January 23, 2009
By Gebe Martinez
Puffed with pride after casting 10 million votes in November that were vital to President Barack Obama’s election, Hispanics are feeling empowered to make great demands on the new president.
But as Hispanics look to Obama to help realize their agenda, and as they take seats in the new president’s Cabinet and on congressional leadership teams, they also are facing an annoying reality: There remains a gap between the power they have earned and the Washington elite’s perception of their power.
One reason for the lag in perception may be that Latino policy leaders as well as individual members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus have matured politically at a faster speed than has the caucus as a whole.
As the civil rights groups, political organizers and lawmakers have steered Latinos toward unprecedented levels of activism, the congressional caucus haunted by past internal fighting and disorganization is still being challenged to show that the sum of its parts makes it as strong as it should be.
The result is a continuing albeit lessening struggle for acknowledgment and places at key leadership tables.
During a recent ceremony for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, its new head, House Small Business Committee Chairwoman Nydia M. Velazquez (D-N.Y.), pledged to her Latino colleagues, “I will work my heart out to make this Congressional Hispanic Caucus a force and a relevant institution.”
That anyone needs to be reminded of Latinos’ influence and the caucus’s relevance is almost mind-boggling to Latino civil rights and policy leaders. They often find themselves reciting the recent history: Hispanics have reached the highest levels of political leadership on Capitol Hill, and the exponential growth of the Hispanic population and voters during the past decade has made them a force to be reckoned with.
Just ask Republicans, whose dramatic loss of Hispanic support in the last election sent them into soul-searching political rehab.
Nonetheless, the fight for recognition continues.
“We have tilled the soil, we have planted the seeds, we have watered them, and now it’s time for the harvest,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said of the political benefits Latinos plan to reap.
But Menendez, speaking during the 2009 Latino State of the Union on the eve of Obama’s Inauguration, warned that much more sweat is necessary, even with a like-minded president in the White House.
“As we rejoice now, it’s time to harvest. It’s time to meet these challenges,” advised Menendez, who is now the only Hispanic Democrat in the Senate, following Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar’s appointment as Obama’s interior secretary.
Latinos are toiling mightily for top Obama administration appointments they believe they earned. They celebrated when they got three Cabinet seats, only to be disappointed and even angry when New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson withdrew from consideration as secretary of commerce because a grand jury is probing possible political corruption in his home state.
On the key issue of immigration, civil rights leaders are hopeful, but not sure, that during his first year in office Obama will keep his campaign promise to present a broad plan to overhaul immigration laws that expand visas and protect workers.
Also, the League of United Latin American Citizens, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, National Council of La Raza and others are on Capitol Hill, trying to convince Democratic and Republican senators to remove the current requirement for legal immigrant children and pregnant women to wait five years before receiving benefits through the State Children’s Health Insurance Program and Medicaid.
Meanwhile, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus has yet to prove that it has the agility to be proactive rather than reactive and that it can lead rather than just complain.
Velazquez won the Hispanic Caucus chairmanship without opposition, because the men wanted to avoid a repeat of a nasty gender fight two years ago that led to California Democratic Reps. Loretta Sanchez and Linda T. Sanchez quitting the caucus. With Velazquez in charge, Linda Sanchez has rejoined the group, but her sister has not made a decision.
There also are questions about Velazquez’s leadership style, which is marked by determination behind the scenes but is still without the organization required to communicate on behalf of the caucus in this remarkable moment in history.
Such complaints are not uncommon if contained, as the Congressional Black Caucus and other similar groups have shown. After all, what family doesn’t have its ups and downs?
The upside for the caucus is that its grass-roots groups are watching out for them, and individual members are eager to flex their political muscle.
“I think [the caucus’s strength] is greater than it’s ever been in my 16 years here,” Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.) reflected on the eve of Obama’s Inauguration. “I think we are going to be afforded the opportunity to be a nationally representative body. I am very optimistic.”
Brent Wilkes, LULAC’s executive director, has equally high expectations. “They have a much stronger ability to talk to their colleagues and say, ‘We will go to vote as a bloc on this issue, and if you don’t give us your support, you are not going to get our support on what you want.’”
Also, there are many non-Hispanics who have an interest in seeing the caucus succeed, and Obama is among them.
“If it had not been for the Hispanic votes in places like Nevada, New Mexico or Colorado and probably several other places, I am not sure the president would be in the position that he is in, and I think he recognizes that,” said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.).
With fewer than two dozen members, the Democrats in the Hispanic Caucus may not have quite enough votes yet to exert the kind of legislative power that advocates such as Wilkes envision. But when allied with the black and progressive caucuses, they are a force, Lewis observed.
“They may not have the votes alone, but they’ve got people who would say, ‘I am voting with the Hispanic Caucus. If the Hispanic Caucus is against that, I am against that also,” Lewis said. “People will listen to the wishes of the Hispanic Caucus.”
Time will tell.
Gebe Martinez is a longtime journalist in Washington and a frequent lecturer and commentator on the policy and politics of Capitol Hill. Reprinted from Politico (http://www.politico.com)