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Hispanics Anxiously Lay in Wait for Obama Cabinet Seats

When President-Elect Barack Obama passed over Bill Richardson — the nation’s only Hispanic governor — to tap Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) as secretary of state, Hispanic columnists like Rubén Navarrette reacted with searing criticism.

Richardson, tapped to be commerce secretary instead, is the only Hispanic Cabinet appointee so far.

“The way he was treated doesn’t say much about Obama’s respect for the Hispanic community,” wrote Navarrette, a nationally syndicated columnist and editorial writer for the San Diego Union-Tribune. “Nor does the fact that Obama seems to have filled his top four cabinet posts — justice, treasury, defense and state — and couldn’t find a single Hispanic to put in any of them.”

Lehman College Journalism Professor Miguel Pérez called the commerce job “a consolation prize.”

“I think after we have seen the 67 percent of the Hispanic vote (that went to Obama), he took a long time remembering to name a Hispanic to the cabinet,” Pérez, a nationally syndicated columnist, told Lou Dobbs on CNN the day Richardson got the nod.

The criticism has been echoed more generally by liberal advocates as Obama rolls out his cabinet choices. He’s about halfway done with the top jobs. There are still seven undesignated cabinet secretary posts: agriculture, education, energy, housing and urban development, interior, labor and transportation. There are also a few jobs with cabinet rank still empty: U.S. trade representative, EPA administrator, as well as the Office of National Drug Control Policy director.

Hispanic advocacy groups, many of whom met last week with Obama’s Transition Co-Chair John Podesta, to push for Latino appointees and discuss policy positions, say they’re hopeful about a turn-around.

The umbrella organizations — the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda and the Latino Congress — met with the hope of seeing at least three or four Hispanic cabinet appointments.

“We just wanted to let them know, we’re hoping he can do better than Bush and Clinton, both of whom did pretty well compared to their predecessors,” says Brent Wilkes, executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, who says the transition team members made no numerical promise of Hispanic appointments.

Wilkes says the groups are pushing hard, not just for cabinet appointments, but for Hispanics to be placed in administration jobs that will be critical in diversifying the federal work force even after the top jobs are filled. He says the groups are urging Obama to tap John Sepulveda as director of the Office of Personnel Management.

Sepulveda was deputy director of the department from 1998 to 2001.

“For us, it’s really critical, because OPM is in charge of the agencies’ efforts to diversify the work force,” Wilkes says. “Hispanics are the only major ethnic group underrepresented in the federal government. They’re about 7 percent Latino and the (civil) labor force is closer to 14 percent.”

The National Hispanic Leadership Agenda submitted a report last week to the Obama transition team that was highly critical of OPM efforts to add Hispanics to the federal work force. It noted that the two departments with the most critical shortages of Hispanic employees were two that most critically affect Hispanics: education as well as the Department of Health and Human Services. Just 4 percent of the education department’s employees are Hispanic, and fewer than that are employed by Health and Human Services, the report said.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus last week sent a letter to the transition team, making recommendations for several posts. For secretary of education they’re pushing for U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Texas, or Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza.

Murguia, who did not immediately return phone calls to Diverse, served as executive vice chancellor for university relations at the University of Kansas from 2001 to 2005. Hinojosa is a member of the House Committee on Education and Labor and  is chairman of the Higher Education Subcommittee on Higher Education.

Hinojosa’s spokeswoman, Elizabeth Esfahani, says that “he’s very honored by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus recommendation, but he hasn’t spoken with anyone from the transition team.”

Another congressman who has been pushed by Hispanic advocacy groups for a post – Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif. – did, however, get an audience with Obama. Becerra is oft-mentioned in the running for U.S. trade representative, which is a cabinet-rank post. His spokeswoman, Fabiola Rodriguez-Ciampoli, says that Becerra met with Obama Thursday, Dec. 4, at his transition headquarters in Chicago.

On the day he nominated Richardson to commerce, Obama pushed back at some of the criticism being leveled against his cabinet choices.

“The notion that, somehow, the commerce secretary is not going to be central to everything we do, is fundamentally mistaken,” Obama said during a press conference. “With respect to Latino Cabinet members, I have appointed half of my Cabinet so far. And when people look back and see the entire slate, what they will say is, not only in terms of my Cabinet but in terms of my White House staff, people are going to say, ‘this is one of the most diverse Cabinets and White House staffs of all time. More importantly, they are going to say these are people of outstanding qualifications and excellence.”

Advocacy groups are cautious to outwardly complain about Richardson being passed over for secretary of state, with still half of the Cabinet appointments unfilled.

“Saying there’s disappointment out there would really be misconstruing,” says Wilkes of LULAC. “Did we want Richardson to get the most high-profile position? It didn’t happen in the initial (appointment), but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen … Obama’s got at least four years – and maybe eight – and we’ll keep urging that to happen if an opening comes up in the future. That’s always an important goal: to have the highest position as possible.”

Other Hopeful Hispanics Being Mentioned for Cabinet Positions:

  • Education/Undersecretary: Dr. Ana Margarita “Cha” Guzman, president of Palo Alto College in San Antonio, Texas.
  • Environmental Protection Agency: U.S Rep. Hilda Solís, D-Calif.
  • Housing and Urban Development: Miami Mayor Manny Díaz, Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrión Jr. and former HUD Deputy Secretary Saul Ramirez, Jr.
  • Interior: Former New Mexico Attorney General Patricia Madrid and U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz.
  • Justice/Civil Rights Division: Thomas Saenz, counsel to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa or Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund president and general counsel John Trasviña.
  • Labor: Former AFL-CIO executive vice president Linda Chavez-Thompson or U.S. Rep. Linda Sánchez, D-Calif.
  • Transportion: Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrión Jr. and María Contreras Sweet.

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