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Caucus' Move Could Limit Hispanic Gains: Challengers Unhappy With Decision

By Ethan Wallison and John Mercurio

April 23, 2001
Copyright © 2001. All Rights Reserved.

In a decision that could undercut efforts to boost their numbers on Capitol Hill, Congressional Hispanics have privately agreed to back incumbent Democrats in primary contests with Hispanic challengers, despite major population gains that portend new electoral clout for Latinos.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus made the decision as its members were finalizing details for a PAC that will be used to recruit and finance Latino candidates in the 2002 elections and beyond.

"We've made our position very clear," said Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), chairman of the CHC. "We are identifying seats where there is not that potential" for Hispanics to challenge incumbent Democrats, and they are recruiting candidates in those districts.

The decision sets the Hispanic Caucus at odds with its own goal of boosting Latino representation on Capitol Hill - an objective that seemed achievable with the release of new census figures showing that Hispanics have reached parity with African-Americans in terms of national population.

However, Latino leaders on Capitol Hill said they calculated that the cost of backing Hispanic candidates over their own colleagues would outweigh any benefits they might receive from greater representation in Congress.

"Clearly, if we want Members to vote with us on the issues of importance to our community, we need to support them," Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) said.

It is not likely that the CHC's support would provide a margin of advantage for Latino challengers. But without it, such candidates would lose a powerful argument for voters to change their representatives in Congress.

Already, Democratic strategists and Congressional Hispanics have scaled back earlier projections of as many as 12 Latino pickups in the next elections. Many now say the high-end figure is probably more like six, but some strategists suggest even that number could be overly optimistic.

The surge in Latino numbers is the barely concealed subtext of a number of redistricting battles across the country and is already animating contests in cities such as Los Angeles, where Hispanics have emerged as a strong plurality in three districts currently represented by African-American lawmakers.

These Members - Democratic Reps. Maxine Waters, Juanita Millender-McDonald and, assuming she wins a June 5 runoff, Diane Watson - are likely to benefit most from the CHC's decision.

Mark Gersh, a top Democratic strategist and adviser to Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (Mo.), noted that as many as 15 districts have shifted from black to Hispanic pluralities in the past decade.

"That's where you get into black-brown primaries, potentially," Gersh said, while stressing that much still needs to be determined in the redistricting process.

Potential Hispanic primary challengers have also begun to emerge in districts with white incumbents.

In Colorado's 1st district, where roughly a third of the constituency is now of Hispanic origin, three-term Rep. Diana DeGette (D) already faces a challenge from Denver City Council President Ramona Martinez (D).

While Martinez acknowledged "the [unwritten] rule" that says Members don't support challenges to their party colleagues, she indicated that she considers the CHC's position misguided.

"I guess Idon't quite understand [the CHC position], because if our goal is to increase our representation in Congress, there are going to have to be changes" in a number of districts, Martinez said in an interview.

The councilwoman cited census figures that showed DeGette's district, which is expected to remain intact through redistricting, is now 54 percent black or Hispanic.

"Where are minority communities supposed to get minority representation?" Martinez asked rhetorically. "I plan on giving every one of [the members of the CHC] a courtesy call to let them know that I'm running."

Larry Gonzalez, the Washington director of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, a non-partisan group that has been helping the Hispanic Caucus identify potential candidates, indicated he was also disappointed in the CHC's decision.

He suggested the group's position undermines their supposedly shared interest in increasing the number of Hispanics in Congress.

"We would feel differently. We obviously would like to see Latino Members support other Latino candidates," Gonzalez said.

Few House Democrats are more concerned about a possible primary challenge from a Hispanic than Caucus Chairman Martin Frost (Texas), whose Fort Worth-area district is now roughly 30 percent Latino.

Texas Republicans, who control the state Senate and governor's office and expect to have the upper hand in redistricting, have talked up a plan to redraw Frost into a seat with a strong Hispanic tilt. His current district, which stretches southeast of Fort Worth, also has a substantial African-American population.

Frost dismissed concerns that any such change could hinder his re-election bid.

"I've had a significant Hispanic population in my district in the past, and I've always had very significant support," he said. "Whatever district is drawn for me, I'll campaign hard, and I expect to do well. Other Anglo incumbents who have previously represented the Hispanic community will continue to do well among Hispanic voters."

Nonetheless, Frost, who also heads up the redistricting effort for House Democrats, applauded the CHC's decision. He said it will work to the benefit of Hispanic interests in the long run by ensuring that Latinos "will be a powerful voice in [the] districts" where they have a strong presence.

"Whoever is elected will owe a good bit of his electoral victory to the Hispanic community," Frost said. "They will have a greater influence with incumbents all over the country and they can go to those incumbents and say, ÔWe provided the difference in getting you re-elected.' That will be helpful in getting their legislation passed. It's a very important thing for them to do."

Reyes, who said Hispanics have a "strong shot" at winning six new seats, refused to give any details about candidates the group is considering giving support to except to disclose that the CHC has compiled a preliminary list of "about six to 10" possibilities and that Dario Herrera, chairman of the Clark County Commission in Nevada, is one of them. Armed with support from top Nevada Democrats, Herrera has said he plans to run in the new House seat Nevada received in reapportionment. But he could face a primary fight against fellow Commissioner Yvonne Atkinson Gates, who is black.

An evaluation committee headed by Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.) will be vetting candidates for the CHC. Reyes said California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas and "the Northwest" offer the best Hispanic pickup opportunities.

Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.), who is heading up the group's fundraising committee, CHC BOLDPAC, filled in a few of the holes.

Among other things, he said, the CHC is working on a roster of potential candidates who have not "been through the Congressional mill" before, rather than recycling previous Hispanic challengers.

One possible exception Baca cited, however, was Regina Montoya Coggins, a Texas Democrat who challenged Rep. Pete Sessions (R) in 2000.

He also indicated that Hispanics were particularly excited about a challenger (whom he wouldn't name) to Rep. Steve Horn (R-Calif.), whose district is now one-quarter Hispanic. Sally Havice (D), a Latina state Assemblywoman from Long Beach, announced her candidacy for the seat last Wednesday. Havice may face a primary challenge.

"We don't want to throw our money away," Baca said, suggesting that a number of Hispanic candidates recruited in recent election cycles had been non-starters. "Viability is the key" to winning the CHC's support.

Baca said the PAC, which will have its first fundraiser May 2, is trying to collect enough money so that the committee will be able to spend as much as $1 million on each of its targeted races.

Gersh agreed that California and Texas will likely produce opportunities for Hispanic Democrats and also noted that Florida and Nevada are fertile territories for the GOP.

"I've got no doubt that there will be more Hispanics running and, hopefully, winning," Gersh said.

However, Gersh also cited a series of factors that augur against strong Hispanic gains in the next elections.

For one thing, roughly a third of Hispanics are Republican, making the community less capable of coalescing around one candidate, as African-Americans have done with striking results.

There are now 38 members in the Congressional Black Caucus. The CHC has only 18, even though the Hispanic population has burgeoned over the past decade.

Then there are the numbers themselves. Gersh suggested they could be misleading because a significant segment of the Hispanic population is either in this country illegally, is too young to vote or has not yet been awarded citizenship.

Gersh also said that Hispanic incumbents could very well be another obstacle. Many of their districts, he noted, are predominantly Latino because they were designed to produce Hispanic lawmakers; portions of those districts may have to be siphoned off to create new Hispanic ones.

"The question is whether some lawmakers who are currently in office are willing to [accept] that," said Gersh, who believes that Hispanic gains will most likely come in newly created seats rather than in challenges to incumbents.

He predicted "maybe three to five" such seats after redistricting.

Gonzalez, meanwhile, mentioned a practical obstacle to increasing the number of Hispanics on Capitol Hill: a paucity of top-tier candidates.

According to Gonzalez, there are 5,138 Latinos holding elected posts or appointed statewide offices. But only 200 Latinos currently serve in state legislatures across the country, and a majority of them started serving in the 1990s.

"In terms of a pool of people who are looking to move to that next level, it's very small."

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