Hispanic leaders coalesce in support of Lujan Grisham as HHS secretary
Hispanic political leaders are banding together in support of New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D), who they see as the most qualified candidate to be President-elect Joe Biden’s secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS).
In a letter to Biden on Sunday, a broad majority of Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) members called on Biden to appoint Lujan Grisham, who led the CHC as a member of Congress before becoming governor, and was New Mexico’s top health care official.
“For more than 30 years, Governor Lujan Grisham has worked tirelessly to improve health care access and quality for New Mexicans and all Americans. The governor’s extensive record in public service and public health is a national model for leadership,” wrote the CHC members.
Lujan Grisham is said to be one of three candidates under consideration for the position, along with former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D).
Lujan Grisham’s supporters argue that in nominating her, Biden would get a health care expert as well as a politically savvy operator who could navigate the dual challenges of the coronavirus pandemic and Affordable Care Act expansion.
“She is politically very sophisticated in addition to being substantively experienced and qualified,” said Janet Murguía, who leads UnidosUS, a top Latino civil rights organization.
“In addition to addressing and containing the pandemic, [Biden has] made access to health care a huge issue in the campaign. For our community, it has been a high priority, if not the highest priority, even leading up to pandemic,” added Murguía.
Latino leaders see HHS as a top priority because Hispanic communities tend to be the most underserved in the country, with higher underinsured and uninsured rates than most other groups, and because Hispanic workers have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
But Hispanics are also wary that Biden could overlook one of the community’s most qualified candidates to lead on an issue of national importance.
“Biden’s heart is in the right place, but I do feel the Latino community has played a secondary role during the campaign and so far during the transition,” said Domingo García, head of the League of United Latin American Citizens, the country’s oldest Latino civil rights organization.
And Lujan Grisham’s candidacy ties into the broader conversation of diversity in a Biden administration — Hispanic and Black leaders have both asked for a minimum of five representatives from their communities in the incoming Cabinet.
“I hope the Biden administration breaks the unwritten quota of two Latinos in the Cabinet. Our numbers are now such that there should be four or five Latinos in the Cabinet,” said García.
Biden’s early appointments have shown a clear commitment to diversity in his Cabinet and leadership team.
Sunday’s appointment of an all-female White House communications team was well-received by activists; Hispanic leaders were especially pleased to see Pili Tobar named deputy White House communications director.
Still, those leaders expect to see that kind of diversity reflected in major administration leadership posts.
Hispanic leaders are hoping to see Lujan Grisham at HHS and either California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D) or Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez occupy the Department of Justice, in addition to Biden’s nominee for Department of Homeland Security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas.
“Your recent nomination of Alejandro Mayorkas, the first Latino and first immigrant to be nominated for the position of Secretary of Homeland Security, reflects your commitment to these efforts,” wrote the CHC members in the letter led by Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Sen.-elect Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.).
“This is a good start in ensuring that Latinos, the largest minority group in the United States, are more fairly represented in our nation’s government,” they added.
Although Cortez Masto’s name has been floated as a potential Justice Department pick, Lujan Grisham is likely the only Latina in consideration for a major Cabinet post.
“For me, in particular, Latina voices are very important because historically they have gotten overlooked despite their qualifications,” said Rep. Verónica Escobar (D-Texas), who is running to lead the CHC.
“The president-elect has a wonderful problem on his hands: an abundance of talent and possibilities in terms of the folks who can serve,” she added.
Biden will also have to navigate the realities of diversity within diversity: Although Mexican-Americans compose more than 60 percent of the Latino population, they are so far not represented in Biden’s Cabinet picks.
“The president-elect has placed a premium — thankfully — on diversity, as he should,” said Escobar. “All of us want to see a Cabinet that looks like America.”
Mayorkas, who is Cuban American, will be the first Hispanic and the first immigrant to head DHS if confirmed by the Senate, but there is likely to be pressure on Biden to pick people who represent different historical facets of the Latino experience.
Lujan Grisham, for instance, comes from an old New Mexico family that’s been in the United States for generations — a typical experience for Hispanic families along the border in New Mexico and Texas, who often say the border crossed them, rather than their ancestors crossing the border, after the Mexican Cession in 1848.
Becerra is the son of migrant agricultural workers who moved from western Mexico to California; Perez is the son of Dominican immigrants who came to the United States during World War II.
While those distinctions could be easily overlooked, many Democrats worry they could have electoral implications, particularly as Republican campaign operatives have shown savvy in reaching moderate and conservative Latino voters in places like Texas.
“This is a critical moment and opportunity for the Biden administration to unite the country by appointing a cabinet that looks like our country,” said Rep. Vicente González (D-Texas).
“The American people are watching. And our party will pay repercussions if we fail them,” added González.
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