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New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson speaks to Latino voters during an early-vote rally in Denver””s Rude Park on Saturday, Oct. 25, 2008. The rally was one of nine in seven Colorado cities, featuring local and national elected officials stumping for Barack Obama. (AP Photo/Ivan Moreno)

Latinos push for Cabinet posts

Weeks before Barack Obama won the presidency, he met privately in Washington with his former Democratic rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, and Latino political leaders who had fervently backed her bid.

The cards were laid upon the table, according to one of the participants. The Hispanic leaders said they expected at least two Latinos to be named to an Obama Cabinet — meeting the standard set by President-elect Bill Clinton in 1992 — but preferred three. Of course, they also wanted sub-Cabinet-level posts.

In return, Obama needed assurances that Hispanics — who had overwhelmingly voted for Clinton during the Democratic primaries — would be mobilized in large enough numbers to make him the winner in the battleground states of Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and Florida.

On Election Day, Obama won all four states over Republican John McCain largely because of the Latino vote.

Florida Hispanics voted 57 percent-42 percent for Obama, 1 percentage point more than they gave President Bush in 2004. In Colorado, Obama’s Latino margin was 73-27, in Nevada it was 76-22 and in New Mexico, 69 percent of Hispanics backed Obama versus 30 percent for McCain, according to news media exit polls.

Latinos in Virginia, another key state, also picked Obama by a 2-1 margin. Nationally, only 30 percent of Hispanics backed McCain, 10 points lower than for Bush in the last election.

Hispanics delivered. Now the question is, how much can Latinos expect from Obama?

The president-elect has not made any firm commitments. During a speech to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute in September, he asked for their policy ideas and their votes and added, “When I’m president, I’ll be asking many of you to serve at every level of government.”

Cecilia Munoz, vice president of National Council of La Raza, said, “It’s a foregone conclusion that we should be at the table for policy debates and in a position of authority,” because Hispanics are affected by major issues facing all voters. Latinos will be prominent in an Obama administration “just as we would be in any administration moving forward,” she added.

But as the first African-American elected to the presidency, Obama is expected to face enormous pressures from various interests — women, Asian-Americans, Latinos and especially African-Americans — for top positions in his administration.

History also has taught Latinos to take nothing for granted.

In 1964, President Johnson’s top adviser, Jack Valenti, cut down a group of Latinos seeking presidential appointments. “You have one percent of the vote, so you have one percent of my attention,” Raul Yzaguirre recalled Valenti saying. Yzaguirre is the past president of National Council of La Raza and head of Arizona State University’s Center for Community Development and Civil Rights.

In 1992, Bill Clinton promised during his campaign “to give you an administration that looks like America.” But when a delegation of Hispanic leaders met with his transition chairman, Vernon Jordan, he curtly noted that Latinos had not struggled for civil rights as blacks had, and they would “have to stand in line,” attendees later recalled.

No one expects that to happen now. As Tuesday’s election results reflected, times have changed. Latino civil rights groups estimate that at least 10 million Hispanics voted Tuesday, up 32 percent from 2004.

Any diminishment of the Hispanic presence in today’s society and politics “would be a colossal mistake,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. “Latinos have demonstrated they can have an impact.”

After being “kept out” of government, Hispanic leaders maintained now is their time to “catch up” and claim their share of seats at the policy tables of major federal agencies.

Hispanics have slowly gained positions at the White House, said Paul Light, a New York University professor who studies presidential appointments.

In Clinton’s initial round of appointments to Cabinet and sub-Cabinet positions, Hispanics made up 6 percent. In 2001, 8 percent of Bush’s nominees were Hispanic, Light said.

“Hispanics have a reasonable claim to be in positions that have nothing to do with being Hispanic,” Light said. “They don’t want to be shunted aside and they deserve that consideration.”

Before the election, two dozen groups that make up the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda turned over to Obama and John McCain policy recommendations that included adding more Hispanics to the federal workforce, increasing Hispanic political appointments and naming more Latinos to the federal bench.

The coalition will be collecting résumés to submit to Obama’s transition team. “It behooves us to not just suggest that the administration hire Latinos. We need to also provide good candidates,” said Peter Zamora of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

NALEO’s Vargas worries that, early on, the only names usually mentioned for possible appointment to the Obama administration are New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Obama’s Hispanic adviser Federico Pena — two Democrats who previously served in the Clinton administration.

One open question is whether Obama’s inside circle of advisers will be tempted to consider another factor. Hispanics were with Bill Clinton from the start of his presidential campaign and were widely appreciated by Bush, who could not have won the White House without them. Though Latino voters heartily backed Obama on Election Day, many were with Hillary Clinton first.

Yzaguirre said he and others addressed that issue frankly with Obama at their meeting several weeks ago. “We said, ‘Look, if you are going to see us as late-comers, that’s not going to work. If you see us as partners from here on, we will have a good relationship.’ And he said he welcomed our support,” Yzaguirre said.

Obama promised to listen to them. In coming days, the president-elect and his advisers will get an earful.

Gebe Martinez is a longtime journalist in Washington and a frequent lecturer and commentator on the policy and politics of Capitol Hill.