WASHINGTON – Rep. Raul Grijalva says he feels like he's been in a "telenovela" — a steamy Spanish-language soap opera — as the Congressional Hispanic Caucus wrestles with a nasty power struggle, complete with accusations of name-calling.
The group has squandered time on a "circus," the Arizona Democrat laments, and must "get back to the business we were elected to do."
Grijalva's frustration is shared by other Latino lawmakers and advocates as infighting has snarled the 21-member, all-Democratic group just as its power should be at its peak. Democrats finally are in control of Congress, the caucus represents the nation's fastest-growing minority group, immigration reform is a national priority and many individual Hispanic lawmakers have risen to key leadership posts.
Still, some analysts see the struggle as evidence that members now have real power to fight over. Most contend that the dispute will prove a temporary distraction as the caucus, which started in 1976 with five members, expands along with the growth of the Hispanic community.
"There's some growing pains that you're seeing here, but I think it's all, in the end, going to be a positive outcome and positive for the Hispanic community," Janet Murguia, president of the National Council for La Raza, said Monday. "With them having been so long in the minority ... I think they've kind of been out of practice in leveraging their voice."
Latinos now comprise nearly 15 percent of the U.S. population, though they accounted for only about 8 percent of the electorate in the 2004 presidential election, according to exit polls. Many are non-citizens, making them ineligible to vote.
There are 23 Hispanics in the 435-member House, according to the House clerk's office, a count that includes three Republicans from Florida who aren't in the Hispanic Caucus but excludes three lawmakers of Portuguese descent, including two Democratic caucus members. In the Senate there are three Hispanics.
The Hispanic Caucus was formed by late Democratic Rep. Edward Roybal of Los Angeles to give Latino lawmakers a voice in the model of the Congressional Black Caucus, which was founded in 1969 and now has 43 members. The Hispanic Caucus jumped in size when congressional districts were redrawn after each Census, more than doubling to about 12 members in 1982 and growing to 19 members in 1992, according to National Council of La Raza. Analysts expect more growth after the 2010 census.
Members include Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Nydia Velazquez, chairwoman of the House Small Business Committee, and others near the top of committees and in the House Democratic leadership.
Republicans were part of the group at one time but left in the mid-1990s in a dispute over Cuba.
"There's been personality conflicts within the caucus ever since the beginning," said Harry Pachon, Roybal's chief of staff in the late 1970s and now president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at the University of Southern California. "The big difference this time is they've gone public with it."
The most recent dispute has been undeniably public, and colorful, partly because of the personalities involved.
Loretta Sanchez, whose sister Rep. Linda Sanchez is also a Democratic House member from Southern California, has figured in her share of political dramas. During the 2000 Democratic convention in Los Angeles she planned a fundraiser at the Playboy Mansion, moving it only after criticism from party leaders.
Baca, who represents a working-class inland Southern California district, is known for winning a congressional chili-eating contest by eating a reported 47 chili peppers and has repeatedly introduced legislation to award golfer Tiger Woods a congressional gold medal. He was supported by only one of six women in the caucus when he was elected in November, and critics complain of an autocratic leadership style.
Baca denies calling Sanchez a whore. She says she won't rejoin the caucus as long as he remains chairman. He insists he won't step aside or share power, but after surviving a confidence vote last week agreed to accept some changes to how the caucus is run, including less emphasis on seniority.
Those changes are to be taken up Thursday, but there's no guarantee they'll do more than paper over the dispute. Some of Baca's critics, such as Reps. Hilda L. Solis and Dennis Cardoza of California, have stayed away from recent meetings and say they can be effective in Congress apart from the caucus.