Commentary: Women are seeking more slots in Obama's cabinet
SAN DIEGO -- There aren't enough women and minorities in the highest positions in government. But who's counting? Just about everyone, it seems.
Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., is keeping score of how many African-Americans serve in the Senate: zero, after President-elect Barack Obama resigned his seat. Rush took note of that fact while playing the race card at the Gov. Rod Blagojevich press conference where the former Black Panther dared the white Democrats who run the Senate not to seat Blagojevich's appointee to fill out Obama's Senate term: former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris.
"There are no African-Americans in the Senate," Rush told reporters in support of Burris, who is black. "And I don't think that anyone -- any U.S. senator who's sitting in the Senate right now -- wants to go on record to deny one African-American for being seated in the U.S. Senate."
Forgoing subtlety, Rush warned Blagojevich's critics not to "hang or lynch" Burris.
It's not just African-Americans who are underrepresented in the Senate, the most exclusive private club in politics. With Mel Martinez of Florida planning to retire in 2010 and Ken Salazar of Colorado resigning to accept Obama's nomination to become interior secretary, it may leave only one Hispanic: Robert Menendez of New Jersey. And there are no Native Americans and only two Asian-Americans.
And what about the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue? Recently, I criticized Obama for a slow start in appointing Latinos to his Cabinet. I was troubled that Obama disrespected Bill Richardson -- perhaps the nation's most prominent Latino official -- by giving the secretary of state job to Hillary Clinton. Richardson was given commerce secretary as a parting gift. This was, I wrote, no way for Obama to treat an ethnic group who took a leap of faith and helped the Democrat win four battleground states by supporting him 2-to-1 over John McCain despite a thin record of service to the Latino community.
Since then, Obama has nominated two more Latinos to the Cabinet: Salazar and Rep. Hilda Solis, D-Calif., as labor secretary. If all his nominees are confirmed, it will mean that -- while Obama blew the chance to put a Latino in one of the top four posts (State, Defense, Treasury, Attorney General) -- he will make history with the most Latinos ever in a Cabinet.
Granted, it's a sad state of affairs when three is a large enough number to make history. But so be it. Of the 20 Cabinet-level positions in Obama's administration, 15 percent would be held by Latinos, who now make up about 14 percent of the U.S. population.
Not that there should be a quota. There shouldn't be. Latinos just want seats at the table. People forget that it was only 20 years ago -- recent history -- that the first Latino was appointed to the Cabinet when President Reagan nominated Lauro Cavazos as education secretary in 1988.
I give Obama credit for his Latino nominations. The fact that he skimmed the cream by choosing a sitting governor, senator and congresswoman shows that one can achieve diversity without sacrificing quality.
There are those who will never accept that and who seem to think that white males have a monopoly on merit. For them, this entire diversity accounting system is silly and even offensive. They insist that staffing a Cabinet should be like picking a doctor, where you choose the best person regardless of race or background. It's easy to say that when many of the people in government look like you. But keeping score of diversity is simply a proud American tradition that over the years benefited the Irish, Italians, Germans and Jews, and now benefits someone else.
Still, you can't make everyone happy. Some women's groups feel slighted by the fact that Obama nominated only five women for Cabinet-level positions: Clinton, Solis, Janet Napolitano as homeland security secretary, Susan Rice as U.N. ambassador, and Lisa Jackson as head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Women would occupy 25 percent of the Obama Cabinet while accounting for half of the U.S. population. Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, has called for "a lot more women's voices in this administration."
In fact, the number of women in the Obama Cabinet would be consistent with the number in recent administrations. But women's groups say they were hoping to make progress.
Aren't we all?
Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.