As the presidency of Donald Trump draws to an end, the Joe Biden presidency has begun to take form and the contrast between the two chief executives’ cabinets could not be more stark. Trump’s is and has been traditional and almost monochromatic, reflecting little gender diversity and even less ethnic diversity.
A president’s cabinet is an advisory body made up of the heads of the fifteen executive departments of the government. Members advise the president on everything from national defense to agriculture to national health. There is also a number of sub-cabinet members who act as special advisors on such things as domestic policy, climate, and function as presidential envoys. Only cabinet nominees require Senate confirmation.
Like all presidents, Trump’s original cabinet went through a number of changes over his term. Some members resigned; others were asked to resign--- fired. But it mostly remained steady with older White men holding the most prestigious jobs. No more than four women at a time sat as members of the group and ethnic diversity was limited to Ben Carson and Elaine Chao. The contrast between Team Trump and the team Biden is assembling is stark.
While the early incarnation of the Biden cabinet is a work in progress, it’s getting positive but not wholesale nods of approval. “He’s (Biden) trying to bring in people who represent our country in a very conscious way,” said Rosemary Rodriguez, former Denver City Council President.
Biden has filled most of his cabinet positions, including nominees for State, Treasury and Defense, generally considered the top three spots in the cabinet. While no Latinos are in this group, Biden has tapped three Latinos---Miguel Cardona, Javier Becerra and Alejandro Mayorkas---to lead Education, Health and Human Services and Homeland Security. He has also chosen New Mexico Congresswoman Deb Haaland for the top job at Interior. If confirmed, Haaland will be the first Native American to run Interior.
At first blush, the Biden team will be a light year more diverse than Trump’s. But, as the largest minority group in the country, Latinos want more representation and especially more Latinas in these jobs. As the country enters 2021, three Cabinet vacancies remain.
Positions that remain open include Attorney General, Labor and Commerce. Rodriguez suggested New Jersey Federal Judge Esther Salas for Attorney General. Salas son was killed, and her husband wounded last July by an assailant dressed as a FedEx deliveryman. “She is amazing in presentation and presence,” Rodriguez said. While Salas’ experience on the federal bench may qualify her for the job, choosing her would be a longshot.
But Trump’s cabinet contained a number of ‘longshots’ and dubious choices, including Matthew Whitaker who was once characterized as a ‘snake oil’ salesman for his appearance in an infomercial selling toilets for “well-endowed men.” Whitaker, a former college football player, also was on the wrong end of a $26 million judgement when serving on the board of a Miami-based patent company.
Whitaker’s only high level government experience was serving as chief of staff for then Senator Jeff Sessions. Sessions was Trump’s first Attorney General and though he served two-terms in the upper house and was an attorney by trade, his selection was widely thought to be a payback for being the first member of the Senate to endorse Trump for President. Sessions was unceremoniously fired by Trump after recusing himself from the Russia probe, the precursor to the Mueller Investigation.
“It’s truly disheartening that we are continuing to have this conversation,” said former Washington D.C. corporate attorney Sylvia Trujillo. “Despite being the largest “minority” in the nation…we still find ourselves making the case for Latino and Latina inclusion.” “Diverse teams,” she said, “produce better results.”
Trujillo argues that it is long past the time when the ‘can’t find qualified candidates’ excuse is either viable or acceptable. “There is not any question that there is a large over-qualified pool of Latinas who are able to serve at the most senior levels of the Biden Administration.” Trujillo, a Denver native with degrees from Bryn Mawr, Harvard and the University of California, argues that choosing a Latina “would also send an important message about equality and justice for all…the bench of seasoned and experienced Latina lawyers is deep.”
Among Biden’s cabinet selections is former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. During the Democratic presidential campaign, Buttigieg was criticized for never having won a statewide race and presiding over a city with a population of just over 100,000. The department he has been tasked to run, transportation, has 55,000 employees. Buttigieg, a Rhodes Scholar and military veteran, has essentially no experience in transportation.
Rodriguez also would like to see a Latina selected to run the Labor Department or head up the Consumer Financial Bureau. Hilda Solis, now a member of the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors, served effectively as Labor Secretary in the Obama Administration. “Latina women are consistently at the bottom of the wage scale,” said the former Denver city councilwoman. Having a Latina in either position might push the administration to address the pay inequities Latinas face, especially lower income ones.
Trujillo argues that the President-elect needs to listen more closely to Latinos when filling the final three spots in his cabinet as well as other sub-cabinet jobs. Latinos, she said, played “a decisive role in creating the biggest, reliable Blue Wall in delivering victory for Biden.” There is plenty of Latino talent from which to choose, she added. It is long past the day when Latinos need to “overcome implicit bias while validation bias inures to the benefit of the dominant paradigm of white and typically male” candidates.