News Column

Mexican Americans' Support of Bush as Presidential Candidate Didn’t Earn Them a Seat in the Cabinet

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By James E. Garcia and Joel Russell

Given their strong turnout at the polls, many Hispanic groups – particularly Mexican Americans – expected a visible presence in the cabinet of President George W. Bush. Indeed, his first cabinet nominee was a Hispanic – Mel Martinez, a Cuban American from Florida, who serves as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development – but the appointment has some Hispanics feeling left out. With Mr. Bush’s vow of diverse representation, Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, Central Americans, and other Hispanic groups are wondering if they’ll have a voice in the nascent administration.

“At a time when you’re looking at a rapidly growing Latino population – growing not just in population but in political clout – I think you can’t help but be disappointed that, at least at first glance, there are going to be fewer Latinos at the highest levels of government than in the last three administrations,” says Charles Kamasaki of the National Council de La Raza (NCLR).

During his tenure as governor of Texas, Mr. Bush received support from many Mexican-American leaders, including prominent Democrat Tony Sanchez Jr. And according to the Bush campaign, several Mexican Americans gained a high profile on the fund-raising front, including Mr. Sanchez, former US WEST CEO Sol Trujillo, Raul Romero of S&B Infrastructure in Texas, and Hector Barreto, CEO of Barreto Insurance and Financial Services in Los Angeles and vice-chair of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (USHCC).

On the campaign trail, Mr. Bush repeatedly pledged to represent all Americans. Even though Democrat Al Gore defeated Mr. Bush by nearly a 2-to-1 margin among Hispanic voters, that number has Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Gilmore beaming. On the basis of historical trends, the GOP is making progress. Bob Dole, the 1996 Republican presidential candidate, received only 21 percent of the national Hispanic vote. In contrast, exit polls show that between 32 and 38 percent of Hispanics cast their ballots for Mr. Bush.

But neither votes nor money earned Mexican Americans a seat in the Bush cabinet. When Hispanics are compared to African Americans, the disparity between poll power and appointments shows. Less than 10 percent of African-American voters supported Mr. Bush, yet his cabinet includes two African Americans – Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Education Rod Paige.

Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, says Mexican-American voters favored Democrat Al Gore by a 2-to-1 ratio, Puerto Ricans by 3-to-1. “The only Latino constituency that supported [Mr. Bush] was the Cubans,” by what Mr. Gonzalez estimates at a 2-to-1 margin. “I don’t think anyone can say Mexican Americans deserve a cabinet seat based on the polls,” he reasons, “although you can say that Latinos deserve a seat, and Mexican Americans represent the majority of Latinos.” In contrast, Republican pollster Sergio Bendixon’s Web site (www.HispanicTrends.com) claims Cuban-American support may have decided the national election by giving Mr. Bush an edge in Florida, lending a strong case to the Cuban-American lobby.

Rudolfo O. de la Garza, a professor of government at the University of Texas and director of research for the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute, believes Hispanic business owners occupy a special place in the debate. Most Hispanic advocacy groups and community leaders supported Democratic candidate Al Gore, so they don’t expect much from the Bush administration, according to Mr. de la Garza. Business owners, on the other hand, supported Mr. Bush. The USHCC and other Hispanic economic development groups and think tanks publicly endorsed Mr. Bush. In the words of Eli Rodriguez, president of Dallas-based Mexican American Advisory Organization, President Bush was seen as “supporting better education for our community and economic opportunities for our businesses.”

Hispanic managers and CEOs “are much like any other business community, and this is a pro-business administration,” says Mr. de la Garza. “I would expect the Bush administration to reach out to ethnic communities through the business leaders more than through social organizations.”

Although the Bush team quickly nominated Linda Chavez for a cabinet position, the strategy backfired from a political standpoint even before legal questions forced her to withdraw. “[Mr.] Bush needs to seriously reconsider how he is making his administration ‘diverse,’” announced Marisa Demeo, California regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, after the announcement that of Ms. Chavez’s nomination to head the Labor Department. “Who exactly is [Mr.] Bush trying to reach in the Latino community through this nomination?”

“There’s no clear reason why he nominated her,” puzzles Mr. de la Garza. “She didn’t have a Latino constituency. If [the Bush team] didn’t know that, they were poorly advised.”

According to the NCLR’s Mr. Kamasaki, “The benchmark for Latino representation has been set by the last two administrations.” In his first administration, former President Bill Clinton appointed Mexican-American Henry Cisneros as Housing and Urban Development secretary and Mexican-American Federico Peña to head the Transportation Department. Former Congressman Bill Richardson served as ambassador to the United Nations. In his second term, Mr. Clinton appointed Puerto Rican Aida Alvarez to head the Small Business Administration and Mr. Richardson as Energy secretary. The previous president, George Bush, appointed Manuel Lujan to serve as Interior secretary and Lauro F. Cavasos, a holdover from the Reagan years, as Education secretary.

The precedent of the last several administrations has “established a baseline,” agrees Mr. de la Garza. “You’ve established a need to have Latinos in an administration, whether it’s Democratic or Republican. … The problem [Mr.] Bush has is that there aren’t that many Latino Republicans. You can draw on the business community, but if your goal is to get more votes, that won’t help very much. The business community isn’t linked to voters in that way.”

Mr. Bush’s supporters maintain that once the administration fills out, Mexican Americans and other Hispanic groups will have representation. “We’re just beginning to paint this canvas,” says Al Cardenas, a Cuban-American attorney who serves as chairman of the Florida Republican Party. “We’ve confirmed 20 people, maybe, and we’ve got 6,000 more to go. … I’m comfortable that this administration will be the most diverse ever.”

Mr. Sanchez, perhaps the most prominent Mexican-American proponent of the Bush presidency, was unavailable for comment despite repeated calls by HISPANIC BUSINESS® to his Texas-based Sanchez Oil & Gas Corp. During the last year, rumors have circulated that Mr. Sanchez, a Democrat, may run for governor of Texas in 2002 when Republican Rick Perry completes the term of Mr. Bush.

According to Mr. Barreto, who co-chaired Mr. Bush’s California campaign, the president already has proven he will be inclusive. He points to the former governor’s record in Texas, where about 13 percent of his appointments were Hispanics. “I will tell you [the Bush team] has been flooded with resumes from Latinos, and those are being thoroughly reviewed,” he says. He predicts many more Hispanic nominees will be hired to help fill the jobs available in the new administration.

Certainly, the new administration appears to take diversity seriously. An inter-agency task force on Hispanic hiring and retention in the federal work force will deliver recommendations by October, says Mercedes Olivieri of the Office of Personnel Management. The committee, formed under an executive order from President Clinton, “calls for cabinet agencies to appoint a senior-level official to the task force – mostly at the deputy director level,” says Ms. Olivieri. “Most of these people will be political appointees.” At press time, the task force membership was incomplete and the group hadn’t convened its first meeting.

Mr. Barreto insists that as the administration develops, the views of Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, and other groups will not be ignored. He expects Alberto Gonzales, the Mexican American appointed to serve as White House counsel, to play an influential advisory role in the administration. And Mel Martinez will be a “great secretary,” Mr. Barreto believes, who’ll reach out to all Americans, including all Hispanics.

But the basic calculus of politics involves votes, and Mr. de la Garza observes that two-thirds of the Hispanic vote is consistently Democratic. “Is there anything in the Republican arsenal that can increase that [vote share]?” he asks. “I don’t see it. Now if [members of the Bush administration] are successful with the economy, if their school policies work, and if they respect the Mexican-American community as George Bush has, they could change the dynamic. But it’s not clear whether those policies are just his, or his party’s. ... I don’t know if the party agrees with him.”

Mr. Kamasaki concurs with Bush supporters that the true measure of the commitment to diversity will come in his appointments to assistant secretary posts and the heads of independent agencies. “The Bush campaign very aggressively marketed to the national Latino community and got considerable support,” Mr. Kamasaki concludes, “and therefore [Mr. Bush] has to demonstrate that he’s going to be inclusive of the community in not just words but actions.”

James Garcia is Editor and Publisher of PoliticoMagazine.com. Joel Russell is Senior Editor at HISPANIC BUSINESS®.

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