The proximate departure of Secretaries Solis and Salazar will represent a 0.0 level of Latino representation in President Obama’s top Cabinet posts.
For Latinos to not be at the table when it comes to the highest levels of leadership is wrong. Latinos are a large and growing national voice and we have a wealth of talented and experienced leaders to step up. So the easy answer is we need Latino voices at the table; the hard part is how many and in what positions.
But first, a little background.
As he was handed the phone, San Antonio county commissioner Albert Peña heard Bobby Kennedy on the other end asking for his help in getting the Latino vote. It was the summer of 1960, and the Kennedy presidential campaign was seeking the support of the Latino electorate in what later took the form of the first ever national Latino outreach, Viva Kennedy. Peña did not commit right away, but only after Bobby Kennedy accepted several conditions, one of which was considering Mexican Americans to high-level appointments in the new administration.
John F. Kennedy won that presidential election by the slimmest of margins, less than one percent of the total vote margin. And the states that had the closest vote margins, Texas, California, Illinois and New Mexico, were also the states that had extremely high Latino participation and support for JFK. However, by early 1961 it became painfully apparent to the Viva organizers that the appointment of Latinos to the administration had fallen off the radar.
It wasn’t until 1988 under the Reagan administration that the first Latino cabinet member, Lauro Cavazos, was named. Secretary of Education Cavazos stayed on with George Bush for a couple of years, but no new Latinos were appointed to the presidential cabinet.
Clinton’s administration marked a watershed in the role of Latinos in presidential administrations. He named three Latinos to his cabinet and named dozens of Latinos to administrative appointments. George W. Bush and then Barack Obama have followed a similar pattern, give or take a couple appointments.
Seems not a whole lot has changed in fifty years. Latinos provide a crucial electoral push but once in office, Latino appointments do not reflect their electoral effort.
So the question is how many Latino cabinet posts are enough — one, two, three, six?
Well, to be purely scientific about it, there are 23 cabinet and cabinet-rank posts and the Latino population is 17% so on a purely proportional scale there should be 3.91 Latinos in the presidential cabinet.
But the difficult and potentially dangerous part is that focusing on numbers distracts from a focus on substantive policy issues. If you had to choose, would you prefer Obama’s first term administration with two Latino cabinet members but no immigration reform and lingering economic hardship for Latinos, or a second term with no Latino cabinet members but an immigration overhaul and improvement in the economic situation of Latinos?
It’s not a fun choice to make. In an ideal world we would get both, but politics is far from being an ideal world. The issue here is that the ball needs to be moved forward on representation on all fronts — cabinet posts, policy, electoral representation and the close to 10,000 presidential appointees and aides.
I wish I could end by saying that two or three or five is the magic number when it comes to appointments. However, there is one magic number and that is Latino electoral turnout — the higher that number goes, the harder the push we can make on all fronts of Latino representation.
Dr. Victoria M. DeFrancesco Soto is an NBC Latino and MSNBC contributor, Senior Analyst for Latino Decisions and Fellow at the Center for Politics and Governance at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, at Austin.