Lauro Cavazos became education secretary in September 1988 and the first Latino to be confirmed for the Cabinet. He stayed on the job in the early part of George H.W. Bush’s presidency before resigning amid questions about his use of frequent-flyer miles.
Ever since, there’s been at least one Latino at the table in the White House Cabinet Room. Until this year.
President-elect Donald Trump is set to nominate Sonny Perdue, the former Republican governor of Georgia, to serve as the next agriculture secretary, filling the final vacancy in his Cabinet. Perdue’s selection, expected for weeks amid reports that he was the pick, means that Trump’s Cabinet won’t have a Democrat, just three women, one African American man — and no Latino.
That ends a nearly three-decade streak of Latino secretaries, top ambassadors and administrators.
After Cavazos came Manuel Lujan Jr., George H.W. Bush’s first interior secretary. During Bill Clinton’s presidency, Federico Peña served as transportation secretary, then energy secretary. Bill Richardson later succeeded Peña at the Energy Department after serving as U.N. ambassador. Henry Cisneros served as Clinton’s secretary of housing and urban development.
When George W. Bush became president, he named Mel Martinez to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Carlos Gutierrez to lead the Commerce Department. President Obama has named six Latinos to serve in his Cabinet: Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Labor Secretary Hilda Solís in his first term. In his second term — under pressure to reward the nation’s fastest-growing voting bloc and a community that had voted overwhelmingly for him — Obama tapped Small Business Administrator Maria Contreras Sweet, Labor Secretary Tom Perez, HUD Secretary Julián Castro and Education Secretary John King, who is black and Puerto Rican.
(NPR’s Latino USA has a fantastic rundown on the history of Latino Cabinet secretaries.)
Asked about the lack of Latino officials in the top ranks of the Trump administration, incoming White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said on Wednesday that Trump “has continued to seek out the best and the brightest to fill his cabinet, but I don’t think that that’s the total reflection. We’ve got 5,000 positions. I think you’re going to see a very, very strong presence of the Hispanic community in his administration.”
Spicer urged reporters to look at the diversity of Trump’s senior White House staffers, but there again, no Latinos — at least not yet.
After a presidential campaign that included sharp attacks on Mexican immigrants, vows to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, the disparagement of a Mexican American federal judge and attacks on the nation’s only Latino governor (a Republican), Latino leaders in recent weeks had expressed little hope or expectation that the Trump administration would include Latinos in top roles.
During a meeting last week on Capitol Hill, dozens of Latino leaders made a last-ditch attempt to persuade the Trump transition team to find a Latino to name to the Cabinet, according to participants in the meeting. They were reminded that Trump had met with two individuals, former Texas Democratic congressman Henry Bonilla and former California Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, about possibly serving as agriculture secretary. But both were passed over.
Mario Lopez, head of the conservative Hispanic Leadership Fund, said that Perdue “seems a more than capable choice for the job. HLF would never want a quota mentality.”
“But,” Lopez added in an email, “not having a Latino cabinet member for the first time in years is indeed a missed opportunity. We know that there are plenty of highly qualified Latinos at all levels with the principles and commitment to serve their country well.”
Alfonso Aguilar, a conservative commentator who also attended the meeting, said he wasn’t upset or offended by Trump’s decision.
“It would’ve been great to have someone of Hispanic origin heading a cabinet agency. I certainly would’ve celebrated it and would’ve been proud,” he said in an email. “But I don’t believe in quotas or identity politics. The president, at the end, should appoint someone he feels comfortable with, regardless of their race or ethnicity.”
“I’m not going to judge Trump on how many Latinos are in his cabinet, but on the impact of his policies on the Latino community and on all Americans,” Aguilar added. “President Obama had three or four Latinos at the cabinet level, but that didn’t help the welfare of Latinos in any way.”
Other participants in the meeting didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
Other groups, including the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, pushed Obama in the past to fill his Cabinet with more Latinos and claimed credit for helping elevate Perez, Castro and others into senior administration positions.
The group was planning to mount a similar pressure campaign after November’s election, circulating copies of a letter they intended to send to the transition team of Hillary Clinton, who they expected would easily defeat Trump.
“We want to push hard starting tomorrow after [the] election is over,” NHLA Chairman Hector Sanchez said in an email to The Washington Post the day before the election.
But Trump won — and hopes of even more Latinos in the White House Cabinet were dashed.