Cabinet picks help, hurt Hispanics political gains

For Hispanics, Sen. Ken Salazar's selection as Interior secretary represents both a milestone and a setback.

President-elect Barack Obama's choice of Salazar to join his Cabinet — the second Hispanic, along with Commerce Secretary-designate Bill Richardson — acknowledges the political clout of the nation's fastest-growing voting bloc.

It also leaves the Senate with a shrinking Hispanic caucus. And it underscores a paradox that underlies Obama's historic election: Minorities remain underrepresented in Congress.

Hispanics, now the nation's largest minority group, are 14.7% of the population, but hold only 5% of the seats in the current Congress. Blacks make up 12.4% of the nation's population, but just 8% of the current Congress. Obama's election left the Senate without any African-American members.

Asian Americans, at 4.5% of the population, hold 1% of the seats.

Since 2006, the Senate has had three Hispanic members — a first in the nation's history. But now Salazar, a Colorado Democrat, is departing for the executive branch, and Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., has announced he will not run for re-election in 2010. That raises the prospect that Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., could become the Senate's lone Hispanic representative.

"It's bittersweet," Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, said of Salazar's selection.

Some Hispanic leaders are hoping Colorado's Democratic governor, Bill Ritter, will appoint another Hispanic to replace Salazar. John Trasviña, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, suggested Salazar's brother, Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., or Federico Peña, a former Denver mayor who served in then-president Bill Clinton's Cabinet.

Vargas says both Democrats and Republicans need to work harder to recruit and support minority candidates. This year, Democrats "really missed a bet," he said, by not funding the challenge that state Rep. Rick Noriega mounted against Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. Noriega got 43% of the vote, despite being outspent by more than 4 to 1.

Noriega said the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) gave him only $39,900.

The Democratic committee did spend heavily to support two Hispanics in recent years: Menendez got more than $8 million in 2006 and Salazar got about $3 million in 2004, records show.

In a letter last week to Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who headed the DSCC the past two years, Texas state Sens. Mario Gallegos and Leticia Van de Putte, accused the committee of writing off the Texas race because Noriega is "not wealthy or white."

Schumer declined to comment on the letter. Menendez, who is taking over as chairman of the Democrats' Senate campaign committee for the next election cycle, defended the decision. He said that campaign dollars should go to states where Democrats have a chance of winning, and that President Bush's home state was not one of those. "Rick Noriega is a great public servant," he said, "but he wasn't able to lay the foundation financially."

Menendez said he'd like to recruit a diverse crop of Senate candidates for the 2010 elections. He added, however, "My first and foremost priority is to make sure I have candidates who can win the seats statewide." That means candidates who have a high profile and "the ability to raise the resources," Menendez said.

Noriega and Van de Putte say that favors wealthy or well-connected candidates — such as Bill White, an independently wealthy Democratic mayor of Houston, who just announced his intention to seek a Senate seat in Texas. Hispanics make up 35.5% of the state's population.

Two Hispanic members of Congress, Reps. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., and Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., took themselves out of the running for two Senate vacancies created by the incoming Obama administration. Velázquez told New York Gov. David Paterson not to consider her for the seat Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton will leave to become secretary of State, and Gutierrez declined consideration for Obama's seat.

Van de Putte said she's thinking about running for a U.S. Senate seat in Texas, and that party leaders who argue she doesn't have enough financial backing won't faze her. Hers is a confidence inspired by the 2008 election.

Said Van de Putte, "The days of women and minorities asking permission are gone."

Contributing: Haya El Nasser in McLean, Va.