Latinos Fight for Political Recognition

Gebe Martinez, The Politico, January 21, 2009

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.).

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