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Latino lawmakers still haven't made up

The House Democrats huddle but don't settle weeks of disputes.

March 07, 2007|Nicole Gaouette | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Capitol Hill's version of a telenovela -- complete with power struggles, character assassination and personal betrayal -- looks set for an indefinite run after the Congressional Hispanic Caucus met Tuesday without apparent success in ending weeks of nasty disputes that have marred its reputation.

The trouble burst into the open when Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Santa Ana) quit the caucus after claiming that Rep. Joe Baca (D-Rialto) called her a "whore," a charge the caucus leader has denied.

But the dust-up reflects long-standing tension between the younger women in the caucus and their older male colleagues over the way money is handled, power is wielded and women are treated -- or mistreated.

The Democratic takeover of Congress and the accepted importance of Latino voters have given the 20 Latino Democratic lawmakers their best opportunity in years to aggressively pursue their agenda on such issues as immigration reform. Instead, the bickering has begun to undercut their influence and stature.

On her way into Tuesday's meeting, Rep. Hilda L. Solis (D-El Monte) said she was among those who believed a leadership change was important for the future of the caucus. "I hope it can be resolved; we'll see what our colleagues demand, then I have to decide what I'm going to do," she said.

A little more than an hour later, grim-faced members jogged out of the room, barking, "No comment!" and "We're continuing to talk!"

Baca then emerged to announce he was still in charge.

"There was a positive vote of confidence and we're all united," Baca said, adding that there would be no change in leadership. "It was a positive meeting. We're all moving forward.

"There's a lot of issues we've got to work on right now," he added, mentioning healthcare, education and the war in Iraq.

A bad sign -- or a good one

Baca leads the caucus and its educational wing, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute. Options said to be under discussion include having another member take over one of the leadership positions or creating co-chairs.

The lack of change raises the possibility of further defections that could weaken the caucus, which aims to represent the interests of the country's 45 million Latinos.

"At times when there's enormous disagreement, there's no doubt the caucus' influence can be diminished and it can be a net negative for the Hispanic community," said Adam Segal, director of the Hispanic Voter Project at Johns Hopkins University.

Others say the controversy highlights just how far Latino power has advanced. And they say that given the solidarity of members on issues the community cares about, a lack of caucus unity doesn't pose a crucial threat.

"Twenty years ago, there were only five Latino congressmen," said Harry Pachon, director of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute. Pachon was a Capitol Hill staffer who helped found the Hispanic Caucus in 1976.

"If public-office-holding is a barometer of political progress for any ethnic community, then the indicators look good," he said.

"And, sure, there's this turmoil about Loretta Sanchez and Joe Baca, but the fact is, if you look at their voting records, there's close agreement on the issues."

Caucus members have tried to tamp down the scandal or dismiss it as a simple personality conflict. And House aides connected to the caucus say the underlying problems probably are exacerbated in part by the strong-willed collection of personalities at work.

Baca, a self-styled street fighter with an often abrasive style, was once dubbed Congress' "zestiest lawmaker" for his victory in a chili-eating contest. He once called Solis a "kiss ass," but later apologized.

Sanchez is known for an independent streak, seen in her willingness to push back against party leadership, at one point over the propriety of hosting a fundraiser at the Playboy Mansion. She is also known for her playful personal style, on annual display in her slightly risque Christmas cards. Those qualities have made Sanchez something of a lightning rod in starchy, strait-laced Washington.

Core disagreements within the caucus, though, stem in part from the March 2006 withdrawal of six caucus members from the group's political action committee after it gave campaign donations to the children of three members, including Baca's two sons, and daughters of Texas Democratic Reps. Ruben Hinojosa and Silvestre Reyes.

Three men and three women withdrew from the PAC to protest the move, including Sanchez and her sister Linda T. Sanchez (D-Lakewood).

When Baca was elected caucus chairman in the November elections, he won the support of only one of the six women then in the caucus, Rep. Grace F. Napolitano (D-Norwalk). Loretta Sanchez voted no, while the other women abstained. At the time, Baca's opponents cited problems with the PAC and a lack of respect for women.

Opportunity squandered?

The upheaval comes at a time when individual members of the caucus wield unprecedented power.

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