Becerra tops list of potential picks to replace Richardson at Commerce

It looks like Colorado’s Ken Salazar might not be the highest-ranking Hispanic member of the Obama Cabinet after all. The secretary of the interior nominee, who plans to step down from the Senate if confirmed later this month, was one of three Hispanics tapped for a Cabinet post — along with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson at Commerce and Rep. Hilda Solis of California at Labor — until Richardson withdrew his name from consideration on Sunday because of an ongoing federal “pay-for-play” probe involving a state contractor. A veteran California congressman, Xavier Becerra, tops the list of potential replacements for Richardson, the San Antonio Express-News reports Tuesday.

Before the ink on Richardson’s announcement was dry, national Latino advocacy groups urged the Obama transition team to fill the Commerce post with another Hispanic leader and produced a list of possible nominees that included Becerra, who had earlier turned down an offer to serve as the Cabinet-level U.S. trade representative, Politico reports. “It will be topic number one,” said Brent A. Wilkes, national executive director of the the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). “We were happy that they appointed three Latinos, and we hope we can keep that intact.”

“Even though he turned down the trade representative slot, Becerra is not only Hispanic, but he has the skill, talent and experience to do the Commerce job,” a source with the Obama transition team told the San Antonio newspaper. Becerra, who was sworn in Tuesday to his ninth term in Congress, could be tempted to give up his seniority and powerful seat on the House Ways and Means Committee to take the Commerce post, the Express-News reports.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, along with other groups, “will be coalescing” around one nominee to head the Department of Commerce and plans to recommend Becerra because of the department’s role in the upcoming 2010 U.S. Census, the Express-News reports. It’s essential, a member of the caucus told the newspaper, to make sure the census accurately accounts for Hispanic and other minority populations because federal entitlement programs are distributed based on census data.

“We are going from three Latinos to two on the Obama Cabinet,” an Obama organizer from San Antonio told the newspaper. “While we still have Sen. (Ken) Salazar and Rep. (Hilda) Solis at Interior and Labor, respectively, Richardson would have been the highest-ranking Hispanic in the cabinet.”

Both the Clinton and Bush administrations counted three Hispanic Cabinet members, though not at the same time, the Express-News points out, including Richardson as Clinton’s secretary of energy and former Denver Mayor Federico Peña as secretary of transportation and then energy. Carlos Gutierrez is Bush’s secretary of commerce.

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