News Column

Obama Sets a Record With His Appointments of Hispanics to Cabinet


Neil H. Simon, for Hispanic Business Magazine

barack obama, hispanic politicians, obama cabinet

WASHINGTON--Three months before Election Day prominent Hispanic leaders sat down with Barack Obama. The polls showed Mr. Obama riding high and possibly making history as the country's first African-American president. The buzz in the halls of Washington was that diversity would follow the new president into the White House.

The mission that summer day was clear. The leaders wanted Hispanics to fill powerful posts in a future Democratic administration.

At first Hispanic groups were anxious as the president-elect began to roll out his Cabinet appointments and no Hispanics made the initial economic or national security teams. By December, when President-elect Obama trotted out once-rival Bill Richardson for Secretary of Commerce, observers called it merely a consolation prize.

"We think we should do as well as or better than we did under Bush and Clinton," said Raul Yzaguirre, who co-chaired Hillary Clinton's Hispanic outreach efforts, and was in the Obama meeting along with Dolores Huerta of the United Farm Workers, Rep. Joe Baca, D-Calif., the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, among others.
Despite strong support for Ms. Clinton in the Democratic primary, the group worked hard to elect Mr. Obama (Hispanics broke 2 to 1 for Mr. Obama in November).

According to insiders at that meeting, which included key Clinton supporters, all they asked was that they receive fair representation in an Obama Cabinet.

Advocates Are In A Pursuit For Parity

"Parity with the population" was the phrase commonly used, said advocates for Hispanics, who now represent about 15 percent of the U.S. population. And at minimum, the hope was that there would be Hispanic representation in line with recent years. Hispanics have had two seats at the Cabinet table for most of the last two presidencies.

By Christmas, President-elect Obama had announced a historic three Hispanic appointments to the Cabinet -- naming New Mexico Gov. Richardson for Commerce, Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., for Interior, and Rep. Hilda Solis, D-Calif., for Labor.

Gov. Richardson in January withdrew his name from consideration amid a federal investigation into how a political contributor won a $1.5 million contract from the New Mexico Finance Authority in 2004. California-based CDR Financial Products gave money to Gov. Richardson in 2004.

Despite the Richardson flap, politicos were pleased with the president-elect's progress.

President Bill Clinton -- who famously called for a Cabinet that reflected America -- and George W. Bush -- who won more than 45 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004 -- each appointed three Hispanics to their Cabinets. But no more than two ever served concurrently.

At the League of United Latin American Citizens, Executive Director Brent Wilkes had said they were "shooting for three" Cabinet posts to be filled by Hispanics. "Anything less than that I think you'll have some concern expressed by the community," said Mr. Wilkes, pointing to the rapid growth of the Hispanic population since Mr. Clinton became president in 1992. "You can't just repeat Clinton's numbers. You've got to improve upon that."

President Obama's appointments are particularly pivotal at a time when U.S. Hispanics are growing in both numbers and influence. On issues of education, health care and the economy, Hispanics are playing an increasingly vital role in determining public policy. Still, top political jobs remain elusive.

Other minority groups are also hoping to have a seat at the table in the new government. Mr. Obama named Eric Holder to be the nation's first African-American attorney general. He also selected two African-American women -- Susan Rice as ambassador to the U.N. and Melody Barnes as his domestic policy adviser.
President Obama also named two Asian Americans to his Cabinet -- Eric Shinseki as Secretary of Veterans Affairs and Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize winning physicist, to serve as his Energy Secretary.

When President-elect Obama named his first Hispanic to a top post, he chose Mr. Richardson, the country's only Hispanic governor -- a former Energy Secretary and ambassador to the United Nations. Even that, however, didn't please everybody. Mr. Richardson was widely reported as seeking the State Department job Ms. Clinton received.
"The selections of Richardson, Salazar and Solis show the Latino community's deep and wide bench of qualified candidates to serve at the highest levels of our government," said Rosalind Gold, a senior policy director at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

Beyond the Cabinet, the transition team points to record numbers of minorities already moving into other senior positions.

Aides note the following Hispanic appointments: Cecelia Munoz to be director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs; Nancy Sutley to be Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality; Moises Vela to be the vice president's Director of Administration; and Louis Caldera to run the White House Military Office.

Census Data Play a Pivotal Role

One issue that few have mentioned, but that carries great weight in determining future political and business decisions, is the 2010 Census. The country's chief population counter works from within the Commerce Department.

"It's critical we get a full count and an accurate count of the national population in 2010," Ms. Gold said. The Census data play a major role in determining new political districts and how Hispanic communities are represented in government.

President Obama pledged to create a team that people would refer to as "one of the most diverse Cabinets and White House staffs."

A recent government audit shows that President Obama's administration will have much work to do to better reflect the Hispanic community. A December report by the Government Accountability Office found that as of October 2007 Hispanics comprised only 3.6 percent of all senior executive service personnel in the government. That number is up from 2.5 percent seven years ago.
Within various agencies, other challenges remain. At the Department of Education Hispanics do not hold a single executive-level job. In 2000, Hispanic men made up 1.7 percent of the top jobs at the department. Hispanic women then held none. High-level appointments provide an "entry point for us to approach the administration," Mr. Wilkes said.

For Hispanics, who voted 67 percent for Mr. Obama, the appointments also serve a purpose beyond policy. "Symbolically it's important the president acknowledge the role the Latino community played in the vote," said Mr. Wilkes. From the community's perspective "if excluded, it would hurt . . . his standing."

Source: (c) 2009. All rights reserved.

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