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Building a Cabinet that looks like America is harder than it looks

Zachary B. Wolf


Dec 4, 2020

(CNN)President-elect Joe Biden got a lot of help from a lot of different people to beat President Donald Trump. Now he's already facing some frustration from constituencies that got him elected that he's not giving them enough room at the governing table.

Biden has already broken multiple barriers by making a Black woman of South Asian descent his vice president-elect.

But Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the third-ranking Democrat in the House -- who helped turn his state's primary in Biden's direction when the now-President-elect's campaign was flailing -- has said there are multiple Black candidates for every Cabinet post. He's particularly floated Rep. Marcia Fudge, an Ohio Democrat, to be agriculture secretary.

Latinos feel like there has been a two-secretary quota for the past three administrations, and on Thursday members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus expressed frustration in a meeting with leaders of Biden's transition team over how New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham -- the first Democratic Latina to be elected governor in the US and a potential nominee for Health and Human Services secretary -- has been treated in the Cabinet selection process.

Progressives who supported Bernie Sanders for president want to know why no serious progressive is yet at Biden's table.

Just wait, says Biden. The President-elect told CNN's Jake Tapper on Thursday that he would keep his commitment to nominate a Cabinet that reflects America's diversity.

"I'm going to keep my commitment that the administration, both in the White House and outside in the Cabinet, is going to look like the country," Biden said in a joint interview with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

The President-elect noted the group of nominees he has named so far constitutes "the most diverse Cabinet anyone in American history has ever announced."

And he invited special interest groups to keep up the pressure on him.

"Their job is to push me," Biden said, noting every advocacy group is "pushing for more and more and more of what they want. That's their job."

"My job is to keep my commitment to make the decisions," Biden said. "And when it's all over people will take a look and say, I promise you, you'll see the most diverse Cabinet representative of all folks, Asian Americans, African Americans, Latinos, LGBTQ, across the board."

I talked to Domingo Garcia, who is president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, about the importance of diversity in Biden's Cabinet, both from a policy and a political standpoint.

A portion of our conversation, lightly edited, is below.

Why is Cabinet diversity so important?

WHAT MATTERS: Why is it important to interest groups representing Black and Latino voters to have Cabinet members that look like that them?

GARCIA: It is important to Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans that they have a place at the table. Because if you're not at the table, you're on the menu. And under the Trump administration, many groups felt like were not being represented by almost an entirely all-White Cabinet. And if you have a Cabinet that looks like America, it's going to reflect America's values and it's going to make America stronger.

Is Biden on the right track?

WHAT MATTERS: The President-elect has Alejandro Mayorkas, a Cuban immigrant, being in charge of the Department of Homeland Security. That's a first. He may pick the governor of New Mexico to be in charge of his Department of Health and Human Services. Is he on the right track, or does he have work to do?

GARCIA: Biden has a great opportunity to have a Cabinet that truly looks like America and to fulfill his promises. Right now, I'm still a little disappointed we haven't seen more diversity. In the few picks he's made so far, he seems like to be going back to the Obama administration instead of looking for fresh new talent.

Breaking a two-Latino Cabinet threshold

WHAT MATTERS: Did the Obama administration do good enough?

GARCIA: No. I mean, Latinos feel like we have a quota of two Cabinet members. That's how many there were under Clinton, that's how many there were under Obama and under Bush. We are concerned that we are now the largest voting bloc in the United States in terms of minorities. We made a crucial difference and elected him in Arizona and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. And so there needs to be a remembering who brought you to the dance kind of concept with the Biden team.

Biden owes many things to many constituencies

WHAT MATTERS: But at the same time, Biden was elected in large part because of Black voters in Georgia and he got the nomination because of Black voters in South Carolina. And Latino voters didn't turn out for him in Texas, for instance, or Florida. So does he owe more -- not to pit two communities against one another, because I don't think that's constructive -- but does he owe more to the Black community? And is that how the Latino community is viewing it, if he's putting more Blacks in his Cabinet than Latinos?

GARCIA: Yes. But Latinos, again, were the difference in Arizona, which went for the first time to the Democrat (since 1996). They were the difference in New Mexico and in Colorado and in Wisconsin. And those were tipping points for him, just like the African American community was a very important part of this campaign. So he has to make that balance. But there are more Latino voters now than African Americans, and so therefore he needs to make the outreach because he's in danger of losing Latino voters in the future if they think they're being taken for granted or they're being ignored.

What is 'Latino'?

WHAT MATTERS: Latino voters are an incredibly diverse population within themselves. In Florida we have Cuban Americans and Venezuelan Americans and Puerto Ricans. In Texas, we have Mexican Americans and Latinos from Central America. How should Americans look at the Latino vote? Because it's not a monolith.

GARCIA: You need to have a popular economic message that overrides the natural conservative cultural values that most Latinos have. Most Latinos are pro-military, they are pro-police. They're pro-life and pro-religious beliefs, to a large extent. But their pocketbook issues -- raising the minimum wage, health care for all, helping their children go to college without being involved in a hundreds of thousands of student loans -- those are things that I think that Democrats really need to push to get voters on their side. Whether they're Cuban Americans in Florida, Mexican Americans in Texas and California or Dominicans and Puerto Ricans in New York and Pennsylvania.

WHAT MATTERS: Do you think that they are issues that speak to almost all Latino voters or are they unique by group and by individual?

GARCIA: I think the economic populist issues will appeal across the working class, which is the majority. I think there's some cultural issues that need to be dealt with, that Democrats, maybe we need to have a bigger tent -- especially on the abortion issue and on issues such as immigration and education.

Goals for Biden's Cabinet

WHAT MATTERS: Is there a particular Cabinet position that you think Biden should look to fill with a Latino Cabinet member, or does he just need to have more Latinos in his Cabinet?

GARCIA: I think that there should be at least three Latinos/Latinas on his Cabinet. Right now we only have one. And of course, there's 5,000 other appointments that are presidential that could have tremendous impact at the local level, whether it's the undersecretaries for Housing and Urban Development or transportation or the other federal agencies that also can make a difference in terms of the lives of helping the mom-and-pop shops that are struggling right now on Main Street.

Look to a new generation

WHAT MATTERS: Do you feel like the Biden administration's beginning to understand this, or do they not?

GARCIA: I don't think they get it. Right now, it appears that they're relying on the old Obama team and not looking at the dynamic new leadership in the Latino community at various levels -- a lot of really gifted individuals that could serve in this administration in the Cabinet, as judges and as other federal appointees.

WHAT MATTERS: Who are some names that pop to mind for you?

GARCIA: Rep. Raul Ruiz from California is a doctor and has been at the forefront fighting Covid. Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona I think would be a great secretary of interior. You have women that have indicated that they're interested in judgeship positions to join maybe Sonia Sotomayor on the Supreme Court. And we've never had a Democrat Latino attorney general. Xavier Becerra, for example, the attorney general of California, I think would make an excellent attorney general for the country after you know what we've seen with Bill Barr.

WHAT MATTERS: That's interesting about Becerra, because I think a lot of people might think that he should be appointed to Kamala Harris' Senate seat. Do you think it's more important to have Latinos represented in the Cabinet or in this Congress?

GARCIA: I think we can do both. Yesterday Sen. Dianne Feinstein came out for Secretary of State Alex Padilla to be the new senator. And I think Sen. Feinstein's support will generate a lot more pressure on Gov. Gavin Newsom to appoint a Latino, probably Alex Padilla. And that still means that they can move to appoint Xavier Becerra to be attorney general of the United States.

This balancing act is why Biden was elected

WHAT MATTERS: One last question. There's something to be said for geographical diversity in addition to racial diversity. How should we consider geographical diversity for a Cabinet?

GARCIA: I think we have several Texans that would be great. Julián Castro, who was the secretary of HUD under President Barack Obama, I think could serve another capacity under the Biden administration. There are other options that are out there. It's all a balancing act for Biden, and that's what he was elected for.