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Commentary: Cabinet qualifications are not just being a Hispanic

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SAN DIEGO -- The latest scuttlebutt surrounding Bill Richardson's decision to give up his nomination as commerce secretary is that the New Mexico governor didn't jump ship, he was pushed.

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Either way, it's embarrassing to have one of Barack Obama's most prominent appointments fall apart just weeks before the inauguration.

Not that commerce secretary is a prominent position. I called the post "chopped liver" and the Obama team suggested that, no, this was a vitally important position. At a news conference, Obama insisted that the commerce secretary would "be central to everything we do." Then, after Richardson's withdrawal amid a federal grand jury investigation into whether aides steered a contract to a political backer, an Obama spokesperson tried to downplay the significance by telling Politico that it "doesn't have a huge impact." "This is not the equivalent of a Treasury secretary withdrawing," the aide said. Definitely chopped liver.

It's Richardson who is prominent -- perhaps the most prominent Hispanic elected official in the country. With his step down from governor to commerce secretary, he became the Democratic Party's version of a Latino Norma Desmond. He was still big but "it's the pictures that got small."

And so much for the vetting process. It was no secret that the grand jury was investigating Richardson. Whether anyone took it seriously enough is another matter. According to media accounts, it was awfully serious to the FBI, which began its own background check of Richardson on Dec. 2, the day before his nomination was announced. Now everyone is still pointing fingers. Obama's aides insist that while Richardson mentioned the probe, he played down its importance. Richardson's aides dispute this and insist that it was Team Obama that dropped the ball by taking the matter lightly. We may never know what went wrong.

Like a lot of people, I thought Richardson had the credentials to be in the Cabinet, and I criticized Obama for passing over him over for secretary of state. I also thought Obama should have made more of an effort to place a Latino in one of the top four Cabinet positions. Now some readers want to know if I think less of Richardson. Why should I? He hasn't been accused of any wrongdoing.

Richardson insists he and his staff did nothing wrong, and he claims that the investigation will prove this. He says he only pulled out of the running because the grand jury investigation would have overlapped with his confirmation hearing.

Yes, that would have been inconvenient. Richardson was right to withdraw. In the era of Rod Blagojevich, even the whiff of a pay-to-play scandal is enough to derail a Cabinet nomination. That's the way it goes.

And that reminds me. Stay tuned. The job that Richardson really wanted -- secretary of state -- was offered to Hillary Clinton despite the fact that there are still questions regarding donors to the foundation started by former President Bill Clinton and whether any of them got favorable treatment from Sen. Clinton. According to The New York Times, one was Robert J. Congel, a New York developer who gave $100,000 to the Clinton Foundation in November 2004. This was around the time that Hillary Clinton was pushing bills that gave millions of dollars in federal assistance to Congel's development projects.

Meanwhile, one of the nation's largest Latino organizations, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, is throwing a Hail Mary. It is urging Obama to replace Richardson with another Latino so as not to miss the opportunity to make history by seating a Cabinet with three Latino members. (Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado has been nominated for interior secretary. Rep. Hilda Solis of California is Obama's choice for labor secretary.)

It's a bad play. While I too was encouraged by the possibility of having three Latinos in the Cabinet, what NALEO is proposing - replacing one Latino with another - amounts to a quota. It would look forced, as if ethnicity was the most important factor. Besides, are we to accept that the commerce secretary position will from now on be the de facto "Latino" Cabinet post? Who made that decision?

Give Obama credit. He tried to seat three qualified Latinos in his Cabinet. It didn't work out. Let's leave it at that and move on.

You can bet that is something Bill Richardson is eager to do.

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is navarrette@wctrib.com.

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