In the closing months of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the 40th president filled a vacancy in his Cabinet and made history.
Lauro Cavazos became education secretary in September 1988 and the first Latino to be confirmed for the Cabinet. He stayed on the job in the early part of George H.W. Bush’s presidency before resigning amid questions about his use of frequent-flier miles.
Ever since, there’s been at least one Latino at the table in the White House Cabinet Room. Until this year.
Latino leaders had mixed reactions Thursday to President-elect Donald Trump’s decision not to include a Latino among his first wave of Cabinet nominees. The omission became apparent late Wednesday when Trump transition officials confirmed that the incoming president is set to nominate Sonny Perdue, the former Republican governor of Georgia, as the next agriculture secretary. Perdue’s selection fills out the traditional White House Cabinet, meaning his top slate of government officials will include just four women and one African American man — but no Latino and no Democrat.
That ends a nearly three-decade streak of Latino secretaries, top ambassadors and administrators.
After Cavazos came Manuel Lujan Jr., George H.W. Bush’s first interior secretary. During Bill Clinton’s presidency, Federico Peña served as transportation secretary, then energy secretary. Bill Richardson succeeded Peña at the Energy Department after serving as U.N. ambassador. Henry Cisneros served as Clinton’s secretary of housing and urban development. Aida Alvarez was head of the Small Business Administration.
When George W. Bush became president, he named Mel Martinez to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Carlos Gutierrez to lead the Commerce Department and Alberto Gonzales as attorney general. President Obama has named six Latinos to serve in his Cabinet. Ken Salazar and Hilda Solís were appointed interior secretary and labor secretary, respectively, in his first term. In his second term — under pressure to reward the nation’s fastest-growing voting bloc and a community that had voted overwhelmingly for him — Obama tapped Small Business Administrator Maria Contreras Sweet, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, HUD Secretary Julián Castro and Education Secretary John B. King Jr., who is black and Puerto Rican.
(NPR’s Latino USA has a fantastic rundown on the history of Latino Cabinet secretaries.)
Roger C. Rocha Jr., national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said the lack of a Latino Cabinet secretary “is a failure to ensure that the government is truly representative of the people it serves.” The group’s executive director, Brent Wilkes, added that Trump’s decision means he “has broken with the bipartisan precedent of past presidential administrations and has missed a major opportunity to shed the racial and ethnic divisiveness that were hallmarks of his presidential campaign.”
Javier Palomarez, president and chief executive of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, who had endorsed Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and had been a staunch critic of Trump, said that he had been in touch with some Latinos interviewed for potential Cabinet posts and with members of the presidential transition team.
“I’m emboldened by my exchanges with some of the cabinet nominees. They’ve expressed a genuine and deep understanding of the needs of America’s small business owners, many of them immigrants,” he said in a statement, adding later that his group “will continue to explore unity, not exploit division.”
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), elected in November as the first Latina to serve in the U.S. Senate, said “it is beyond disappointing” that Trump failed to include a Latino in his Cabinet.
“While we made some progress in 2016 building the ranks of Latino leadership in the halls of Congress, I am stunned by the lack of diversity of the White House’s nominees for these Cabinet positions,” she said in a statement. “Our government should mirror the people it serves, and the Trump administration has undoubtedly failed on that mark.”
Asked about the lack of Latino officials in the top ranks of the Trump administration, incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Wednesday that Trump “has continued to seek out the best and the brightest to fill his Cabinet, but I don’t think that that’s the total reflection. We’ve got 5,000 positions. I think you’re going to see a very, very strong presence of the Hispanic community in his administration.”
Spicer urged reporters to look at the diversity of Trump’s senior White House staffers, but there again, no Latinos have been named — at least not yet.
After a presidential campaign that included sharp attacks on Mexican immigrants, vows to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, the disparagement of a Mexican American federal judge and attacks on the nation’s only female Hispanic governor (a Republican), Latino leaders in recent weeks had expressed little hope or expectation that the Trump administration would include Latinos in top roles.
During a meeting last week on Capitol Hill, dozens of Latino leaders made a last-ditch attempt to persuade the Trump transition team to find a Latino to name to the Cabinet, according to participants in the meeting. They were reminded that Trump had met with two individuals, former Texas Democratic congressman Henry Bonilla and former California lieutenant governor Abel Maldonado, about possibly serving as agriculture secretary. But both were passed over.
Mario Lopez, head of the conservative Hispanic Leadership Fund, said that Perdue “seems a more than capable choice for the job. HLF would never want a quota mentality.”
“But,” Lopez added in an email, “not having a Latino Cabinet member for the first time in years is indeed a missed opportunity. We know that there are plenty of highly qualified Latinos at all levels with the principles and commitment to serve their country well.”
Alfonso Aguilar, a conservative commentator who also attended the meeting, said he wasn’t upset or offended by Trump’s decision.
“It would’ve been great to have someone of Hispanic origin heading a cabinet agency. I certainly would’ve celebrated it and would’ve been proud,” he said in an email. “But I don’t believe in quotas or identity politics. The president, at the end, should appoint someone he feels comfortable with, regardless of their race or ethnicity.”
“I’m not going to judge Trump on how many Latinos are in his cabinet, but on the impact of his policies on the Latino community and on all Americans,” Aguilar added. “President Obama had three or four Latinos at the cabinet level, but that didn’t help the welfare of Latinos in any way.”
Other groups, including the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, had pushed Obama to stock his Cabinet with more Latinos and claimed credit for helping elevate Perez, Castro and others into senior administration positions.
The group last year pushed presidential candidates to include at least four Latinos in the next presidential Cabinet, believing that would properly represent the growing clout of the community. NHLA Chairman Hector Sanchez participated in last week’s meeting after weeks of fruitless attempts to persuade the Trump team to meet with him.
“There was really no element of negotiation,” Sanchez said. “During the whole transition and the election, the Trump campaign didn’t open the doors at all to us for a conversation. We reached out over and over again and they never responded. When we met with the transition team, there was no engagement.”
“This will have consequences,” Sanchez added. “Twenty percent of the population cannot be ignored and cannot be constantly attacked. This will be reflected in two years [in congressional elections] and in the next presidential election.”