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With Hispanics Watching, Obama Picks Richardson

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

President-elect Barack Obama has nominated Bill Richardson to be his commerce secretary. Richardson is the governor of New Mexico and a former senator, U.N. ambassador, energy secretary, and a Latino. In the Hispanic community, there's concern that so far, Richardson is the only Latino picked for Mr. Obama's cabinet. As NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Many Hispanics had hoped that Governor Richardson would become the first Latino secretary of state, and their disappointment over that was still evident at today's nomination announcement. Here's the question a reporter for the spanish language TV network, Telemundo, put to the president-elect.

BLOCK: What do you think about the articles, like the one today in the New York Times, that say the announcement of Bill Richardson for secretary of commerce are - somehow the consolation prize for groups who are calling Latinos to be included in your cabinet?

LUDDEN: Mr. Obama said Richardson will be a key strategist on the central economic problems of the day. Then he appealed for patience while he fills out the rest of his administration.

BARACK OBAMA: I think people are going to say this is one of the most diverse cabinets and White House staffs of all time. But more importantly, they're going to say, these are all people of outstanding qualifications and excellence.

LUDDEN: Hispanics are not questioning the qualifications of those picks so far. But their overwhelming support for Mr. Obama in the election had generated hopes for something more. Latinos voted two to one for Mr. Obama, and their ballots were decisive in key swing states, says Janet Murguia of the National Council of La Raza or NCLR.

JANET MURGUIA: There were such high expectations and to not see a Latino appointed to his cabinet until halfway into these cabinet positions has been a little bit of a let down.

LUDDEN: Another Latino strategist was more direct but didn't want to be recorded. She was troubled that the handful of Hispanics named to the administration so far were previous Washington insiders, several with experience in the Clinton White House, and worried the Obama team hasn't developed its own network of up and coming Hispanic managers. The NCLR's Janet Murguia says the problem could date to Senator Obama's campaign.

MURGUIA: They may be suffering a little bit from the fact that they didn't have a large number of Hispanics involved at the highest levels of the campaign, and that may be in part why it's a little bit more challenging for them at this point.

LUDDEN: In fact, a lot of non-Hispanic administration picks have also come from the Clinton White House. And more Hispanics are said to be under consideration, including Congressman Xavier Becerra for U.S. trade representative and Congressman Raul Grijalva for interior secretary among others. Arturo Vargas heads the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

ARTURO VARGAS: The most important thing that any Latino, Latina can bring is their life experience and knowing what it is that Latino and Latina American citizens are dealing with on a daily basis.

LUDDEN: Latina marketer and political strategist Lorena Chambers also says the cabinet isn't the only show in town.

LORENA CHAMBERS: I would not be surprised to see a very high ranking Latina or Latino be considered for the Supreme Court, and that in and of itself would be an incredible step for President-elect Obama.

LUDDEN: The Obama team shouldn't be lacking in candidates. A number of groups are compiling lists of qualified Hispanic lawyers and politicians from across the country in hopes of getting them roles in the new administration. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jennifer Ludden
NPR National Correspondent Jennifer Ludden covers economic inequality, exploring systemic disparities in housing, food insecurity and wealth. She seeks to explain the growing gap between socio-economic groups, and government policies to try and change it.