the freshwater in the United States 21% of the world's supply. 

"I have worked to protect the environment in my professional capacities there as a steward, and I will, in my capacity as a steward and a bridge builder to the island of Kiribati and other nations that are impacted, work with them to achieve that," Cella said. 

Shaheen asked Cella whether he believes in global warming and that human activity is contributing to it. 

"Yes, Senator, it is happening," Cella said, noting a papal letter by Pope Francis on the subject.

"I think it is human and I think there's some natural involvement as well. But in my capacity I would work with you and in the administration to mitigate whatever we might — how we might do it."