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Latina Treasurer Trend Creates a Mystery in D.C.

When does a coincidence cease to be just that? In politics, as in any high-stakes game, the answer is maybe never: At least, not if the players say so.

Not surprisingly, then, when it comes to unraveling the mystery of why four of the past five (and five of the past nine) U.S. treasurers have been Hispanic women — one would be hard pressed to find a similar trend for any single minority group in such a visible post — concrete clues are elusive. [IMGCAP(1)]

“I have no idea why this phenomenon has occurred,” said one former senior Reagan administration official. “It’s not like the Pakistani taxi drivers at Dulles Airport where it seems that that role is sort of handed down from generation to generation.”

“I thought it was just because Latinas were so wonderful,” laughed Gabriela Lemus, director of policy and legislation at the League of United Latin American Citizens. “We should all have our name on the dollar.”

The U.S. treasurer’s position has never been widely viewed as possessing much policy heft. Aside from the perk of getting one’s signature on the dollar bill, it is essentially a ceremonial perch to tout the president’s economic policies and promote financial literacy. The treasurer also advises the secretary of the Treasury, the deputy secretary and the directors of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and the U.S. Mint on coinage, currency and other issues.

Accordingly, the cynics, and there are plenty, say that appointing Latinas treasurer is an easy way for an administration to gain chits with a much-prized voting bloc with a job that is big on symbolism, but short on substance. (Notably, no man has held the post since 1949.)

In 1971, then-President Richard Nixon appointed the first Latina as a concession to Hispanic Republicans “who had helped Nixon gain election,” said Ramona Banuelos, daughter of Romana Acosta Banuelos, the first Latina U.S. treasurer.

“He had promised them he’d name to a significant position someone of Mexican-American background. … She was a double whammy: She was a woman and she was a Mexican American,” she said. (Later, her mother would recommend former colleague Katherine Ortega for the position when the Reagan White House came calling in the early 1980s, Banuelos said.)

Nixon’s move seemed to start a trend. Since then, every GOP president with the exception of Gerald Ford has appointed at least one Latina to the post.

“Republicans have beat Democrats to the punch when it comes to appointing

treasurers,” said Larry Gonzalez, director of the Washington office of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. “This is all part of plan to ensure there are Latinos at the highest levels of government. … It’s part of a political strategy.”

To the contrary, say Republican Hispanics and other GOPers.

“I don’t think there’s some strategy paper somewhere in the RNC saying the key to the Hispanic vote is appointing Latinas to be treasurer,” said Mario Lopez, executive director of the all-GOP Congressional Hispanic Conference, which serves as a counterweight to the all-Democratic Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

“You could debate all day long with any president as to whether their picks are politically motivated,” he said. “I think Republicans are being true to their words when they say they are going to pick the best person for the job.”

On a more personal note, Lopez quipped, “I’d say Republicans, you know, like people who are good with money. And if my mom’s any indication, Hispanic women generally are.”

“It wasn’t planned I’m sure,” said Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), a member of the conference, who expressed surprise at the statistic.

Meanwhile, Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-Texas), who co-founded the conference, said coyly, “I’m not part of the executive branch. I can’t make assumptions. I’d be speculating.”

Point taken.

Still, a call placed to someone who once was part of the Bush administration — former Treasurer Rosario Marin — failed to shed much light on the mystery.

“It’s a happy coincidence,” said Marin, who left the post in 2003 to launch an unsuccessful bid for the GOP Senate nomination in California and is now chairwoman of the California Integrated Waste Management Board.

Marin also scoffed at the suggestion that the position was merely symbolic.

“I went to Mexico nine times for the Partnership for Prosperity. I was involved in financial literary. … We changed laws that enabled people to open bank accounts and cut the rate people were paying to send money to foreign countries,” said Marin. “That is real power.

“Knowing this president the way I do, I don’t think when he sees me he says, ‘Oh, Rosario, [she’s] a Latina,’” she added.

Naturally, many Democrats on Capitol Hill were somewhat suspicious of the trend.

“They started it to try to get inroads with Latinos,” said Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairwoman Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.). “It doesn’t mean a darn thing.”

“They probably come from states with a lot of Hispanic votes,” said Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D-Texas), adding that in a close presidential race a net pickup of only a few Hispanic votes can matter. “It looks very good. We should learn from the Republicans.”

But Rep. Henry Cuellar (Texas), a rare Democrat with close ties to President Bush, said that while he couldn’t make a judgment on why Republican presidents had favored Latinas for the position, in general, he said he believed they do “go on merits.”

“I was appointed by a Republican,” he noted, referring to his elevation by Texas Gov. Rick Perry to be Lone Star secretary of state in 2001.

Other Democratic Representatives questioned the significance of the post to Latinos given its limited reach.

“The leadership impact of that in the Hispanic community has been minimal,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.).

“If you having your name on [dollar] bills, if that carries you, good luck,” Napolitano said.

Indeed, the track record of recent treasurers advancing up the political ladder isn’t exactly stellar, no matter what the ethnic background. The highest-profile former treasurer is probably Bay Buchanan, sister of conservative commentator and former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, and a prominent political pundit in her own right.

Of the four former Latina treasurers, only Marin has run for federal office, and she was handily beat in the Senate primary last year.

Banuelos returned to helm the Pan American Bank in East Los Angeles, which she co-founded in the early 1960s; Ortega was an alternate representative to the U.N. General Assembly and sat on numerous corporate boards; and Catalina Vasquez Villalpando, the appointee of then-President George H.W. Bush, was sentenced to four months in prison not long after leaving office for tax evasion and obstruction of justice.

Still, despite its limitations, some Hispanic interest groups say that a “sense of ownership” has come to be associated with the post.

“As soon as we heard of Rosario’s resignation, the groups got together and said, ‘Let’s start submitting names to the White House,’” said NALEO’s Gonzalez.

Bush did not disappoint, naming Anna Escobedo Cabral, a former aide to Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) who has a master’s in public administration with an emphasis in international trade and finance from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, to the post.

“When we talk we know this is one place we can get a Latina in,” said LULAC’s Lemus. “It’s happened before. We are not going to shock anyone by asking for it.”

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