Shortly after the November congressional elections, Hispanic Democrats selected the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus for the new session beginning in January. And while the heir apparent took the seat, it wasn't without controversy.
Members of the caucus usually choose their chair without much fanfare, but a brouhaha brewed over who would head the 21-member group. It has been tradition for the vice-chair, the No. 2 person in the caucus, to take over when the current chair completes their two-year term. And so California Democrat Joe Baca would succeed fellow Californian Grace Napolitano in January, although some members pushed for another member to run.
Caucus bylaws don't specify a formal election for the post, and this would be the first time a potential chair had any real competition. Ms. Napolitano, who ends her term once the new Congress is sworn in, said she backed Mr. Baca. "No one else has told me they were interested and Congressman Baca has done a good job as vice-chair. He will do a good job as caucus chair."
It's not the only scuffle over appointments in the new Congress: Democrats busily "measuring the drapes" before the midterm elections were spatting over several committee leadership roles, including the House Intelligence Committee. Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi is reputedly at policy odds with the obvious heir to that post, California's Jane Harman. One of the leading contenders – but No. 3 in seniority – is Silvestre Reyes of Texas. The leading contender is the impeached-judge-turned-politico Alcee Hastings. Mr. Hastings is a favorite of the Congressional Black Caucus, a much stronger player on the Hill than the Hispanic caucus.
In the Hispanic caucus, those who were unhappy say Mr. Baca brought bad press to the group after a caucus political action committee gave money to several relatives of caucus members in unsuccessful bids for public office in California and Texas. Mr. Baca had defended the action, which included donations to his two sons. Still, six caucus members – all but one from California – quit the Building Our Leadership Diversity PAC in March.
Mr. Baca maintained that he was not involved in the decisions to disburse funds to his own relatives, and said that the legislators who had a problem never had a problem receiving money themselves from the PAC. "This is like a Latino crab syndrome. Some of us can't see others be successful."
Mr. Baca vehemently denies that he did anything wrong, but some CHC members say they feared a caucus with him as chair would not be as respected, particularly among the Democratic leadership. "We want to take the caucus to a new level and become an integral part of the Democratic leadership in the House and the entire congressional leadership. We question his leadership," said one member, who spoke under condition of anonymity. "We want someone who is well respected and well regarded, not just within the caucus, but outside of it."
Mr. Baca, meanwhile, said he saw no reason not to follow the caucus' long-held protocol. "Those who want it can do what I do and work hard and get involved and move up the ranks," he told Hispanic Business.
Who might have taken the caucus post in lieu of Mr. Baca? New York Rep. Nydia Velazquez, the top Democrat on the House Small Business Committee, was one name bandied. But as the first-ever Latina chair of the House Small Business Committee in the upcoming session, Ms. Velazquez's camp says she wants to concentrate on her committee, although several legislators said she simply didn't have enough votes to become the caucus chair.
Lame duck wish list
Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez says he will be working on two keys issues for Hispanic companies in the remaining two years of the Bush administration.
No. 1: making tax cuts permanent, especially on the estate tax.
"We have cut that tax, but it's not permanent. People think that it's a tax on the rich, but that's not true. It's a tax on those who have worked hard to build the business, and that tax [40 percent] is astronomical for small-business owners," Mr. Gutierrez told Hispanic Business. "If we don't extend the tax cut that the president made, it would be like increasing taxes. And that would be a big mistake."
No. 2 is opening up more opportunities through trade agreements.
"We have [agreements with] Peru and Colombia coming up [for consideration in Congress] and we are negotiating with Panama. Those would be great opportunities for Latino businesses because they have contacts, they know the regions, and they speak the language."
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