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Resignation of Labor Secretary Creates Diversity Dilemma

By Bill Leonard  1/11/2013

When Hilda Solis announced Jan. 9, 2013, that she was resigning as U.S. secretary of Labor, many Washington insiders—including members of her staff—were caught off guard. Her resignation came as President Barack Obama began facing mounting criticism that the White House’s picks to replace other departing cabinet members lack diversity.

Solis was the first Latino woman to head a cabinet-level department. Political observers had speculated that she would remain as secretary for at least part, if not all, of President Obama’s second term.

The White House was quick to release a written statement praising Solis’ contributions. “Hilda Solis has been a tireless champion for working families. Over the last four years, Secretary Solis has been a critical member of my economic team as we have worked to recover from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and strengthen the economy for the middle class,” the president said in the statement.

Solis’ departure leaves a vacancy in the cabinet that many observers say should be filled by someone who will add diversity to the president’s team. Thus far, the president has tapped white men to fill vacancies created when the secretaries of the Defense, State and Treasury departments announced they were stepping down. President Obama also nominated John Brennan—another white man—as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Some political commentators say that Solis’ resignation gives the White House an opportunity to blunt any criticism about lack of diversity in the cabinet. While it is too early to tell whom the president will pick to replace Solis, several sources familiar with the issue speculate that the president might consider nominating Maria Echaveste, who served as head of the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division and as deputy chief of staff for President Bill Clinton during the 1990s. By picking Echaveste, who, like Solis, is the daughter of Mexican immigrants, the president would at least maintain the diversity status quo in one cabinet position.

During Obama’s first term, organized labor pushed the White House to select a union activist to serve in the cabinet. Some sources speculate that the nomination of AFL-CIO executive vice president Arlene Holt Baker is a possibility as a nod to organized labor’s support of Obama’s re-election. Baker, who is a black woman, would certainly add to the diversity of Obama’s second-term cabinet, sources agree. However, the nomination of a well-known union activist could face stiff opposition from Republican leaders in the Senate.

Moreover, the White House might shy away from making a controversial selection to head the Labor Department, since the president’s picks of Chuck Hagel for secretary of Defense and Brennan for CIA director have already generated opposition from several senators.

The pressure is now on for the president to name a replacement for Solis, to make sure the nomination isn’t overly controversial and to add some diversity to a cabinet that has many critics complaining the president has abandoned his first-term commitment to having a diverse leadership team.

Bill Leonard is senior writer for SHRM Online.
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