Posted on March 14, 2007

Congressional Hispanic Caucus in Dispute

Erica Werner, AP, March 13, 2007

Rep. Raul Grijalva says he feels like he’s been in a “telenovela”—a steamy Spanish-language soap opera—as the Congressional Hispanic Caucus wrestles with a nasty power struggle, complete with accusations of name-calling.

The group has squandered time on a “circus,” the Arizona Democrat laments, and must “get back to the business we were elected to do.”

Grijalva’s frustration is shared by other Latino lawmakers and advocates as infighting has snarled the 21-member, all-Democratic group just as its power should be at its peak. Democrats finally are in control of Congress, the caucus represents the nation’s fastest-growing minority group, immigration reform is a national priority and many individual Hispanic lawmakers have risen to key leadership posts.

Yet the focus has been on Rep. Loretta Sanchez quitting the caucus and accusing fellow Southern California Democrat Joe Baca, the group’s chairman, of calling her a “whore.”

Still, some analysts see the struggle as evidence that members now have real power to fight over. Most contend that the dispute will prove a temporary distraction as the caucus, which started in 1976 with five members, expands along with the growth of the Hispanic community.

“There’s some growing pains that you’re seeing here, but I think it’s all, in the end, going to be a positive outcome and positive for the Hispanic community,” Janet Murguia, president of the National Council for La Raza, said Monday. “With them having been so long in the minority . . . I think they’ve kind of been out of practice in leveraging their voice.”

Latinos now comprise nearly 15 percent of the U.S. population, though they accounted for only about 8 percent of the electorate in the 2004 presidential election, according to exit polls. Many are non-citizens, making them ineligible to vote.

There are 23 Hispanics in the 435-member House, according to the House clerk’s office, a count that includes three Republicans from Florida who aren’t in the Hispanic Caucus but excludes three lawmakers of Portuguese descent, including two Democratic caucus members. In the Senate there are three Hispanics.

The Hispanic Caucus was formed by late Democratic Rep. Edward Roybal of Los Angeles to give Latino lawmakers a voice in the model of the Congressional Black Caucus, which was founded in 1969 and now has 43 members. The Hispanic Caucus jumped in size when congressional districts were redrawn after each Census, more than doubling to about 12 members in 1982 and growing to 19 members in 1992, according to National Council of La Raza. Analysts expect more growth after the 2010 census.