Obama taps more Latinos to top posts

Hirings could surpass those of his predecessors

By Laura Wides-Munos
Associated Press / December 22, 2009

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MIAMI - President 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 will not 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, the first Latino on the nation’s highest court, 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 US Office of Personnel Management data. While 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; and 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 US 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.

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 US 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.

That geographic and international diversity may come in part from Obama’s lack of experience in working with Hispanics, said 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 Democratic primaries, had strong support from the Democratic Hispanic leadership in heavily Mexican-American Texas and California, and to some extent Florida. Obama did not have those ties.

“In some ways, the Latino community benefits from being new to Obama outreach,’’ Barreto said. “He doesn’t have the entrenched interests.’’