News Column

Hispanic Group Crestfallen Over Obama's Commerce Pick

Feb. 5, 2009


President Barack Obama's recent selection of New Hampshire Republican Sen. Judd Gregg as Commerce Secretary is giving Hispanic advocacy groups a double dose of disappointment.

For starters, the move comes as a letdown for Hispanic organizations that, just last month, were elated with his previous pick, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Hispanic, who withdrew his nomination following a flap over a pay-for-play investigation.

But even more discouraging to the Hispanic community is Gregg's not-so-friendly history with the Census Bureau, a major division within the department.

Back in the 1990s, Gregg unsuccessfully fought President Clinton's intent to bolster the budget of the Census Bureau. Gregg's efforts, Democrats and Latino groups argued, could have led to the undercounting of minority groups, and thus an unfair shortage of Hispanic representatives.

William Ramos of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials said the ripple effects could exceed the bounds of politics. The census, he said, is a foundational tool for ensuring that jurisdictions such as cities and counties are adequately funded for things like roads, schools and hospitals.

"This is also data used for demographers, cartographers, the business community, the non-profit community and local government entities," he said. "It is used to plan where the roads are going, where to put the water mains, the sewer lines, schools and the like."

President Obama's selection is all the more striking for its timing. With the 10-year census coming up in 2010, some say that the bureau is ill prepared for the massive undertaking.

An editorial in Wednesday's The New York Times pinned much of the blame on the Bush administration, saying it left the bureau grossly under-funded. But it also took the Obama administration to task for failing thus far to pick up the slack.

However, Obama has earmarked $1 billion for the census budget in the $900 billion stimulus package, which is wending its way through Congress.

The disappointment among some Hispanic advocacy groups regarding the selection of Gregg is a sharp turnabout from the excitement that swept through the community with the nomination of Richardson. Had Richardson accepted, President Obama's Cabinet potentially could have contained three Hispanic appointments, a historic high. (The other two are Secretary of Labor candidate Hilda Solis, a situation that is still unresolved, and Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar.)

Last month, Richardson withdrew his name after it was revealed that a major donor to his political campaign later received a $1.5 million contract from the New Mexico Finance Authority in 2004.

In addition to attempting to block the financial boost to the census budget in 2000, Gregg sought to eliminate the entire Commerce Department.

Several black groups are also unhappy with the pick.

In a Huffington-Post op-ed piece, Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif) called the selection "troubling."

"Two of the most important responsibilities of the Commerce Department are to ensure that minority-owned businesses are fully integrated in our nation's economic recovery and to conduct the decennial census," she wrote.

"As the Census Bureau prepares for the 2010 census it is important to ensure that this effort is fully funded in order to guarantee a thorough and fair counting of all Americans."

In a statement to the media, Gregg has said that he intends to use his position to create jobs by promoting industry, as well as excellence in science.

"This is not a time for partisanship," Gregg said. "This is not a time when we should stand in our ideological corners and shout at each other. This is a time to govern and govern well."

Source: (c) 2009. All rights reserved.

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