It was difficult for any Latin Americanist (not to mention Latin American) not to feel a swell of surprise and pride when New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson broke into Spanish at the end of his speech announcing his appointment to Commerce Secretary last week.
The announcement further filled out President-elect Barack Obama’s economic team. Governor Richardson adds to the moderate perspective and international perspective of a very capable, talented team. But as his heavily Mexican-accented closing remarks indicated, he also brings a unique focus to the job. The son of a Mexican mother and American banker father, raised briefly in Mexico City, Richardson doesn’t come from the working class immigrant world. But he does bring with him a true commitment (and responsibility) to the hemisphere and Hispanic voters.
In his closing remarks, he spoke first to Hispanic immigrants, thanking them for their support and promising that their vote brings a voice. And then he spoke to the “millions of Latin American citizens” pledging that “hay que fortalecer los nexos y recordar la importancia de un hemisferio unido.”
Now, to my knowledge this is the first time that a cabinet member-select has broken into Spanish at his nomination press conference. But I can guarantee that it is the first time that a Commerce Secretary-nominee has spoken directly of closer hemispheric ties and their importance to the U.S. economy in his or her nomination announcement.
Beyond mere symbolism (Spanish! Nexos! Hemisferio unido!) the appointment also demonstrates that—despite the concerns over President-elect Obama’s commitment to free trade—he has at least has appointed a team that not only is committed intellectually to the position, but has also committed publicly to free trade and (in the case of Governor Richardson) hemispheric integration.
The appointment has met with praise from Hispanic professional and environmentalist bloggers. The former see in Governor Richardson a kindred soul. The latter see in him a public official with a long track record, as congressman, as ambassador to the UN, as Energy Secretary and as governor, dedicated to green issues. Even in his press conference he spoke of job creation through environmentally friendly economic growth.
Observers have commented that the Commerce Department is a step down from what many thought were his original goals in endorsing Obama early in the primaries: first the vice presidential slot and later secretary of state. Is he disappointed as some suggest? I don’t know. I doubt most bloggers do either. But as President-elect Obama said in his announcement of the appointment, the job of Commerce Secretary is that of economic diplomacy. And what better person to have in the job than someone who has experience in diplomacy, working the levers of the bureaucracy and that publicly recognizes the importance of some of our closest neighbors in pulling us out of our economic doldrums (and speaks the language)? For me, it’s a step up.