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Commentary: Obama ignored Latinos for top posts

  • Story Highlights
  • Ruben Navarrette: Obama got strong support from Latino community
  • He says Bill Richardson had credentials for secretary of state
  • Navarrette: Obama skipped over Latino candidates for top four jobs
  • He says Richardson wasn't even the first candidate for the commerce job
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By Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Special to CNN
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Editor's Note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a nationally syndicated columnist and a member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union-Tribune. Read his column here

Ruben Navarrette says Obama skipped over Latinos for the top Cabinet posts.

SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- About four years ago, I wrote a column praising President Bush for appointing Latinos to the Cabinet as he began his second term. The most obvious example was Bush's decision to nominate Alberto Gonzales as attorney general, which many liberals would insist was a big mistake.

I disagree. But that's an argument for another time.

This much can't be argued: Gonzales represented a major breakthrough. You see, all Cabinet posts are not created equal and, before Bush broke the barrier, no Latino had ever been nominated for one of the top four jobs -- defense, state, treasury, or attorney general.

A whole succession of presidents -- including Democrats such as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton -- who had munched nachos and posed with mariachis on the campaign trail, and enjoyed substantial support from Latinos, had somehow missed the opportunity to seat a Latino at the grown-ups' table. Imagine that.

In that column, I also mentioned Bush's decision to nominate Cuban-born Carlos Gutierrez to be commerce secretary. I had a line that read something like: "Commerce secretary isn't chopped liver."

A liberal reader who was obviously intent on denying Bush credit for anything positive wrote back, "Sorry, but commerce secretary is chopped liver."

I stand corrected.

This week, President-elect Barack Obama unveiled his national security team and continued the sorry tradition of presidents overlooking Latinos as they fill the top-tier of the Cabinet appointments. The four big posts have been filled, and there is not a Latino anywhere in the mix.

Even liberals who like to think of the Gonzales appointment as a kind of failed social experiment because it lets them off the hook for future stabs at diversity would be hard-pressed to suggest that they couldn't do better and that Obama couldn't find a single Latino to name, oh I don't know, secretary of state.

You would have thought Bill Richardson was a shoo-in for that job, with his gold-plated resume: Seven-term member of Congress; special envoy to North Korea, Iraq, Cuba and Sudan; U.N. ambassador; energy secretary; New Mexico governor and five-time nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering cease-fires and negotiating the release of hostages. What a slacker. I'm surprised Richardson never got around to securing peace in the Middle East.

Let's not forget that Richardson is the highest-ranking Latino official in the country, and that Latinos supported Obama over John McCain by a margin of more than 2-to-1 and helped the Democrat win four battleground states.

Let's not forget that Richardson, a former member of the Clinton Cabinet, burned his bridges to the Little Rock Mafia by endorsing Obama in the primary over Hillary Clinton. CNN contributor James Carville likened Richardson to Judas.

Let's not forget that Richardson had the blessing of the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, an association of 26 national and regional Hispanic civil rights and public policy organizations whose leaders sent a letter to President-elect Obama recommending Richardson for secretary of state.

Instead, this week, Obama gave the job that Richardson coveted to Hillary Clinton. And then, adding insult to injury, Obama nominated Richardson to be -- wait for it -- commerce secretary.

It's no wonder that, at the press conference where Obama announced Richardson's nomination, a Latino reporter asked the president-elect if this wasn't just an elaborate consolation prize. Obama insisted it wasn't, and that this was a very important job. What else could he say?

It gets worse. The gig is leftovers. According to CNN and other sources, Obama's first choice to head the commerce department was Penny Pritzker, the president-elect's chief fundraiser and a billionaire heir to the Hyatt hotel fortune who withdrew her name from consideration.

For someone who supposedly doesn't like drama, the president-elect has sure spun one juicy telenovela over who should serve in his Cabinet.

Don't misunderstand. Hillary Clinton didn't have Richardson's experience, but she might still make an extraordinary secretary of state. This isn't about Clinton and Richardson. It's about Obama and Richardson. It's about betrayal and humiliation and disappointment.

About all this, I don't know whether to be amused or angry. I could be amused because all those Latinos who supported Obama now have huevos rancheros on their faces. But I suppose I should be angry that Obama has so little regard for America's largest minority that he would treat it disrespectfully.

Then again, it could have been worse. Legend has it that Obama's incoming Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, another Clintonista, once sent a lobbyist with whom he was angry a dead fish. All Bill Richardson got was chopped liver.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

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