Choices for Change
Latinos in the Biden administration
By Patricia Guadalupe
During his presidential campaign, Joe Biden promised that his administration would “look like the country,” and that includes appointing outstanding and well-qualified Latinos to positions in his Cabinet and other senior-level positions.
President Biden’s choices are a direct change from his most immediate predecessor. Donald Trump was the first president since Ronald Reagan to not include a Latino or Latina in his initial list of Cabinet picks. Alex Acosta joined the Trump Administration as Labor Secretary in April 2018 after another nominee withdrew, and Jovita Carranza became SBA Administrator in 2020. Rather, the number of Latinos in the Biden Cabinet mirrors those of the Obama Administration in which he served as Vice President.
The process has been slow compared to previous administrations, and many important positions have yet to be confirmed more than two months after inauguration. Among the reasons for this are lack of cooperation with the outgoing administration, a razor-thin margin in the Senate, and time eaten up by Trump’s second impeachment trial. Also, the Biden Administration hit the ground running with its laser-like focus on ending the pandemic.
But Democratic strategist Vincent Casillas, a Biden campaign advisor, tells LATINO Magazine that the number of Latinos and Latinas in key position within the administration bodes well for our community, but it certainly doesn’t end there. Casillas, CEO of the public relations firm Casillas Strategies in Chicago, also served as National Hispanic Media Director and campaign spokesperson during the Obama presidential campaign and was a partner at Balsera Communications.
“Joe Biden made a commitment to the Latino community during the campaign and transition to have a diverse cabinet and administration. What we have seen in the first couple of months is an intentional effort to make good on that promise. There is still work to do but Joe Biden has always been a man of his word. That being said we will be watching,” Casillas said.
One of the most consequential appointments was Xavier Becerra for Health and Human Services Secretary. The former California Democratic Member of Congress is the first-ever Latino to serve as HHS Secretary. Becerra also served as California’s Attorney General, where the Stanford Law School graduate butted heads with the Trump Administration over a series of key issues affecting the Latino community, including the Affordable Care Act. His activism on that front will help, say Latino leaders.
“Xavier Becerra has a proven record of fighting to expand access to health care and protecting underserved communities. During his 24 years in the House of Representatives, Becerra helped expand the Children’s Health Insurance Program and craft the Affordable Care Act. As Attorney General of California, he was fighting for more affordable, quality health care for everyone including women, the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities, and migrant children,” said Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García (D-Ill.). “During the pandemic, Becerra has held companies accountable for ignoring COVID-19 safety rules and endangering workers’ safety. With his executive experience and health policy background, Becerra will be an excellent HHS Secretary and will put patients and public health first at HHS.”
“He will be the first Latino to lead the Department of Health and Human Services and brings years of dedicated service and commitment on behalf of American families. He helped drive passage of the Affordable Care Act and led its defense in the Supreme Court,” added Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.)
As Homeland Security Secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas has been spearheading the administration’s response to the increase of migrants at the border. He returns to an agency he previously served at during the Obama Administration, first as Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and then as Deputy Secretary. He was born in Cuba and is the first immigrant to lead the agency. Raised in California, he is a graduate of Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. After three years in private practice, Mayorkas served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney and then U.S. Attorney in California. Before joining the Biden Administration, Mayorkas was in private practice in Washington.
“Alejandro Mayorkas will serve to defend the United States and repair our dysfunctional immigration system,” said María Teresa Kumar, president and CEO of Voto Latino. “DHS had become a disgrace, with much of the department acting as an American Gestapo and serving at the lawless whims of the previous president. Now is the time to rein in the agency and set new boundaries on its conduct and mission. Mayorkas’ professional chops, coupled with the needed cultural acumen to address root causes for change at DHS, make him the right candidate for the job.”
Another key choice was Dr. Miguel Cardona as Education Secretary. Cardona was born and raised in Connecticut with parents from Puerto Rico and is a former teacher and school principal. His doctoral dissertation from the University of Connecticut focused on achievement disparities and the gaps between English-language learners and their classmates.
“Dr. Miguel Cardona represents an opportunity to rewrite the history of English-language learners’ underachievement as one of systemic oversights and failures inaugurating a fresh vision together with fundamental changes that his appointment will bring to vulnerable and marginalized communities across the country,” said Caroline Sanchez Crozier, National Education Chair at the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC).
Also part of the cabinet is the SBA Administrator. Isabel Guzmán assumes leadership of the agency she once worked at, as Deputy Chief of Staff from 2014 to 2017. Guzmán co-founded and directed GovContractPros, a business management group. She was previously at ProAmerica Bank and served as director of California's Office of the Small Business Advocate, a department within the California Governor's Office of Economic Development. She is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania.
“As the SBA helps guide small businesses towards recovery, the agency needs experienced leadership with a track record of helping entrepreneurs. I look forward to working closely with Ms. Guzman as we strive to help America’s Main Street businesses recover from the pandemic and work towards long-term prosperity. More than ever, America’s 30 million-plus small businesses need SBA to operate effectively. I will continue to work to ensure that this Committee exercises its oversight responsibilities so that the agency is helping as many small business owners as possible,” said Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), chair of the House Small Business Committee.
While Cabinet positions are more high profile, there are nearly 5,000 presidential appointments. These include some of the key deputy directors and assistant secretary posts that involve overseeing the day-to-day operations and policy development and implementation at the agency and departmental level. While there are still many key positions yet to be filled, below are some of the Latinas and Latinas already working in those posts and other senior-level jobs.
One of the top Latinos in the campaign was Cristóbal Alex, who is now White House Deputy Cabinet Secretary, a position that includes serving as a liaison between the president and the Cabinet secretaries and agencies. Alex is a native of El Paso and previously served as Deputy Director of Voter Outreach on the 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign, and is the founding President of the Latino Victory Project. He is a graduate of the University of Washington Law School.
Julie Chávez Rodríguez previously served as a senior advisor for Latino outreach on the Biden campaign, and as state director for then-Senator Kamala Harris and on Harris’ presidential campaign. She is now Director of the White House Office on Intergovernmental Affairs, which is the liaison between the White House and state, county, local, and tribal governments. The California native is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and is the granddaughter of the late labor leader and United Farmworkers Union co-founder César Chávez.
Maribel Durán was named Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations in the Office of the Secretary. Durán was most recently Managing Director for Equity and Inclusion for the Aspen Institute and also served in the Obama Administration as Special Assistant to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, then as Chief of Staff for the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. Durán was born and raised in Chicago and is a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University.
The Director of the Office of Intergovernmental and External Affairs at U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is Marvin Figueroa. Prior to his current position, Figueroa served as Senior Advisor to Virginia Democratic Senator Mark Warner, focusing on Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act, and other healthcare issues. He was also a political director for the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign. Figueroa is of Garifuna descent, a native of Honduras and a graduate of Vanderbilt University with a Master’s from Harvard. He is an alumnus of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute.
Juan González is the Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council. González previously served as principal at the management group JSG Strategy and as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, and as an advisor to then-Vice President Biden from 2013-2015. González was also a Senior Fellow, Penn Biden Center for Global Diplomacy and Global Engagement at the University of Pennsylvania. González has a Master’s from Georgetown University, where he was an adjunct professor.
Mark Madrid was appointed as Associate Administrator, Office of Entrepreneurial Development at U.S. Small Business Administration. Madrid was the CEO of the Latino Business Action Network (LBAN), a non-profit organization that funds Latino research and education programs at Stanford University. He previously served as President and CEO of the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. An indefatigable champion for Latino entrepreneurs, Madrid began his business career on Wall Street and is a graduate of the University of Texas and Notre Dame.
Gloria Montaño Greene is the Deputy Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation at Agriculture Department. She served as director of the Arizona office of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund, having also previously served as director of NALEO’s Washington office. She was previously a Deputy Chief of Staff and Chief of Staff for Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, and a graduate of the University of Arizona.
Dr. Marcella Núñez Smith was appointed by President Biden to chair the administration’s Health Equity Task Force at the Office of Minority Health at HHS. She is an associate professor of internal medicine, public health and management at Yale University’s School of Medicine and Associate Dean for Health Equity Research at the Yale School of Medicine, and the founding director of Yale's Equity Research and Innovation Center. She is a graduate of Swarthmore College, Yale University, and Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia.
Julissa Reynoso is the Chief of Staff to First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, and also serves as a co-director of the administration’s new Gender Policy Council. Previously, she served as U.S. Ambassador to Uruguay and as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. Before entering public service, Reynoso was an attorney in private practice in New York City, where she also served as Deputy Director of the Office of Accountability in the New York City Department of Education. She is a native of the Dominican Republic and a graduate of Harvard College and Columbia Law School.
The new White House Deputy Communications Director is María del Pilar “Pili” Tobar. Tobar was previously Deputy Director of the immigrant rights group America’s Voice, Communications Director at the Latino Victory Fund, and served as an aide to New York Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer and Rep. Rubén Gallego (D-Ariz.), and as director of Hispanic media at the Democratic National Committee. A native of Florida, Tobar was raised in Guatemala and has a Master’s from the University of Miami.
As this issue of LATINO Magazine goes to press, a number of additional appointments remain to complete the list of Latinos in the Biden Administration. But the response to these nominations has been enthusiastic both in Washington, DC and around the country. Biden’s choices reveal a combination of old names and new names. There are established progressive leaders like Xavier Becerra; Obama appointees like Alejandro Mayorkas; campaign staffers like Julie Chávez Rodríguez; and exciting new faces on the national scene like Dr. Miguel Cardona. All are supremely well-qualified and dedicated to public service.
It is clear that with these choices for change, Latinos will have a place at the table in the Biden Administration.