With Hispanics Watching, Obama Picks Richardson

President-elect Barack Obama formally tapped New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson to be his commerce secretary. Richardson is the highest-ranking Hispanic so far in Obama's administration, something Hispanic leaders are watching closely.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

President-elect Barack Obama has nominated Bill Richardson to be his commerce secretary. Richardson is the governor of New Mexico and a former senator, U.N. ambassador, energy secretary, and a Latino. In the Hispanic community, there's concern that so far, Richardson is the only Latino picked for Mr. Obama's cabinet. As NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Many Hispanics had hoped that Governor Richardson would become the first Latino secretary of state, and their disappointment over that was still evident at today's nomination announcement. Here's the question a reporter for the spanish language TV network, Telemundo, put to the president-elect.

BLOCK: What do you think about the articles, like the one today in the New York Times, that say the announcement of Bill Richardson for secretary of commerce are - somehow the consolation prize for groups who are calling Latinos to be included in your cabinet?

LUDDEN: Mr. Obama said Richardson will be a key strategist on the central economic problems of the day. Then he appealed for patience while he fills out the rest of his administration.

BARACK OBAMA: I think people are going to say this is one of the most diverse cabinets and White House staffs of all time. But more importantly, they're going to say, these are all people of outstanding qualifications and excellence.

LUDDEN: Hispanics are not questioning the qualifications of those picks so far. But their overwhelming support for Mr. Obama in the election had generated hopes for something more. Latinos voted two to one for Mr. Obama, and their ballots were decisive in key swing states, says Janet Murguia of the National Council of La Raza or NCLR.

JANET MURGUIA: There were such high expectations and to not see a Latino appointed to his cabinet until halfway into these cabinet positions has been a little bit of a let down.

LUDDEN: Another Latino strategist was more direct but didn't want to be recorded. She was troubled that the handful of Hispanics named to the administration so far were previous Washington insiders, several with experience in the Clinton White House, and worried the Obama team hasn't developed its own network of up and coming Hispanic managers. The NCLR's Janet Murguia says the problem could date to Senator Obama's campaign.

MURGUIA: They may be suffering a little bit from the fact that they didn't have a large number of Hispanics involved at the highest levels of the campaign, and that may be in part why it's a little bit more challenging for them at this point.

LUDDEN: In fact, a lot of non-Hispanic administration picks have also come from the Clinton White House. And more Hispanics are said to be under consideration, including Congressman Xavier Becerra for U.S. trade representative and Congressman Raul Grijalva for interior secretary among others. Arturo Vargas heads the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

ARTURO VARGAS: The most important thing that any Latino, Latina can bring is their life experience and knowing what it is that Latino and Latina American citizens are dealing with on a daily basis.

LUDDEN: Latina marketer and political strategist Lorena Chambers also says the cabinet isn't the only show in town.

LORENA CHAMBERS: I would not be surprised to see a very high ranking Latina or Latino be considered for the Supreme Court, and that in and of itself would be an incredible step for President-elect Obama.

LUDDEN: The Obama team shouldn't be lacking in candidates. A number of groups are compiling lists of qualified Hispanic lawyers and politicians from across the country in hopes of getting them roles in the new administration. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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Obama Names Richardson To Commerce Post

President-elect Obama and Gov. Bill Richardson i

President-elect Obama (left) introduces New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson as his Commerce secretary during a press conference in Chicago. Scott Olson/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Scott Olson/Getty Images
President-elect Obama and Gov. Bill Richardson

President-elect Obama (left) introduces New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson as his Commerce secretary during a press conference in Chicago.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

As advertised, President-elect Obama on Wednesday announced his choice for secretary of Commerce: New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

The affable Richardson stood beside Obama at the Chicago hotel where the president-elect has been orchestrating his transition to the White House.

"Bill has seen what makes our economy work and what keeps it from working better," Obama said. Richardson brings "an international stature" and "a deep understanding of the global economy."

Richardson — speaking in English and in Spanish — delivered his thanks to Obama and his pledge to help the country.

With the choice of Richardson, Obama adds another former political adversary to his inner circle, which includes Sen. Joseph Biden as vice president and Sen. Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. Richardson, Biden and Clinton all ran unsuccessfully against Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination. Richardson withdrew early on and endorsed Obama.

"This is a great honor," Richardson said. He added that he is not a former rival of Obama's but a former competitor.

The nod to Richardson appears to address anxieties on several levels. The border-state governor is a high-profile Hispanic politician who has domestic and international experience. Richardson served as Energy secretary and ambassador to the United Nations under President Bill Clinton.

Like clockwork, the announcement was made with a reassuring air. Obama — starting a few minutes early — exuded confidence while nominating a former political adversary to a Cabinet position. Again on the TV screen the president's face was framed by news of a volatile stock market and unrest in other parts of the world.

America's standing in the world, Obama said, is essential "to our security" and "to our prosperity."

He spoke calming words: "We have everything we need to renew our economy."

Richardson, who occasionally sports a beard, appeared clean-shaven for the press conference.

"I think it was a mistake to get rid of it," Obama said in response to a question. The rugged Western look was working for Richardson, he said, reiterating that he was "deeply disappointed with the loss of the beard."

Smiling, Obama pointed out that Richardson was a habitue of the cafeteria while at the United Nations, "mixing it up with U.N. employees over lunch." And Obama said that during the 2002 New Mexico gubernatorial campaign, Richardson "actually broke a world record by shaking nearly 14,000 hands in just eight hours."

In a brief question-and-answer period after the announcement, Obama was asked about the possibility of Congress rescuing the ailing U.S. auto industry. Automakers are asking Congress for a lifeline of up to $34 billion.

Obama said that any plan would have to be "based on realistic assessments of what the auto market is going to be and a realistic plan for how we're going to make these companies viable over the long term."

Mixing jocularity with wonkiness, Obama also answered a couple of questions on the Troubled Assets Relief Program, saying that until he has more information at his fingertips it would be premature to comment on decisions on the financial rescue plan being made by the Bush administration.

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