Southerners are the missing group in Obama's Cabinet

Charlotte ObserverDecember 19, 2008 

There are Democrats and Republicans, liberals and moderates, Hispanics and Asians, whites and blacks, Northerners and Westerners.

But one group arguably was missing when President-elect Barack Obama rounded out his 15-member Cabinet Friday — Southerners.

The only Southern appointment came when he named former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk U.S. trade representative, a lower-level post. Nobody else from below the Mason-Dixon Line made the cut, not even from the newly blue states of North Carolina, Virginia or Florida.

"Obama scored a tremendous advance for Democrats in winning the three large Southern states and ignored them," says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "I'm just stunned. It was the one grouping completely ignored."

Transition officials declined to comment publicly about the dearth of Southerners. They point out that Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a Kansas native, is a former president of Texas A&M University, and incoming Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson, New Jersey's top environmental official, is a New Orleans native.

"I'm a bit surprised, but not disappointed because he's picked a good team," says U.S. Rep. John Spratt of York, S.C. "There are numerous other positions in the government. And I would expect to see a number of Southerners begin to emerge in the second tier."

Robert Gibbs, who will be the new White House press secretary, is an Alabama native who went to North Caroplina State University. Charlotte native Reggie Love, Obama's personal aide during the campaign, is expected to end up somewhere in Washington.

Spratt was among several Southerners mentioned for top posts. Others included former North carolina Gov. Jim Hunt, U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge of North Carolina and former South Carolina education superintendent Inez Tenenbaum.

"Obviously I think there are plenty of talented people in the South who may have been a good fit for his cabinet, and he may have missed out on some opportunities," says N.C. Democratic chairman Jerry Meek. "At the same time, we have members of Congress responsible for representing people on the basis of geography."

Other Democrats like Obama's picks regardless of where they're from.

"This is the United States of America, and to the extent we get into all these sectional fights rather than focusing on what's good for the country is, I think, counterproductive," says U.S. Rep. Mel Watt of Charlotte.

Obama carried North Carolina by 14,000 votes out of nearly 4.3 million. It was the first time a Democratic presidential candidate carried the state since Jimmy Carter in 1976. He was the first Democrat to win Virginia since 1964. Florida, as evidenced in 2000, can be critical for Democrats.

"There really ought to be one (cabinet post) from each state," says Sabato. "These are three really big prizes, and they're tenuous. None of these states is guaranteed for a Democrat in the future."

Other Southerners aren't as bothered.

Said South Carolina Democratic chair Carol Fowler: "Maybe we Southerners are not as provincial as we used to be."

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service