After Penn. Gov. Tom Corbett drew fire for saying last week that he didn’t have Latinos in his cabinet because he just couldn’t find any, his first line of defense was to point out he had appointed Latino residents to important posts.
Maria Montero as director of the Governor's Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs was one of the names at the top of his list.
But the statement, which Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley issued, has hardly quashed the criticism that the governor’s comments were offensive to Latinos. In fact, some said, it underscored a low regard for the talent in the ethnic community.
State Rep. Angel Cruz, a Democrat, balked at Harley’s mention of the commission as an example of Corbett’s commitment to Latinos.
The commission, said Cruz, has been around for decades, dating back to the early 1970s, so it was disingenuous for Corbett’s office to suggest that it was an accomplishment of the Republican governor.
“Each governor had that commission,” Cruz told Fox News Latino. "That’s not his commission. The question is ‘Does he have any Latinos serving in his administration? No. There are no Latinos.”
But, had Corbett actually made an effort, Cruz insisted, surely he could have found qualified Latinos.
“There are Latinos who voted for you, believe it or not,” he Cruz, referring to Corbett. “He says he can’t find any. They’re right under his nose.”
Montero, 36, whom Corbett appointed to head the commission in 2012, acknowledged that the commission predated the governor’s administration by several decades.
But, she noted governors have discretion over whether to continue to fund commissions and he assured his commitment by keeping the Latino Affairs one intact.
"Because it’s important that all Latinos have access to the government, and because Latinos are an important part of the fabric of Pennsylvania,” she told Fox News Latino.
Montero said that hundreds of Latinos hold posts in state-level government agencies.
"The reason they’re there is not because of their ethnicity,” Montero said, “it's because they’re fantastic at what they do.”
Corbett made the controversial comment last week. When asked by the managing editor of Al Dia News -- which sponsored the roundtable where the governor spoke -- about Latinos on his staff, the governor said: “We do not have any staff members in there. If you can find us one, please let me know."
When the moderator, Sabrina Vourvoulias, responded to his request for potential staffers by saying "I am sure that there are Latinos that ...," Corbett cut her off.
"Do any of you want to come to Harrisburg?" Corbett asked.
Corbett, who is up for re-election in 2014, later defended the comment, saying that it had been taken out of context to hurt him politically.
Oscar Rosario, a founder of the Governor's Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs, said he spoke with the governor about the controversial comment on Thursday when he stopped in at meeting that Corbett was having in the Philadelphia area.
Rosario, known for his straightforward style, said he told the governor that Latinos did not need an apology.
“I said don’t apologize, because we don’t need an apology,” Rosario said. “We want action. You have to put people in [key] positions.”
Rosario said he did not sugar-coat his frustration.
“I said ‘You really put your foot, not in your mouth, but you know where,’” Rosario said. “They said ‘Do you need to be that blunt?’ I said yes.”
Rosario said that the governor told him to meet with his aides next Thursday to discuss suggestions for more Latino representation in state agencies.
Harley said the governor had appointed numerous Latinos, highlighting Montero and the commission, and former Health Secretary Eli Avila as well as Ken Trujillo, who he unsuccessfully nominated to the Liquor Control Board.
Hispanics make up roughly six percent of Pennsylvania's population, or about 800,000 people, in the 2010 Census.
Elizabeth Llorente can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on https://twitter.com/Liz_Llorente