The administration is focused on picking a person of color for the Navy job, one of the people said. The White House has recently been considering two Latino people for Navy secretary: Del Toro, president and CEO of contractor SBG Technology Solutions and president of the White House Fellows Foundation; and Juan Garcia, a former member of the Texas House of Representatives who oversaw manpower and reserve affairs for the Navy Department in the Obama administration.
If either is confirmed, they would be among the most senior Latino people at the Defense Department and only the second Latino person to become Navy secretary. The first, according to the Navy, was Eduardo Hidalgo, who held the post during the Carter administration.
Del Toro was born in Havana, Cuba, and immigrated to the United States in 1962. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1983 and served numerous deployments at sea. His service included a tour in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm, according to a Naval Academy Alumni Association and Foundation biography.
He has donated to several Democratic candidates and committees in recent months, according to Federal Election Commission data, including contributions to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, new Sen. Alex Padilla of California and the Fairfax, Va., County Democratic Committee.
Del Toro has at least one top lawmaker in his corner. Sen. Tim Kaine, a member of the Armed Services Committee from Navy-heavy Virginia, knows Del Toro and supports him for the post, said a person familiar with the Democratic senator’s thinking. Del Toro, a Virginia resident, is Kaine’s constituent.
Del Toro is likely the frontrunner after a meeting at the White House last week, according to one of the people. Del Toro did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The short list of contenders is not finalized and is still subject to change.
Garcia told POLITICO that he is interested in the job, but has not had an interview.
“I grew up in a Navy family, and have spent my entire life in and around it,” Garcia said. “At this critical point of rising great power competition, I would welcome the opportunity to champion the men and women who make up our Navy and Marine Corps team.”
Rep. Filemón Vela, a Texas Democrat and member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, has thrown his support behind Garcia.
“He is clearly experienced and well qualified, not to mention that his nomination would be historic given very limited representation of Hispanic Americans in the higher levels at the Department of Defense — now or in the past,” Filemon said.
The administration has considered multiple candidates for the job so far, including Bob Kerrey, the former Nebraska governor, senator and Navy SEAL who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his service in the Vietnam War, and Janine Davidson, a former undersecretary of the Navy. However, both withdrew from consideration, people familiar with the process said.
Also under initial consideration was Michelle Howard, the first Black woman to command a Navy ship who rose to become a four-star admiral and vice chief of naval operations, and James Stavridis, the former commander of U.S. European Command and U.S. Southern Command.
Howard was initially favored, but would have needed a waiver to exempt her from a law requiring that a military officer be retired for at least five years to serve in the job. The White House ultimately backed off that option after deciding there was little appetite in Congress for yet another waiver after granting one to Lloyd Austin, Biden’s Defense secretary.
Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) was also considered, but Democratic congressional leaders opposed plucking him from the House while their party held a slim majority.
Spokespeople for the Pentagon and National Security Council declined to comment.
The White House has announced several tranches of other top Pentagon nominees in recent weeks, leaving the Navy secretary job as one of the final top positions without a nominee.
The vacancy hasn’t escaped the attention of many seapower-minded lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Members of both parties are anxious for Biden to pick a permanent Navy leader as the administration weighs a massive expansion of the fleet unveiled in the waning months of the Trump administration and prepares a fiscal 2022 budget that will have to balance costly shipbuilding programs with major programs from other services.
“We’re really anxiously looking for the day when we have a secretary of Navy in the saddle to sort of help with the highly competitive environment … in the budget space,” Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), chair of the House Armed Services Seapower panel, said in an event last month sponsored by The Hill.
“That’s a critical position, particularly, again, with the strategic needs of our country,” he added. “Career officials find it very difficult to make sort of those high-level decisions about priority and policy.”
The panel’s top Republican, Rep. Rob Wittman of Virginia, argued the individual military branches need “certainty” headed into the budget process.
“All the service branches … need leadership and direction there. It can’t all come from the Pentagon because there are unique elements of each of the service branches where you need a secretary there to be leading that effort,” Wittman said in a March interview with POLITICO.