Worried they'll soon have no representation in President Clinton's 14-member Cabinet, Hispanic political leaders are pressuring the White House to replace Energy Secretary Federico Pena with another Hispanic.
That could spell trouble for Undersecretary Betsy Moler, widely believed to be the front-runner for the top Energy Department job. The former head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, she is also the apparent favorite among some community leaders in the Augusta-Aiken area who seek stability for Savannah River Site.
Representatives of several national Hispanic advocacy groups met Wednesday with senior White House officials to be briefed on the nomination process and related issues, said Cuauhtemoc Figueroa, director of policy communications for the Washington-based League of United Latin American Citizens.
They were expected to present their own list of potential Hispanic nominees, he said. The league's choice is Hector Holguin, an engineer from El Paso, Texas.
Mr. Pena announced earlier this month he's stepping down June 30 to spend more time with his family. He is the only Hispanic Cabinet member after Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros resigned in 1996.
His resignation concerned the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which vowed to follow closely the effort to replace Mr. Pena.
"It takes a constant effort to increase the number of qualified Latinos serving in positions where they can affect our national policy," said the caucus' chairman, California Rep. Xavier Becerra, in a statement.
It's not the first time Latinos have gotten involved in the Energy secretary nomination process.
In 1997, Ms. Moler was narrowly passed over for the same job after intense lobbying by the caucus and other groups. The administration was about to lose its last Hispanic Cabinet member when Mr. Clinton convinced then-Transportation Secretary Pena to stay on as Energy secretary.
"This is on the radar screen of almost all Hispanic organizations in the country," Mr. Figueroa said of his resignation. "We want to make sure they at least consider Hispanics for the post. We haven't even heard that they're considering one."
Hispanics currently make up about 11 percent of the United States population. It's the fastest-growing minority in the country, but Latin leaders have long complained they're woefully underrepresented in the federal government.
A survey of federal government agencies showed that Latinos hold only 1 percent to 4 percent of all jobs, Mr. Figueroa said.
Chris Arterton, dean of the School of Political Management at George Washington University, said lobbying for ethnic representation within the top tiers of the federal government has become part of political life in recent decades. As far as Cabinet posts go, Hispanics and other minority groups will probably have several more chances before the year is over, he said.
"People typically start leaving with greater frequence during the second term, so there will be other opportunities for the Hispanic caucus to make their claim if they don't get this one," Dr. Arterton said.
But some SRS supporters say they care more about politics and less about color when it comes to picking the plant's new boss in Washington.
"We support diversity in the federal government ... but when (it) comes to the secretary of Energy and to decisions that effect SRS, we prefer to have a qualified individual who is willing to be open-minded on nuclear issues and hopefully supports nuclear energy," said Mike Butler, a spokesman for Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness, a Columbia-based organization. "We're more interested in opinions than in ethnic background."