News Column

Political Profile -- Hispanics Excel in Fed Government Crisis Management

With midterm elections 90 days out it was
August in Washington. Congress had left
town. President Obama was on Martha's
Vineyard and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was
supposed to be on vacation as well in his home state
of Colorado.

But in the wake of the gulf oil spill, and amid
struggling economic recovery plan, the two highest
level Hispanic government offi cials—Salazar and
Labor Secretary Hilda Solis—are at the center of the
two of the biggest issues facing the nation, and that
means no time off.

Bridging the Gulf
Reached by phone in the early hours of one August
morning, Mr. Salazar was at work on what has
become the iconic work of his tenure—cleaning up
the 206 million gallons of BP oil.

"Every morning at 7:30 I lead the U.S. call with
BP where we basically review the last 24 hours," Mr.
Salazar said.

The spill has reshaped how Mr. Salazar spends his
time.

"Secretary Salazar was not planning to deal with the
world's worst oil spill in recent history," said Andres
Ramirez, of the New Democratic Network and New
Policy Institute. "Anytime there is an issue like this it
derails the agenda."

Mr. Salazar has visited the gulf more than a dozen
times and says he has spent "every single day since
April 20" dealing with the spill. But he still says the
mess has not shifted his fundamental policy focus.

"The agenda I've been working on did not change,"
he insists during an interview with HispanicBusiness.
"The priorities are about conservation and standing
up for renewable energy."

Mr. Salazar's leadership during the spill have had
impact. The results include mandating BP install a Webcam at
the leak, ensuring the company set aside funds for victims of the spill, and holding frequent public briefi ngs. But it did not
translate into positive media coverage, which seemed to harm
the image of Interior.

"The spill produced two months of bad news," Mr. Ramirez
said. By summer's end the President's approval ratings hovered
at 44 percent. Mr. Salazar, the face of the cleanup, suffered too,
scoring a 22-percent approval rating.

In May, Salazar reorganized the Minerals Management
Service. The agency has historically had an incestuous
relationship with big oil. Under Mr. Salazar, the agency now
has a new name: "Bureau of Ocean Energy Management,
Regulation, and Enforcement," and new ethics. But it still needs
more funding.

"It's almost laughable to think we have 62 inspectors in the
Gulf of Mexico, given the responsibility to oversee 4,000 oil and
gas production facilities," he said.

The cleanup in the gulf—and of a regulatory structure that
oversees drilling—will determine the success of his tenure.
Before the spill, Mr. Salazar was on a roll. Congress had
passed a public land preservation bill, the largest in 15 years.
Environmentalists, still seeking more effort from the secretary
in the Arctic and on some endangered species questions, by
and large give Salazar high marks.

"We moved from a Department of Interior that viewed
natural resources as something to extract to a department that
recognizes the need for protection," said Adrianna Quintero, of
the Natural Resources Defense Council.

On top of preserving existing monuments and parks, Salazar
expects to preside over new landmarks to diversity in the
nation's capitol. Th is fall an Interior report is expected to lay
out plans for a Museum of the American Latino, Salazar said.

The Numbers Woman
The BP spill has also caused Secretary of Labor Hilda
Solis to switch gears. Since April, her department has sent
more than 30 inspectors to the gulf, where they conducted
1,600 site visits aimed at protecting workers from hazardous
conditions.

Ms. Solis may have adapted her agency to assist in a
crisis, but the mess in the gulf is hardly a Labor Department
responsibility. Her challenge since taking office is one that
many argue she has little control over—unemployment. Each
month, Secretary Solis has the dubious task of announcing
employment numbers.

At the department it's called "numbers day," a monthly ritual
to remind the public that the Administration inherited the
worst recession in more than 70 years.

Th is is the first sentence Ms. Solis offered in August, when one in ten Americans was still out of work: "In July, the economy
gained 71,000 jobs in the private sector."

A Harsh Reality
And then the pivot to the harsh reality: "While job growth
is encouraging, the large number of Americans without a job
reminds us we need to continue working. When President
Obama came into offi ce, he inherited an economy that was
losing as many as 750,000 jobs each month."

The administration points to the Recovery Act for saving or
creating more than 2.5 million U.S. jobs. But with no major
turnaround in private sector hiring, analysts say Ms. Solis
remains in a difficult position.

"She's in charge of bad news," said political scientist Larry Sabato
at the Univ. of Virginia. "It's amazing she still has a job. She can't
change numbers, but messengers have been shot."

Nobody expects Ms. Solis (or Mr. Salazar) to depart at the
midterm. Quite the contrary—the White House has sought ways
to feature Ms. Solis more often.

One White House official applauded her campaigning on
behalf of health care legislation. And the secretary has taken
her high-energy, bilingual talents on the road for Democrats.
Despite the negative economic outlook, Solis still gets a
positive review, Ramirez said. "The fact is our economy is not
getting any worse."

So what is a Labor Department accomplishment when the
monthly reports are so dismal?

One spokeswoman points to job creation, international
partnerships and stricter labor law enforcement. The
department invested billions of dollars to create jobs through
the Recovery Act. Traveling in Central America this summer,
Ms. Solis announced a $10 million partnership to help El
Salvadaor eradicate child labor. Back home, she hired 710
enforcement personnel.

"She's reinvigorated the department," said Bill Samuel, AFLCIO
director of government aff airs. "We've been pleased to see
a reemphasis on enforcement."

"OSHA, Wage and Hour, they were AWOL," he said of the
department's longtime safety and worker protection divisions
under President Bush. "The secretary has struck a better balance."

But to some Hispanic observers, Solis and Salazar have done
something greater. Mr. Martinez calls the work of the most
Hispanic cabinet in American history "a coming of age story."
"It's shown that Latinos are capable of dealing with the
nation's most pressing problems," he says.