If there is one message President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team has broadcast about Cabinet picks, it is that ethnicity and gender will not be the first considerations when filling the slots.
Credentials over tokenism, after all, was a fundamental principle of Obama’s presidential campaign that highlighted his ideas and community values over his African-American background. Still, if all goes as planned, Cabinet members with hefty résumés will present a picture of diversity.
Hispanic political leaders agree. Their expectations for seats at the president’s top policy table are not about meeting quotas but about advancing the reality that within this fastest-growing ethnic group are seasoned policy experts who understand the economic, foreign and domestic policy concerns shared by everyone.
Obama promised hope and change, and Hispanics hoped for the usual two Latinos in the Cabinet. And heck, why not three or four? Now that would be a change.
But at this early stage in the appointments process, there is a trickle of disappointment running through the Latino community.
First, the most prominent Hispanic leader, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, lost the plum secretary of state assignment to New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Last spring, Richardson angered the Clintonistas by backing Obama over Clinton during the heated Democratic Primary contest, only to now see her being offered the top diplomatic post.
“There’s nobody more prepared and experienced” for the job than Richardson, said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. Richardson was energy secretary and ambassador to the United Nations during the Clinton administration, and he helped free hostages in North Korea, Iraq and Cuba.
Second, grass-roots immigrant rights activists have mixed feelings about Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano being the likely nominee to head the Department of Homeland Security.
Arizona is the epicenter of the national immigration crisis, and Napolitano, the popular border state governor, has navigated through turbulent rhetoric on all sides to calm the debate.
Napolitano signed into law last year the nation’s harshest penalties against employers who hire undocumented workers. While the law is being challenged in court, Napolitano has signed revisions that include protections for businesses that show good-faith efforts to follow the rules.
Some immigration advocates think she went too far to the right because of her political need to placate Arizona’s conservative voters.
“Several of us have not forgotten that she was the first to call for the National Guard along the border and called it ‘an emergency,’ and was sending the message that she might be appealing to the more conservative element who wanted to shut down the border,” said Jose Rodriguez, the county attorney in El Paso, Texas.
At the same time, Napolitano is lauded for opposing construction of a border fence and blocking bills that would require local police to arrest illegal immigrants. In an Obama administration, she would have the credibility to negotiate an immigration bill that is tough on employers, enforces border security and includes a compassionate legalization program of those now in the country illegally.
“She’s been very effective at balancing between toughness and fairness,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. “She thinks about her decisions, but then she does not leave them aside. She does not forget about them.”
Generally, Latinos would have been ecstatic if Obama had included a Hispanic in the early top-level announcements that have included African-Americans and women along with white men.
The first major Hispanic appointment finally emerged on Wednesday, when Cecilia Muñoz, senior vice president of National Council of La Raza, was picked to be the new administration’s Intergovernmental Affairs director. Muñoz is a national Hispanic leader who in recent years has been a driving force in the push for comprehensive immigration reform.
And what might have seemed like bad news is not so bad after all.
Though Richardson did not get the position at State, he is set to be nominated as commerce secretary, a post that will be vital to the growth of Latino political empowerment. The Commerce Department will oversee the 2010 Census, which will be used to draw government districts from the federal to local levels. The Census also determines the distribution of about $300 billion in federal funds each year.
At Commerce, Richardson would be at the forefront of economic issues including international trade and business development and would have a hand in immigration discussions.
Business, civil rights and immigrants rights leaders are urging the incoming Obama administration to include an overhaul of the immigration system as part of the economic recovery strategy.
An aggressive economic development program along the U.S.-Mexico border would offer a “long-term solution to migratory pressures,” according to a recent study by the U.S.-Mexico Border and Immigration Task Force made up of religious, community and law enforcement leaders in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
With several more Cabinet-level seats still to be filled, Latinos see Obama’s team seriously considering long lists of Hispanics.
At the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which will be neck deep in fixing the housing financial meltdown, numerous Hispanics are being considered, including Miami Mayor Manny Diaz; Adolfo Carrion Jr., the Bronx Borough president who also leads NALEO; and Saul N. Ramirez Jr., a former deputy housing secretary during the Clinton years and a former mayor of Laredo, Texas.
The Obama transition team also has been searching for a Hispanic to head any of three departments: Interior, Agriculture and Transportation. Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the chairman of the House National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee, has been being mentioned as candidate for Interior.
Post-election talk had mentioned a couple of Latinas to head the Labor or Education departments. Though it now seems less likely, NALEO’s Vargas encouraged their consideration. “It would be an important symbol to name a Latina to the Cabinet,” he said. There are Latinas “who are fully capable of running the Department of Education, for example.”
Besides being a growing segment of the population. Election Day exit polls showed that 67 percent of Hispanics voted for Obama and were the deciding factor for his wins in at least two battleground states.
Hispanics belong at Obama’s policy table.
Appointment to the highest levels of government “does not have to be about minority representation. It’s what you expect because of the way that [Obama] won and because of the way he wants to govern the country,” said Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza.