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Within the Inner Circle

As President Barack Obama begins his term of office, AARP Segunda Juventud examines how the changes heralded by the new White House leadership will impact older Hispanics. Part III: Hispanic Clout

President Barack Obama has chosen a diverse Cabinet that, combined with other high-ranking posts held by Latinos, is expected to increase Hispanic clout in Washington.

Hispanic Cabinet Appointments
Obama’s nomination of three Hispanics to his Cabinet—New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson to head the Commerce Department, Colorado Senator Ken Salazar to lead Interior, and Representative Hilda L. Solis of California to direct Labor—was a historic first. Richardson’s withdrawal in early January, upon revelations that the FBI was investigating his relationship with CDR Financial Products, which had donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the governor’s political committees, leaves Salazar and Solis as the two potentially highest-ranking Hispanics in the Obama administration, positioned to exert influence in two critical areas.

Salazar: As the head of the Interior Department, Salazar will be embroiled in the fight over opening new offshore areas and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and natural gas production.

A former member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee who likes to wear cowboy hats and boots, Salazar, 53, is seen as an expert on key issues under the domain of the Interior Department, especially Indian affairs, resource management, and energy production on federal lands. At his confirmation hearing, he promised to clean up the Interior Department, which has had scandals in several agencies, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Minerals Management Service. Salazar’s love for the land runs four centuries deep: the former rancher and state attorney general can trace his heritage back to the 1600s, when his Spanish ancestors helped found Santa Fe, New Mexico.

"Obama has sent a very important message to Latinos, and that is, that he gets it."—Arturo Vargas, executive director, NALEO
Solis: Representative Hilda Solis may be Obama’s most surprising choice. While many of Obama’s Cabinet nominees are considered moderates—including Salazar—Solis, 51, is known as a fiery defender of workers’ rights and an advocate for health care reforms, including increasing Medicare coverage among Hispanics and fighting against disparities in care between Hispanics and the general public. She likely inherited her passion: Solis’s father, a Mexican who worked at a battery recycling plant in California’s San Gabriel Valley, organized fellow immigrants for the Teamsters union to win improved health care benefits. Her mother, from Nicaragua, was also a union member.

Solis was also an unlikely choice because she was a staunch supporter of Obama’s Democratic rival for the White House, New York Senator Hillary Clinton. But in announcing Solis’s nomination in December, Obama said he settled on her because, he said, "Hilda has always been an advocate for everyday people."

"As a daughter of immigrants, I’m very honored," Solis responded in Spanish.

White House Posts
Besides naming Hispanics to his Cabinet, Obama has also picked Latinos to fill top posts at the White House.

National Council of La Raza Senior Vice President Cecilia Muñoz, 46, an immigration advocate, has been chosen as the White House Director of Intergovernmental Affairs. A Detroit native, Muñoz is the daughter of Bolivian immigrants. Her work on immigration and civil rights won her a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" in 2000.

Louis Caldera, 53, the son of Mexican immigrants, heads the White House Military Office. In his new post, Caldera, a West Point graduate and former Secretary of the Army in President Clinton’s administration, will oversee all military activities at the White House, from the soldiers who stand guard at the doors to the pilots of Air Force One. 

Vice President Joe Biden, too, has recruited Latinos to his staff. Serving as the vice president’s director of administration is Mexican American Moises "Moe" Vela Jr., 47, a Denver businessman who was former Vice President Al Gore’s chief financial officer and senior advisor on Hispanic affairs. Now Vela will be in charge of all administrative hiring at the White House, as well as its payroll and other administrative functions.

Looking Ahead
Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), says he’s pleased Obama is “picking the most experienced Hispanics” for his administration, an indication they won’t serve "as part of a numbers game" but to press for the community’s concerns at the highest level of government. NALEO was just one of the Hispanic groups that have been pressuring Obama since the election to appoint Hispanics.

Others are pushing for more. Despite the rash of Hispanic appointments, NCLR Group Vice President Charles Kamasaki says he’s heartened but not completely satisfied. "We’re also looking ahead," says Kamasaki, referring to still unfilled sub-Cabinet positions.

Obama’s transition team worked hard to assuage any doubts about the president’s resolve to select from a diverse pool of candidates.

"They kept stressing that [Obama] understood…that Latinos came out real strong in support of Obama," says Vargas. And they did.

Exit polls showed that more than 10 million Hispanic voters cast ballots on November 4, up from 7.6 million in 2004. Latinos voted for Obama over Arizona Senator John McCain 67 percent to 31 percent—a dramatic shift toward Democrats from 2004, when more than 50 percent supported Democratic Senator John Kerry and 40 percent voted for George W. Bush. Exit polls also showed that Hispanic voters 65+ were even more likely to vote for Obama than Hispanics 45–64.

The number of Hispanics is expected to continue to increase in the next four years—to about 60 million, up from 45 million today—and the president will want to keep their support.