Obama’s Latino Problem: Hispanic Leaders Criticize the President-elect's Cabinet Choices

By Pilar Marrero, La Opinión columnist and FI2W contributor

The last few weeks have proven again that for a “post racial” leader, elected for the content of his message -and regardless of the color of his skin- the racial and ethnic lines that subtly divide this country will surely affect the way Barack Obama governs after January 20th.

Even before taking office, the president-elect has had to confront –again- the thorny issue of his relationship with Latinos and Latino leadership. It was an issue that plagued his campaign, particularly during the primaries.

His appointments to the cabinet and to the ranks of White House “West Wing” advisors have been closely watched –and criticized- by Latino leaders. From the onset they were pushing a broad agenda, including Bill Richardson’s appointment as secretary of state.

The fact that Obama chose Hillary Clinton instead of Richardson – who supported him during the primary and had to withstand being called “Judas” by the Clinton campaign for doing it – set many tongues wagging about how the governor of New Mexico got the lesser appointment. The word “treason” was uttered by some political observers in private conversations.

The criticism began with the initial absence of Latinos among Obama’s first appointments: the economic team, the “kitchen cabinet” of close advisers that will surround him every day. There were several Latinos named to the transition team, but that was not seen as enough by some Hispanic leaders and commentators.

The criticism was quickly followed by the appointment of Cecilia Muñoz, of the National Council of La Raza, to head the White House office of Intergovernmental Affairs, and assurances that Richardson would get a cabinet appointment and his own press conference to announce it. (Many appointments have been announced in groups, including the economic and national security appointments).

Although there are at least two Latinos advising the transition at top levels – Federico Pena, former secretary of energy under Bill Clinton and Frank Sanchez, from Florida, a top fundraiser for Obama’s Latino campaign – some say Obama’s inner circle lacks Latinos and Latino sensibilities.

But there is plenty of pressure coming from the outside – those who believe the Latino vote made a huge difference for the president-elect in key western states.

Many Latino names were mentioned as “being under consideration” for different positions. Eventually, a cabinet position was given to Colorado Senator Ken Salazar. Obama nominated him for secretary of the interior, to the chagrin of progressive Latinos who think he is too close to ranchers and oil interests (or the ideological center). They wanted Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva, a much more combative and progressive choice, and worried about losing one of the very few Latinos in the Senate.

Some argued that Obama had to give Latinos at least 3 cabinet positions, because both Clinton and Bush had at least 2 Latinos in their cabinets at some point. Obama had to do better, critics said.

Trying to avoid even the appearance of a problem, chief of staff Rahm Emanuel gave an unusual interview to Politico.com saying that Obama had already appointed a record number of Latinos at different levels of the new administration, and that “more were coming.”

This extraordinary interview demonstrated how sensitive the Obama team was to talk of the “Latino problem.” Another signal was the consideration of California Congressman Xavier Becerra for US Trade Representative, and what happened when he turned down the job.

Last week Becerra announced he wasn’t taking the position. Among the reasons – including his new leadership position in Congress and it’s possibilities, and having to move his family to D.C.- was a mention that this job was not necessarily dealing with “one of the first priorities of the next administration.”

Becerra explained his reasons to La Opinion’s editorial board. The subsequent article in Spanish was partially translated by some English language media, which highlighted the most controversial reason given: that this was not a priority job.

There were many rumblings, all off the record, about how uncomfortable this was for the transition team and how this could damage the relationship between Latinos and the new administration.

The next day, Hilda Solis, a progressive and pro-union member of Congress from Los Angeles was appointed labor secretary, and a rushed “Latino leaders” news conference was put together, along with several editorials praising the diversity of the final Obama team and its Latino representation.

For now the Obama-Latino “storm” has passed. But it will most likely come up again when Obama takes office, and his promise to push for immigration reform in the first year of this administration is tested by the many challenges he and the country will confront.