Last November, Democratic state Del. Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk said she’d never seen a candidate as dedicated to engaging Latino voters as her party’s gubernatorial nominee, Wes Moore.
As the Moore administration takes shape, her enthusiasm over the inclusion of Latino voices is evident.
“The cabinet is very diverse and you can see he has been very intentional about it, which is really wonderful and a great example for many other people to follow,” Peña-Melnyk said. “I know that this transition team has emphasized bringing our community to the table, every community to the table.”
Peña-Melnyk, who represents parts of Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties, is also vice chair of the Maryland Legislative Latino Caucus.
She said in November that Moore planned to appoint Latinos to both his transition team and his cabinet. It seems he’s delivered on that front.
On Jan. 12, the Moore transition team announced two key appointments: Dr. Laura Herrera Scott, who is Puerto Rican, as secretary of health and Rafael López, who is first-generation Mexican American, as secretary of human services.
Both are serving as acting secretaries as they await confirmation by the Senate. Its Executive Nominations Committee recommended Wednesday that the Senate confirm Herrera Scott. López is in a group of nominees that the committee will consider at a meeting Monday.
Herrera Scott would be the first Latina to hold her position, she said. López would replace Lourdes Padilla, who was born in Puerto Rico, as secretary of human services.
“I think about the trajectory of the growth of the Latine population not just in Maryland, but the country. So many of us have the honor and the privilege of being those firsts,” López said. “We want to make sure that when you are those firsts, that we are opening the door wide open for so many others, to both learn from our own stories, but also share the richness and the privilege and the honor of serving in these positions.”
Peña-Melnyk and other prominent Latino voices were on the transition team, which made recommendations for cabinet appointments. She was a member of the team’s steering committee.
Gustavo Torres, who identifies as Black and Latino, was a co-chair of its jobs and workforce development executive policy committee. He’s also the president of CASA in Action, which endorsed the Democratic primary campaign last year of Tom Perez. The organization endorsed Moore in September in the general election.
Torres said he was “very excited” about the appointments of Herrera Scott and López, who he said are “two strong Latino leaders who are going to make a difference for all Marylanders.”
In early January, Torres said the way to judge whether the Latino community would have a voice in the Moore administration would be through cabinet appointments.
“I believe that the governor delivered for our community and we are ready to work,” Torres said in a follow-up interview Jan. 27, after Moore had nominated 20 of his 24 agency secretaries.
Torres said priorities for the Latino community include health care for all, jobs, and affordable and safe housing.
When asked about making sure all Marylanders have medical care, Herrera Scott said she’s assessing the health care landscape and what barriers residents face, especially those who do not have English as a primary language.
“We have to look at the whole population and I don’t yet have a good sense of all that we’re able to do,” said Herrera Scott, who is a doctor, an Army reservist and a former health care executive.
According to the Maryland Health Care for All! Coalition, the uninsured population in Maryland has fallen from 15% in 1999 to 6% in 2022. Last year, the General Assembly passed the Healthy Babies Equity Act, which expanded Medicaid prenatal and postpartum care to all pregnant people regardless of immigration status.
The acting secretary said her priorities so far include health care access, addressing a crisis in providing behavioral health treatment and identifying trusted partners in the community. She also wants to focus on translation services and training to reduce implicit bias. A December report by two Baltimore-based social justice groups said children from area immigrant families face language barriers that impede access to mental health services.
Herrera Scott said that just being the secretary could make a difference. She said that, for instance, it goes a long way with the Latino community if the doctor encouraging them to get flu shots or get regular checkups looks like them.
She added that she wants to be mindful of subcultures within the Latino community, such as different countries of origin and Spanish dialects.
“Diversity brings diversity of thought, diversity of opinions, diversity of needs that need to be addressed,” Herrera Scott said. “Having a seat at the table to represent the Latino community I think is incredibly important, and it’s certainly not a job I’m going to take lightly.”
The state agency López heads works with people — such as those with low incomes and people who are disabled or ill — who need food and homes. It also oversees the Maryland Social Services Administration, which works with children in need.
He is a former nonprofit executive and was commissioner of the federal Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration on Children, Youth and Families from 2015 to 2023.
Maryland cabinet secretaries’ annual salaries averaged $192,000 in the fiscal year that ended June 30. The health secretary and the human services secretary were each paid $193,595.
Moore has said his cabinet will be the most diverse in Maryland’s history.
Maryland Policy & Politics
Former Gov. Larry Hogan pushed for more diverse hires in the state during his tenure, such as when he pressured an education reform panel to reopen applications for more diverse nominees because the initial nominees did not represent Latino communities and some rural jurisdictions. In 2017, he unveiled policy initiatives that aimed to draw more girls and people of color into computer science.
During his reelection campaign in 2018, he faced criticism from Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ben Jealous. He said Hogan’s cabinet did not reflect the state’s gender and racial diversity. At the time, six of Hogan’s 23 cabinet members were women. A spokesperson at the time told The Washington Post that the Republican had made 5,000 government appointments by then, 44% of them women and nearly 30% who were minorities.
López said he and Herrera Scott have become fast friends and he remembers how refreshing she found it that he was able to pronounce her name correctly on the first try.
“[My] first observation of working with cabinet colleagues has been a joy, to find other people who want to both move swiftly, quickly, efficiently and do right by people. I love that. I love that energy,” López said.
“It’s beautiful to look across the room, to see people from so many different backgrounds from all over the state of Maryland and beyond. Their, both their own, upbringings are diverse, how they came into their roles are diverse. And I think all those things strengthen the points of view and perspective that will shape the governor’s thinking around how we will bring to life his vision.”
Torres’ work on the transition team ended Feb. 4, but his time advocating for Latinos and immigrants hasn’t.
“The Moore administration is going to elevate the Latine community,” Torres said. “But also, we are going to be ready in case that is not going, in case that is not happening. CASA, that is part of what we’re doing — elevate our community, working with our members, mobilize and fight for justice and dignity. And we are going to keep doing this, regardless of who is the administration.”