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New Obama insider Cecilia Muñoz has a passion for the cause

President Barack Obama’s choice to head a key office in the White House is a staunch advocate for Hispanic rights who will serve as the new president’s link to state and local officials.

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 IV: Exclusive interview with Cecilia Muñoz, Director of Intergovernmental Affairs

President Barack Obama’s choice to head a key office in the White House is a staunch advocate for Hispanic rights who will serve as the new president’s link to state and local officials.

Cecilia Muñoz, 46, was one of Obama’s early nominees. As the head of the White House’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, Muñoz will be one of the most powerful policy advocates in Washington.

She’s long been influential. During 20 years with the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), Muñoz rose to the position of senior vice president for the NCLR Office of Research, Advocacy, and Legislation. Her work on immigration and civil rights won her a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" in 2000. The Atlantic magazine website recently called Muñoz "a powerhouse who knows everyone in Washington."

The youngest daughter of Bolivian immigrants who settled in Detroit, Muñoz says her activism was born of the outrage she felt at injustice suffered by Hispanics.

Her humanitarian drive developed early. As a student at the University of Michigan, Muñoz spent her spare time tutoring Hispanic inmates at a nearby state prison. She went on to obtain a master's degree at the University of California, Berkeley, and then worked with an immigrant advocate organization in Chicago before joining NCLR .

Muñoz’s passion for civil rights touched off a firestorm in 2000 among groups seeking tighter immigration controls when she said some of their tactics “promote hatred and bigotry.” But the controversy has obviously not hurt her career. In an interview with AARP Segunda Juventud shortly before Obama took office, she spoke openly about her new job.

Q. Why do you believe Obama chose you for this job?
A. I hope it has something to do with my 20 years of public service working on domestic policy issues for the National Council of La Raza. As a senator [from Illinois], the president very much valued our expertise and perspective, and it’s clear to me that he wants people in this administration with the capacity to connect to all Americans and create avenues for them to connect with their government.

Q. There haven’t been very many Hispanics in top positions in the White House. Will your background bring a new perspective to policymaking? And if so, how?
A. I wouldn’t say my background brings a new perspective, but I hope that all voices are heard in policymaking. I’m hopeful that my background on policy issues affecting some of the most vulnerable Americans will help me open the right doors to local leaders with great ideas.

I would also say that I’m proud of the diversity of appointments the incoming administration is making. There are many talented Latinos who will form an integral part of our team.

Q. Do you believe you’ll be involved in any issues of special importance to Hispanics or older Americans?
A. By working with mayors, governors, and other local officials, my office is going to be engaged in a host of policy issues that affect state and local governments, with impact on Americans of every walk of life.

Q. Some believe your appointment is an indication that the Obama administration will make immigration reform a priority. Is that so?
A. My particular role will not focus on immigration policy, but the president made it clear throughout his campaign that immigration reform is a priority.

Q. What experiences have prepared you for your new job?
A.  Over 20 years at the NCLR, I have learned an enormous amount about how to connect local actors—in this case NCLR’s nearly 300 affiliates—to the policymaking process. I have learned that the most important work and the most talented leaders are largely not those operating in Washington, but those working in local communities. I am lucky to have been in an organization that works very hard to lift up and support innovative work that otherwise may not get noticed—this is very much what my new job is going to involve. The Obama administration will need strong partnerships with state and local leaders. I think my time at NCLR has taught me the value of those kinds of relationships.

Q. What are the changes you are going to have to make to shift from a focus on advocacy on Hispanic issues to working for the president of the United States?
A. For me, the biggest change will be shifting my role as an advocate outside the government to someone who is part of the government itself. I suspect I will always be an advocate in some way. But working inside the government requires a different set of skills. I’ve been using this period of transition to focus on these changes and make sure I’m as sharp as possible when the job begins.

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