January 27, 2006

Velázquez considers challenging Baca in potential CHC race

By Josephine Hearn

The usually placid leadership elections within the all-Democratic Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) could be heating up this year as Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) considers a challenge to Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.) to become chair of the caucus in the next Congress.

Baca, a fiery fourth-term congressman representing San Bernardino, has long been seen as the likely successor to the current chairwoman, Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.), whose term expires at the end of this year. Baca is the group’s first vice chairman, the No. 2 position, and would move up the ladder under the caucus’s norms of succession.

But some members have raised concerns that Baca may not be the right person for the job at this time, fearing that his confrontational style may diminish the caucus’s influence at a time when the group is seeking to renew its clout with Democratic leaders after the departure of former Rep. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.). He had served as the third-ranking House Democrat before joining the Senate earlier this month.

Velázquez, a seventh-term lawmaker from Brooklyn and ranking Democrat on the House Small Business Committee, has not served in the leadership of the CHC since 1998 but has quietly made the case to colleagues that she is a better bet to raise the group’s stature and maintain good relations with Democratic leadership, sources said. A spokeswoman for Velázquez did not return calls seeking comment before press time.

The CHC has suffered from an often tepid relationship with some leadership offices, particularly that of Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.). Many CHC members withheld their DCCC dues for months last year to press their view that the campaign committee did not pay adequate attention to Hispanic issues. Last month, Baca and Menendez confronted Emanuel on the House floor after Emanuel urged a handful of Democrats to vote for an immigration bill the CHC vehemently opposed.

That encounter, along with other outbursts, has led some CHC members to question whether Baca might lead the CHC on a path toward more confrontation.

“Baca shoots from the hip too much,” said a Democratic source close to the CHC. “That position has to be able to negotiate with leadership. You need someone who has leadership’s ear.”

A CHC member, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that some members were looking “more for a style than tradition” in their next chairman. “She’s viewed as someone who’s going to be assertive and represent us the way we need. His strength is institutional strength.”

Aside from the differences in style, some CHC insiders contend that Mexican-Americans such as Baca have had something of a stranglehold on the CHC chairmanship. Every chairman stretching back to 1995 — Napolitano, former Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D-Texas), Reps. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) and Ed Pastor (D-Ariz.) — has been of Mexican descent. In contrast, Velázquez was born in Puerto Rico, as was the chairman from the 102nd Congress, Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.). Other members of the caucus are of Cuban, Portuguese or Central-American origin.

In a telephone interview yesterday with The Hill, Baca argued that Velázquez should follow the caucus’s established norms of moving up through the ranks before making a play for the chairmanship. Baca himself started as whip of the caucus in 2001, moving up to second vice chairman in 2003 and then to first vice chairman last year.

“If she wants to be involved, she should pursue one of the vice chairs,” Baca said. “She should follow what we’ve done in terms of protocol. It’s an unwritten rule.”

Velázquez briefly challenged Napolitano two years ago before dropping out.

Baca said that he would work to establish more dialogue with leadership and that he would use both confrontation and diplomacy to advance the caucus’s goals.

He noted that he had a good relationship with Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), who succeeded Menendez in the Democratic leadership, and that he would strengthen ties between the CHC and other minority caucuses. He also pointed to his work as chairman of the caucus’s PAC since 2000, emphasizing that the group had added members to its ranks in each election.

Baca claimed to have the support of a majority of the caucus’s 22 members, although he conceded that Velázquez may have the backing of some of the caucus’s younger, female members.

“I have a solid 17. There might be a waffler here and there, [but] I don’t take anything for granted. … I’m going to continue to work until I have those votes,” Baca said.

Napolitano has been careful to remain neutral during the contest, sources said.

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the group’s current second vice chairman, said he is interested in moving up to first vice chairman regardless of who becomes chairman.

“I do want to remain in some leadership capacity, but the gauge is when you talk to your colleagues,” he said, adding that he had yet to raise the issue with members.

Andrew Barr contributed to this report. Reprinted from The Hill, The Newspaper for and about the U.S. Congress (http://www.hillnews.com).

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