Taking a Seat at the Table

Will demographic growth translate into political clout? Latino leaders on Capitol Hill are working hard to ensure just that.

“There are more Latinos in leadership positions than ever before, but we are still severely underrepresented,” says Rep. Linda Sánchez of California, who along with her sister Loretta, are the only pair of sisters to serve at the same time in Congress. Chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) since last year, she is only the fourth Latina to head the 26-member group, and has served in Congress since 2003, having first been an attorney in Southern California specializing in labor law.

Sánchez has said that she wants to use the position as CHC Chair to increase attention on issues affecting the Latino community and to ensure that those issues include more than immigration. In addition to heading CHC, Sánchez is also a member of the powerful House Ways & Means Committee, the oldest committee in Congress, which is the main tax-writing congressional body.

“It’s real important for us to be here at the table. Everything that happens in Congress affects the Latino community. If you don’t have a seat at the table, chances are you are on the menu,” she says.

Rep. Sánchez says she and her fellow Democratic colleagues spend a lot of time fighting against what they say is a particularly toxic and partisan atmosphere in Washington: “We try to find the issues that are most pressing to work on, but we spend a lot of time fighting attacks from the Republicans, fighting the rhetoric and attacks against the Latino community. A big part of our time is spent fighting those back.”

Rep. Ben Ray Luján comes from a prominent New Mexico political family. His father Ben is a former speaker of the New Mexico House of Representatives, and his cousins include a current member of Congress – Michelle Luján Grisham, and a former member and ex- Secretary of the Interior, Manuel Luján Jr.

Rep. Luján has been in Congress since 2009, and actually first came to Capitol Hill as an intern with former Rep. Bill Richardson. Luján now represents that same congressional district.

“It’s an extreme honor to be here, especially all of the responsibility we have representing people from home, the community that has entrusted us.

“My father, who served as Speaker of the House in New Mexico always raised us to understand the importance of standing up and fighting for our community, especially lending a voice to the voiceless in our community, and that’s the responsibility that I bring to the Congress. It’s important that we not be the last invited to the table, but that we are only the first and make sure others come along. We have to reach out and pull others in. You have to mentor others. Keep the doors open and make sure that you expand that representation.”

Luján tells LATINO Magazine that one of the hardest issues to deal with in Congress has nothing to do with any particular piece of legislation, but rather the general atmosphere in the House of Representatives. Like Rep. Sánchez, Rep. Luján says it is entirely too partisan.

“It’s real hard to legislate these days. I’m concerned with the lack of governing that is coming from the Republican majority. They are governing from one crisis to another. We have seen this with the government shutdown, the threat of a shutdown, including the threat to shut down the Department of Homeland Security over the president’s executive action on DACA and DAPA. They were basically saying there shouldn’t be any protections for young undocumented immigrants and parents and children,” contends Luján. “What we’ve seen is this anti-Latino, anti-Hispanic agenda that has been brought to the House floor, magnified by the influence of Donald Trump and the ugly things he’s saying in his race for the presidency.  It makes it much more difficult to get any legislation passed to help our country and our communities. Look at comprehensive immigration reform; we have seen an unwillingness, an obstructionism by the Republicans when it comes to even having a debate about it.”

Luján is particularly interested in issues related to education, particularly in the STEM fields, recently sponsoring a bill aimed at saving money for college.

“The Save or Success Act recognizes that saving for college makes a huge difference. Students with savings are more likely to graduate. This legislation allows them to claim a tax credit and put that savings into an account. Even if you save just over $20 a month, you could have as much as $15,000 by age 18, and you’ll still be eligible for other programs.

I’m also involved in encouraging more STEM education. Even though we’ve seen such a large use of technology among Latinos, right now only 7 percent of workers in the technology fields are from our community. I’m sponsoring legislation that will provide more training, help teachers in schools by providing additional professional development and resources and more collaboration between the business and education communities to develop the STEM skills needed in the workforce.”

Luján believes that he and his fellow Democrats will be able to take advantage of what he says is that negative atmosphere and Trump’s anti-Latino rhetoric, to increase the number of Democrats in Congress. Part of effort is as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, commonly known as “D Triple C” or “D Trip.” The DCCC recruits candidates and raises funds, and the chairmanship is the fourth-ranking position among House Democrats. Luján is the first Hispanic in the post.

“It’s an honor, it’s a tough responsibility, but it’s an important one to take on. It’s an honor not only to represent the people of New Mexico, but also to be a part of the Democratic leadership in the U.S. House. My responsibility is to reach out all over the country and help recruit candidates to make a difference in people’s lives, protect Medicare and Social Security, make college affordable, respect voting rights, all those and other issues happen to be Democratic issues, and I’m hoping that we will get more Democrats elected across the United States,” Luján says. “The environment for more Democrats has only strengthened now that we people like have Trump and Ted Cruz. The ugly things that they have been saying and alienating people acorss the country, especially Hispanics. The GOP presidential candidates I think will have a very negative effect on down ballot candidates, including House and Senate Republican candidates.”

Before Luján headed the DCCC, he was chairman of BOLD PAC, the  CHC’s political action committee charged with increasing diversity among legislators. That task now belongs to Tony Cardenas, a former Los Angeles elected official and California state legislator currently serving his freshman term as the first Latino representing his district, with one of the largest concentration of Hispanic residents (70 percent) of any congressional district in the country. Ninety percent of his constituents are blue-collar and working class.

“I have a painting in my office a painting from a black and white picture of my father and grandfather picking potatoes and working in the fields in the 1940s and they’re smiling. That reminds me that every day there’s a lot of work to be done and sometimes it seems the work is never done but we have to constantly keep doing what we’re doing, working hard, and keep remembering that we are blessed to be doing what we’re doing and that we have jobs,” Cárdenas says, adding that he considers BOLD PAC to be part of a greater mission of Latino involvement.

“It’s important to me to be involved in all levels. I fought hard to be chairman of BOLD PAC, and now I’m working hard to working to increase our numbers. We’ve already raised $1.7 million, $700,000 in just one quarter, and we’re poised to raise $3 million and to get more Latino candidates than ever before. We’re starting to get involved in state races and primaries and hadn’t done that before. I want to be able to look back at my tenure and see that my community has been empowered. It’s about making sure what can I do to help empower the community. We need to be empowered, we need to be in the places of power. We need to be in those positions with the leaders talking about the issues. BOLD PAC is an opportunity to expand my responsibilities and use my energy to help empower the community. We need to be in every circle, in every decision-making corner to make sure we’re represented and reflect what America looks like. The halls of Congress don’t reflect what America looks like. One thing I guarantee you in when I leave Congress that there will definitely be more Latinos than ever before.”

Like his colleagues, Rep. Cárdenas laments the partisan atmosphere in Congress which he says makes it very hard to get anything done.

“It’s an awesome responsibility being here but it’s incredibly disappointing how bad the politics and how heavy the politics play in everyday in Congress, but every day I try to make a contribution and work real hard and try to do the most that I can in whatever environment I’m in. And sometimes it is disappointing to see sometimes that some things don’t make it to committee, don’t make it to the House floor, but we don’t give up,” adds Cárdenas, who is one of just two Latinos on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee.

It’s very important as a Latino to be here in Congress. Sixty percent of all policy legislation goes through that committee. I take that very seriously.”

All three legislators are supporting Hillary Clinton for president.

“I’ve endorsed Hillary Clinton and I am excited about the possibility of her being elected president. Secretary Clinton has also engaged and reached out to the Latino community and I really appreciate that and it meant a lot that she reached out to me personally. I hadn’t had that kind of outreach from Sanders. But it was more about who would be most able to help our country and all our communities, and that means Hillary Clinton is the most capable of all the candidates,” says Luján.

“I’m impressed and she understands the Latino community,” adds Cárdenas. “The thing that bothers me about Bernie Sanders is that he talks a lot but doesn’t know how to get things done.  He has absolutely no proof whatsoever that he is the kind of person once elected that will actually get things done. He’s very philosophical but is not a game changer. Hillary Clinton is the best for the Latino community and for the country as a whole.”

By Patricia Guadalupe