Latinos and the Obama Cabinet

Bill Richardson was an also-ran in the Democratic primaries, but he could be a major player in Barack Obama's administration.
Bill Richardson was an also-ran in the Democratic primaries, but he could be a major player in Barack Obama's administration. (By Alex Brandon -- Associated Press)
By Al Kamen
Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Latino political advocates, citing the importance of Latino votes in President-elect Barack Obama's victory, are pressing him to appoint at least two and as many as four Latinos to his administration's 20 Cabinet-level positions.

Although Latino voters eluded Obama in his primary race against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), they mobilized big time for him in the general election. Two-thirds of Latino voters nationwide went for Obama, helping him win the battleground states of Colorado, Florida, Nevada and New Mexico.

"I'm not one to promote quotas," said Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza and a senior aide in Bill Clinton's White House. "But I think it would be difficult to see a Cabinet at this historic moment in the country that wouldn't reflect diversity. So it's our expectation that we would see a diverse Cabinet and sub-Cabinet."

Topping the wish list of many advocates is New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), who is said to be interested in being secretary of state. Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, endorsed Obama shortly after dropping out of the presidential race this spring.

"Richardson has put his name forward, and we think that'd be an historic opportunity for the [Latino] community," said Brent Wilkes, executive director of the League of United Latino American Citizens. "He'd be a tremendous force."

Federico Peña, secretary of transportation and energy in the Clinton administration, serves on Obama's transition committee and could take a job in the new administration.

Several other prominent Latinos are mentioned as potential nominees for labor secretary, including Linda Chavez-Thompson, a longtime AFL-CIO leader and vice chair of the Democratic National Committee; Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa(D); and Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.).

"Latinos are the nation's second-largest population group, they turned out in record numbers, and they're the fastest-growing electorate in the nation," said Rosalind Gold, policy and advocacy director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. "Latinos should be making key policy decisions along a whole range of issues."

Latino advocates are promoting several other candidates for administration positions: Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Committee on Small Businesses, for administrator of the Small Business Administration; Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) for interior secretary; and Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, a political independent who endorsed Obama, for secretary of homeland security.

Two Latinos could be contenders to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development: Diaz and Saul Ramirez Jr., a deputy HUD secretary under Clinton. And two may be considered for education secretary: Susan Castillo, Oregon's superintendent of public instruction, and Blandina "Bambi" Cárdenas, president of the University of Texas-Pan American.

Diversity Through History

In a news conference yesterday, transition co-chair John Podesta underscored Obama's commitment to diversity in his Cabinet. "Excellence is the first criteria for all of these people coming into government," Podesta said. "But I think that as long as we keep our eye on the ball . . . we can balance geographical diversity, racial diversity, gender . . . so that we have a Cabinet that reflects the same kind of approach that Senator Obama took in the campaign to bring new people into government."

Shouldn't be too hard for him to match or better the track records of the previous two administrations. When President Clinton took office in 1993, just 30 percent of about 500 Senate-confirmed appointees in his first round of selections were women, 14 percent were black, 6 percent were Latino and 3 percent were Asian American, according to a Brookings Institution study. When President Bush took office in 2001, his initial appointees were 23 percent women, 9 percent black, 8 percent Latino and 7 percent Asian American.

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