Some Hispanic members of Congress are becoming increasingly testy about what they see as a lack of Latino representation in President-elect Joe Biden’s list of Cabinet and White House nominees, especially after the apparent snubbing of the nation’s only Latina governor for a key post.
During a call between transition leaders and members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus on Thursday, Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) confronted incoming White House chief of staff Ron Klain and other officials about leaks from Biden’s transition indicating New Mexico Gov. Michele Lujan Grisham had turned down an offer to be secretary of the Department of the Interior.
Klain, appearing on the call with transition co-chairs Ted Kaufman and Jeff Zients, apologized for the leaks, according to a Democrat with knowledge of the call.
The call was part of the rockiest period for Biden’s transition so far, with Black, Asian American and Latino lawmakers pressuring them for further representation while progressives prepared to unleash new waves of criticism at any moment. Although most of Biden’s early picks for key Cabinet slots have been met with praise across the ideological spectrum, competition for the remaining positions is the subject of intense lobbying both behind the scenes and publicly.
“Everybody’s eager to see a Cabinet that reflects America. It would be a huge missed opportunity and disappointment if President Biden failed us in that regard,” Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Texas) said in an interview with HuffPost on Monday.
Gonzalez was one of a host of lawmakers of color voicing concerns about the diversity of Biden’s team in recent weeks, especially after Biden announced his intent to nominate Janet Yellen for treasury secretary and Anthony Blinken for secretary of state, filling two of the so-called “big four” slots in the Cabinet. Yellen and Blinken are white.
Biden’s team nominated Cuban American lawyer Alejandro Mayorkas to head the Department of Homeland Security, a pick the Hispanic Caucus publicly praised.
Latino groups and lawmakers were pleased earlier this week when reports indicated Lujan Grisham ― who is not related to Rep. Luján and is a former chairwoman of the caucus ― was the front-runner to become secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. On Wednesday, that possibility blew up, with a source close to the transition telling reporters Lujan Grisham was no longer a front-runner for HHS and had turned down an offer to become interior secretary.
The Interior Department offer baffled people who knew Lujan Grisham, for both policy and political reasons. Lujan Grisham was a former state health secretary in New Mexico but had comparatively little experience with the public lands and energy issues the Interior Department focuses on. Also, three other prominent New Mexico Democrats ― Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, along with Rep. Deb Haaland ― had expressed interest in the interior post, making it difficult for Lujan Grisham to accept without angering other Democrats in the Land of Enchantment.
On Thursday, Lujan Grisham took over as chair of the Democratic Governors Association for 2021. The timing was coincidental: The organization’s winter meeting is taking place, and Lujan Grisham was selected as chair-elect last year. A Democrat with knowledge of the situation said she could still take a job in Biden’s Cabinet.
The Hispanic Caucus has sent the Biden team two letters this week urging them to name Hispanic leaders to top administration posts, including Lujan Grisham for HHS and either Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez or California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to head the Department of Justice, noting either would be a “historic appointment.”
Biden’s team has messaged heavily on diversity during the transition, emphasizing historic “firsts” in his Cabinet and for the White House staff. But Biden has to also balance these wide-ranging constituencies with his long career as a public official and the many public servants who have worked under him over the years.
“The Democratic Party has no shortage of incredibly talented people; it’s what you decide to weigh in all these different categories,” said Chris Jennings, a former health policy adviser in the Obama administration who served on Biden’s policy task forces this summer. “Equity and diversity issues, experience at a federal or state level, private and public sectors, public health and mandatory health. There are so many different kinds of services.”
Finding a balance is, at times, proving difficult for the former vice president.
Last week, Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), a close Biden ally whose endorsement helped Biden win a crucial landslide in the South Carolina primary, said the transition team hadn’t done enough to select more Black leaders for top positions.
“I want to see where the process leads to, what it produces, but so far it’s not good,” he said in an interview with The Hill.
Biden’s team has tapped three Black leaders for top roles: Wally Adeyemo, a Nigerian American economist who has been tapped as deputy treasury secretary; Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, named as a top White House adviser; and former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who was named to be the nominee as ambassador to the United Nations.
“President-elect Biden is building a diverse administration that looks like America, starting with the first woman of South Asian descent and first Black woman to serve as vice president-elect,” a transition spokesperson said. “His campaign and transition have succeeded in this effort. He has announced historic and diverse White House appointments and Cabinet nominees to this point, and his success in finding diverse voices to develop and implement his policy vision to tackle our nation’s toughest challenges will be clear when our full slate of appointees and nominees is complete.”
Even within the Latino community, there are divides. Though lawmakers were pleased with the Cuban-born Mayorkas’s selection, Gonzalez and other Latinos said they were hoping for additional representation for Mexican Americans, who make up three-fifths of the nation’s Latino population.
Gonzalez pointed to Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Texas), an early Biden endorser who represents a district on the U.S.-Mexico border, as a potential U.S. trade representative; and said Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.), a physician, could also fit in the administration. Other Democrats said to expect a push for National Education Association head Lily Eskelsen García for secretary of education.
The battles over representation are also intersecting with the ongoing ideological fights within the Democratic Party, with both moderates and progressives working to present diverse picks to help Biden fill out his Cabinet.
Clyburn and other Black lawmakers have pushed for Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) to serve as agriculture secretary. That push has been joined by liberal groups, who see Fudge as both an attractive alternative to former North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, an avowed centrist, and as a way to shift the Agriculture Department’s priorities from white, corporate and wealthy farmers to underserved family farmers and those on food stamps.
Some progressive groups have also considered forming an alliance with Hispanic lawmakers to push Becerra for U.S. attorney general, seeing him as preferable to former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick or former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates.
But progressive operatives warned it would be difficult to unite the Democratic Party’s left wing around a single attorney general candidate, considering the breadth of the position’s responsibilities and splits among groups focused on the economy, criminal justice and other issues.
Others remain wary of the Biden campaign using a diversity push as cover to add establishment or corporate voices into his administration.
“It’s not enough for us to just have Black representation that is only uplifting corporate power or non-progressive ideas,” said Arisha Hatch, the vice president of campaigns at the progressive group Color of Change. “There are plenty of people to pick from that are people of color, that are Black people, who are both progressive and center racial justice.”
There are political reasons for Biden to fulfill the wishes of the lawmakers asking for more diversity. Biden himself has directly credited Black voters with providing the votes leading him to victory in both the primary and general elections, while a spike in Asian American turnout provided a crucial boost to his victory in Georgia. At the same time, Trump’s success in winning over Latino voters has Gonzalez and other lawmakers warning that Biden needs to deliver.
“The Democratic Party took a huge hit in South Texas,” said Gonzalez, who survived a closer-than-expected race. “And part of that was the Republican messaging: ‘What have Democrats done for you lately?’ And I would hate to have to answer that question after a Cabinet is appointed without appropriate representation that reflects our communities.”