MIAMI – President Barack Obama is on track to name more Hispanics to top posts than any of his predecessors, drawing appointees from a wide range of the nation’s Latino communities, including Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Colombians.
That won’t necessarily give the president a free pass on issues such as immigration, but it may ease Hispanics’ worries about whether Obama will continue reaching out to a group that was key to his winning the White House.
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor is by far Obama’s most famous Hispanic appointee. In less than a year in office, the president has also tapped at least 48 other Hispanics to positions senior enough to require Senate confirmation. So far, 35 have been approved.
That compares with a total of 30 approved under Bill Clinton and 34 under George W. Bush during their first 20 months in office, according to U.S. Office of Personnel Management data.
The personnel office does not track appointments of judges or ambassadors. Early indicators suggest Obama is naming many Hispanics to those positions as well, though he has been slow to appoint judges in general.
“He’s really captured our trajectory, and the vast, vast array of Latinos that make up our country, whether it’s Mexicanos, Puertorriquenos or Dominicanos,” said Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, the Cabinet’s first Hispanic woman.
The officials cover a wide swath of policy areas and include:
Solis, a California native and former congresswoman whose parents hail from Mexico and Nicaragua.
Thomas Perez, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, an Ivy Leaguer from New York whose parents fled the Dominican Republic dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo.
Jose Riojas, assistant secretary for veterans affairs, a retired brigadier general and Mexican-American from Missouri.
In some ways, Obama is simply following his predecessor’s example. Until the Obama administration, Bush’s Cabinet was widely considered the most ethnically diverse in U.S. history, with Hispanics serving as secretaries of commerce and housing and as attorney general. Less than half of Obama’s Cabinet consists of White men.
Al Cardenas, a former chairman of the Florida Republican Party and a Cuban-American, said he was impressed by Obama’s initial Hispanic appointments, particularly to positions in defense, treasury and housing, though he said he will be watching to see whether the pace falls off.
About half of Obama’s picks trace their roots to Mexico and the former Spanish holdings in the Southwest, not surprising since two-thirds of Hispanics in the U.S. identify themselves as Mexican-American. But the administration also includes about half a dozen people of South American descent and nearly a dozen Hispanics from the Caribbean.
Oddly, that geographic and international diversity may come in part from Obama’s lack of experience in working with Hispanics, said Dr. Matt Barreto, an associate professor at the University of Washington who studies Latino politics.
Bush had a long history of working with Mexican-Americans in Texas and had family and political connections to the Republican-leaning Cuban-American community in Florida. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama’s chief opponent during the primaries, had strong support from the Democratic Hispanic leadership in heavily Mexican-American Texas and California, and to some extent Florida. Obama didn’t have those ties.
“In some ways, the Latino community benefits from being new to Obama outreach. He doesn’t have the entrenched interests,” Barreto said.
More than half of the appointees hold an Ivy League degree, and more than a quarter, like the president, have a diploma from Harvard, an Associated Press review found.
Special counsel to the president Michael Camunez, one of the Harvard graduates, noted that a number of the Hispanic appointees, including himself and Solis, were the first in their families to attend college.
“It says a lot about our country that these people have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and have obtained a high degree of success,” he said. “It is an American success story.”
The story may not be enough for Ruben Sepulveda, 47, a Miami-based mortgage broker who recently became a citizen and cautiously supports Obama. The Colombian native said he hasn’t seen enough new controls over the nation’s financial institutions and is waiting for more leadership on immigration reform and on foreign policy in Latin America.
“The nominations are positive, and there’s still time for good things to happen, but enough ‘blah, blah, blah,'” Sepulveda said in Spanish. “We need to see some action.”
Professor Dr. Michael Jones-Correa, who studies Hispanic politics and immigration at Cornell University, said Latinos in the administration have ensured that immigration remained on the table when some advisers hoped to delay it until after next year’s midterm elections.
The White House has signaled it wants to see an immigration bill next year, and last week, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., offered the first crack at comprehensive reform since 2007.
The most significant legacy of the Obama appointments may be a ways off, Jones-Correa said, noting that midlevel officials often go on to win major state and federal elections.
“The real impact of these appointments, in my opinion, will be felt not in the next few years, but in the next 15 or 20,” he said.