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Maria Elena Salinas: Obama's Latino factor

It was not exactly the position that he was expecting, but he was nevertheless grateful.

"To our Latino community, thank you for your support and confidence, for voting for our candidate and now our president-elect," said New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson in Spanish as he accepted his nomination by President-elect Barack Obama as secretary of commerce on Dec. 3.

It was hard to hide the look of disappointment on his face at not being named secretary of state, a position he was expecting and was certainly qualified for but went to Sen. Hillary Clinton instead.

But even though his nomination was viewed by some as a mere consolation prize, Richardson's appointment went beyond the position he was picked for:

It was the kickoff of what would become the Latino factor of Obama's administration.

Richardson was the first Hispanic nominated for Obama's Cabinet.

It was a moment of pride for the Latino community, but was received with a bit of skepticism.

After Richardson's nomination, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus sent a letter to the president-elect's transition office recommending names of additional Hispanics as potential candidates for the remaining Cabinet slots.

"We'd definitely be disappointed ... if it's just one (Richardson), he's going to have to answer to a lot of the issues that come before us," said the chairman for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, California Rep. Joe Baca.

He added that the president-elect would jeopardize his agenda if no other Latinos were selected.

After all, Obama did promise to have one of the most diverse presidential Cabinets in history.

It turns out that's one promise the president-elect is keeping even before being sworn into office.

By mid-December, Obama had selected a record number of seven Latinos to key posts in his administration, including three high-level Cabinet members.

Besides Richardson at commerce, he appointed Sen. Ken Salazar as secretary of the interior and California Rep. Hilda Solis as secretary of labor.

The Bush and Clinton administrations had at most two Latinos working in their respective Cabinets at one time.

Other midlevel appointees tapped for Obama's White House staff are Cecilia Munoz, vice president of the National Council of La Raza, to be the director of intergovernmental affairs; former Secretary of the Army Louis Caldera as head of the White House Military Office; Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Nancy Sutley as head of the White House's Council on Environmental Quality; and Moises "Moe" Vela will be the new vice president's director of administration.

National Latino organizations are praising Obama for the number of qualified Hispanics selected for his top posts, but some say there is the potential for more.

"While many key positions remain unfilled, we have every reason to believe that President-elect Obama and his team will continue to tap this large and growing pool of Hispanic talent as they continue the crucial appointments process," said Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza.

There not only is a huge pool of Hispanic talent that could contribute to Obama's administration, but there are millions of Hispanics with very high expectations of what the next government will offer them.

Obama was overwhelmingly supported by Latinos.

He got 67 percent of the Latino vote in the general election, and it was Latinos who gave him the victory in key states like Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and even Florida, where for the first time a majority of Latinos voted for a Democrat.

Before going on his winter vacation, the president-elect acknowledged that he still has some positions left to fill before his Jan. 20 inauguration.

Even though he is already making history for having the largest number of Hispanics in high-level posts in the White House, perhaps upon his return he might consider including more than seven to represent the interests of the more than 45 million Latinos living in the U.S., who helped him get to where he is.

Reach Maria Elena Salinas at www.mariaesalinas.com.