News Column

President Obama Appoints Record Number of Hispanics To High Office

October Issue

Rob Kuznia--HispanicBusiness Magazine

President Obama Appoints Record Number of Hispanics To High Office

Two years ago, while stumping for president, then-Senator Barack Obama addressed a roomful of about 30 individuals affiliated with the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), when somebody caught the candidate off-guard with a pointed question.

"I asked him the first question as he walked into the room," remembers Angel Luevano, a Mexican-American activist and a national vice president with LULAC, speaking to HispanicBusiness Magazine. "I said: 'What are you going to do about the under-representation of Latinos in federal employment?'"

As Mr. Luevano went on to explain to Mr. Obama that Hispanics were by far the largest under-represented minority in the federal government, the senator crossed his arms and paused.

After a few seconds, "he uncrossed his arms and he said: 'Well, elect me, and wait and see.'"

President Barack Obama, the first African American elected to the nation's highest office, delivered on his promise - at least in terms of federal appointments. Whether that translates to an increase in greater Hispanic representation in federal employment overall remains to be seen.

But he has successfully appointed more Hispanics to high-level administration positions than any other president in U.S. history this early on.

Depending on which data you examine, between 11 and 14 percent of Mr. Obama's selections for high office are Hispanic. Either way, it's easily a new standard. The last record, set by President George W. Bush, was 5.5 percent.

Using the White House's figures, 43 of the 304 Senate-approved appointees or 14 percent are Hispanic. And that's just in the first eight months. In his first 12 months in office, President George W. Bush appointed 34 Hispanics; President Bill Clinton, 30.

Even more inspiring than the record numbers are the stories behind them stories that remind us that opportunity to achieve at the highest levels is even more attainable for motivated individuals, whatever their background.

As the nation's Secretary of Interior, Ken Salazar heads up a large department that includes the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

It's an amazing leap from where his journey began. Secretary Salazar grew up in a poor family, one of eight children on a ranch in Colorado with no electricity or phone.

"They never had an opportunity to get a college degree," Secretary Salazar said of his parents, speaking to HispanicBusiness Magazine. "They taught us that we had no limitations that anything was possible."

As a result, all eight children became first-generation college graduates.

Also a first-generation college graduate is the other Hispanic member in President Obama's 15-person Cabinet, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis.

When Secretary Solis was in high school, her guidance counselor stated that she wasn't college material, and suggested that she become a secretary and not the kind that begins with a capital "S."

But these circumstances did not stop her. The first Hispanic woman to serve in the U.S. Cabinet, she has racked up an entire portfolio of "firsts."

In 1994, she became the first Hispanic woman elected to the California State Senate. Six years later she became the first woman of any ethnicity to receive the "John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award." Her feat? Successfully authoring the first bill of its kind to address the disproportionate presence of toxic-waste dumps and polluting factories in poor communities like the one where she grew up near Los Angeles. This, despite firm opposition from then-Governor Pete Wilson, who vetoed her first attempt. In 1999, Gov. Gray Davis signed Solis's bill into law.

LULAC's Mr. Luevano is proud that more Hispanics are serving in high-profile federal positions, but also notes that while Hispanics make up about 15 percent of the U.S. population, they constitute just 7 percent of federal employees across all agencies.

"This is a really good start," he said, "but we're not by any means there yet."

Source: (c) 2009. All rights reserved.

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