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Roll Call

Daschle, Gephardt Lend Ear To Hispanic Caucus

By Ethan Wallison

February 11, 2002
Copyright © 2002. All Rights Reserved.

Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) have begun monthly issues tutorials from members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, adding a new wrinkle to the Democrats' frenzied efforts to woo Latino voters.

Participants say the sessions, which began in October, have yielded concrete results in the Senate, where Daschle controls the agenda. Among other things, input from the CHC at a meeting two weeks ago prompted Daschle to move Tuesday on the confirmation of Philip Martinez to the federal bench, Daschle's office confirmed.

The move came even as the vast majority of President Bush's choices for the courts continue to languish at the Judiciary Committee.

Daschle spokeswoman Ranit Schmelzer said the South Dakota lawmaker is committed to weaving Latino issues into the agenda in the Senate, which has no Hispanic Members. She said the impact of the CHC can be seen across the spectrum of legislative issues, from immigration and education through the Congressional debate on a stimulus bill.

"They help serve as his eyes and ears in the Hispanic community," Schmelzer said, characterizing the value of the sessions with the CHC.

If the high-tech industry and its then extraordinary lucre were the magic grail sought by both parties in the last Congress, the Hispanic community is this Congress' prize, following the release of census figures showing that Latinos have surpassed blacks as the country's second-largest ethnic group.

In the House, Gephardt and Democratic Caucus Chairman Martin Frost (Texas) both have parts of their communications operations directed solely at Hispanic media, while Gephardt's deputy chief of staff serves as a fixed liaison with Latino leaders.

Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), the chairman of the CHC, said 164 Congressional districts are at least 10 percent Hispanic in population. He suggested that Democrats are now positioned to win back the House majority solely with the Hispanic candidates who have been recruited across the country.

Reyes described the relationship that's been forged at the sessions as a "partnership" designed to "make sure our issues get the priority they deserve."

It was in consultation with the Hispanic Caucus, for instance, that Daschle recommended Roel Campos, a Texas businessman, for one of two Democratic vacancies at the Securities and Exchange Commission that are expected to be filled by the White House in the coming weeks, according to Schmelzer.

But that priority treatment has been particularly evident in the party's development of immigration "principles." They now call for the full legalization of anyone who arrived in this country before Feb. 6, 2001, and for parity in the treatment of Central American and Caribbean immigrants, who have traditionally not received the same deference as immigrants from current or former communist nations, such as Cuba and Nicaragua.

Those principles have become particularly significant in light of the Bush administration's overt efforts to attract Hispanic support, because they go a step further than what the GOP will likely allow.

"They ask questions of us," Reyes said, describing the sessions with Gephardt and Daschle. "They ask us what issues we could be doing. They ask us what kinds of things the Latino community is thinking about."

The meetings were originally to begin in September, but were pushed back after Sept. 11.

At the time, Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords' defection from the GOP had only recently turned over control of the Senate to the Democrats.

Gephardt spokeswoman Kori Bernards said party leaders saw an opportunity "for all of us [Democrats] to be on the same page so that the Hispanic agenda in the House is pushed also in the Senate.

"It was a familiarization thing," she said.

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