WASHINGTON — Four months after the euphoria they felt over Bill Clinton's presidential victory, national Latino leaders' high expectations are fading at what they consider mixed results, at best, in trying to gain political influence and a share of top-level appointments.
After last November's election, the leaders had strong reason to believe that Latinos' political fortunes were about to rise. They had been early supporters of Clinton's presidential bid and Clinton had promised at a Cinco de Mayo celebration in San Francisco last year: "If you vote for me, I will give you an Administration that looks like America."
But a December meeting with leaders of Clinton's transition team provided a political reality check for the Latinos.
Among those who attended were Andy Hernandez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project; Antonia Hernandez, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund; Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina; AFL-CIO Vice President Jack Otero; Rep. Esteban Torres (D-La Puente) and Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza.
They and others gathered in a small conference room in Little Rock, Ark., and some remember being thrown off balance almost immediately by transition chairman Vernon Jordan, who recalled that as head of the National Urban League he had made similar demands, calling for the appointment of blacks to high-level government jobs.
The Latinos said his message, if intended to demonstrate empathy, came across as being patronizing, or worse. One participant interpreted Jordan's comments to mean: "You haven't shed blood like we have; you have to stand in line." Jordan did not respond to Times' requests for a comment on that meeting.
Once Jordan left the room that day, the political activists recalled later, they found support from transition Personnel Director Richard Riley. They left the meeting counting on the former South Carolina governor to carry their message to Clinton: As the President-elect began looking for qualified minorities to fill key Administration posts, he should remember to include Latinos.
They hoped for immediate results from the first Democratic President since the 1970s, and their initial expectations were realized when Clinton matched President Bush's record by naming two Latinos to his Cabinet. Former San Antonio Mayor Henry G. Cisneros became secretary of housing and urban development and former Denver Mayor Federico Pena was named to head the Transportation Department.
The National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, a nonpartisan coalition of interest groups and key leaders that formerly included Cisneros and Pena, has asked that at least one Latino be appointed at the assistant secretary level in each federal agency and that at least 120 positions of about 1,100 requiring Senate confirmation be filled with Latinos.
But as top-level positions were slowly being filled, Latinos were rarely mentioned on "short lists" of finalists. And some Latino leaders privately seethed with anger.
Many began to wonder whether Clinton will end up with a worse record for Latino outreach than Bush, who was considered less friendly to the causes of Latinos but who chose Latinos for 22 of 659 top positions in federal agencies.
"To forget us, and to assume that we are going to be happy with Henry Cisneros and Federico Pena only, is clearly an oversight and is clearly an underestimation of us as a community," said Lydia Camarillo, national leadership director for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
"There's uneasiness, disappointment and puzzlement," said Harry Pachon, national director of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
By early March, the only other major Latino nominations were Fernando M. Torres-Gil, a professor of social welfare at UCLA, to be assistant secretary of health and human services for aging; Jim Baca, New Mexico's commissioner of public lands, to be director of the Interior Department's bureau of land management, and Norma Cantu, a MALDEF official, to head the Office of Civil Rights in the Education Department.
One leading Latino lawyer was edged out of a high-profile post because of other political considerations. The Administration, without consulting Latino leaders, had planned to nominate New York lawyer Mario Baeza, a black Cuban-American who was recommended by Jordan and Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown, as its State Department point man for Latin American affairs.
But Baeza's prospects fizzled after anti-communist Cuban-Americans complained that he had taken at least two business-related trips to Cuba and was perceived as being soft in his views toward Cuban President Fidel Castro.