According to pollsters, the election on November 5 will send more Hispanics to Congress than ever before. But another election, held early next year in a closed-door session, could prove more significant for expanding Hispanic political power.
Soon after the 108th Congress takes office in January 2003, members from each political party will elect their leaders. Congressman Robert Menendez of New Jersey will run for chairman of the Democratic Caucus. If elected, he will preside at weekly meetings to debate policy, strategy, and committee assignments. He faces a hard-fought contest against Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut.
Although many members of Congress consider leadership selection an internal matter, Hispanic groups are campaigning aggressively for Mr. Menendez. Leaders from the National Council of La Raza, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, and the Cuban American National Foundation have spoken in his behalf, and he has the unanimous endorsement of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. New York union activist Dennis Rivera and former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson have joined the chant.
The feeling behind this fervor goes beyond personal loyalty. It stems from a desire to make a statement about Hispanic clout. Mr. Menendez’s election will demonstrate progress, pragmatically and symbolically. Finally, a Hispanic will sit in the inner circle of a major party. For the average voter, Mr. Menendez will become a spokesman fluent in Spanish and English. And for party operatives, it will show the party doesn’t take the Hispanic electorate for granted.
With his New Democrat perspective on economic development, Mr. Menendez would be in a position to defend minority business programs and improve access to federal markets. He sits on the powerful Transportation & Infrastructure Committee. He has worked with the major firms of Wall Street to bring their offices to New Jersey. And he is an advocate of free trade.
First, however, comes the election. Unlike the Speaker of the House – a constitutional position voted on by the full legislature – party chairmen are chosen in organizational meetings, usually by secret ballot. Together with majority and minority leaders, whips, and steering committees, the party chairmen guide the country’s agenda, even though they are selected by their colleagues out of the public view. Nevertheless, Hispanics can take the initiative during the next few months to express their views on the election to Democratic members of Congress.
Hispanic entrepreneurs need a network of people in Washington to open windows of opportunity. Women and African Americans have had representatives at the top of party leadership. Isn’t the ascension of Mr. Menendez a step forward in building our future?
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