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L.A.'s Barragán seeks to lead the Congressional Hispanic Caucus

·6 min read
President Joe Biden talks with Rep. Nanette Barragán, D-Calif., as he speaks at the 45th Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Gala to kick-off the White House's celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month at the Walter Washington Convention Center, Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
President Biden sings "Happy Birthday" to Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-San Pedro) after she introduced him at last week's Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Gala in Washington. (Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-San Pedro) has been privately talking to members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus about becoming its next chair.

The 36-member group is currently led by Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Coachella), but the caucus chairs usually only serve a single two-year term. Barragán is the group’s No. 2 leader and chairs its affiliated nonprofit, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, a group that aims to develop the next generation of Latino leaders.

“I’ve been talking to members about being chair, and so far, so good,” Barragán said in an interview. “I’ll continue talking to members until the end of the term and see if I get that honor.”

Barragán, who was first elected to Congress in 2016, said she’s benefited from seeing the leadership of Ruiz and his predecessors, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) and former Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.), who is now the governor of New Mexico.

Barragán has been speaking to members about changes they want to see within the caucus. But the group's conversations with the White House about its staff diversity — or lack thereof — and its actions to highlight caucus members' initiatives are “great examples of what we need to continue to do,” she said.

“I’ll take something from each of those chairs that I learned from and apply it and then also, of course, hear new members and hear members that are here about what they want,” she said. “So I’m looking forward to continuing to talk to my colleagues and hope to earn their support for the race.”

Leadership races usually begin in earnest after election day, with candidates sending “Dear Colleague” letters to express interest in a post before the caucus or group votes. But several House Democrats and Republicans have already begun publicly jockeying for leadership slots and coveted committee posts for the next Congress.

House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), for instance, told The Times over the summer that he was having conversations with colleagues about serving in a different leadership position next year. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) is serving out what’s expected to be her final term as Democratic leader, but she hasn’t revealed what she’ll do after the Nov. 8 election.

Barragán, a daughter of Mexican immigrants who represents a majority-Latino Southern California district that contains many immigrant and working-class communities, would be the sixth woman to chair the Congressional Hispanic Caucus since its founding in 1976. The promotion would give her a prominent perch in Congress during a high-stakes presidential cycle in which President Biden and former President Trump appear likely to face off again.

“I think being a voice for the Latino community is going to be incredibly important, and … having someone who’s not afraid to speak truth to the administration or the business community or to our colleagues is going to be incredibly important, and having a strong voice to do that is going to be helpful to the caucus and to the country, and I think having a Latina do that, it’s not lost on me how impactful that is, too,” said House Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Pete Aguilar (D-Redlands).

Barragán has been a “force of nature” since coming to Congress, Aguilar added. “She’s been a great advocate for her community, and that sets her apart.”

Barragán introduced Biden at last week’s Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Gala, calling the role one of her “big honors.” The gala was held in person for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The president sang "Happy Birthday" to her as the two shared the stage ahead of his remarks, and Barragán said she was also able to chat with the president backstage.

“It was really amazing. We had a nearly sold-out crowd,” Barragán said. “We were able to highlight and honor people who have been contributing to the Latino community.”

Barragán has doubled her dues to BOLD PAC, the caucus' political action committee, and supported a number of Latino candidates for Congress, including Maxwell Frost in Florida, Greg Casar and Michelle Vallejo in Texas, and Andrea Salinas in Oregon.

She lamented that getting more Democratic Latinas elected to Congress has been a challenge. Barragán said she and Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto were the only newly elected Democratic Latinas in Congress in 2016.

“We’ve just got to make sure we don’t have years like that again,” Barragán said.

Though congressional Republicans have sought to keep their midterm message focused on the economy and inflation, Democrats have hammered them on abortion rights and cast far-right Republicans as threats to democracy.

In recent weeks, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, both Republicans, have successfully returned immigration to the center of the national conversation by mounting stunts such as flying migrants to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts and Vice President Kamala Harris’ residence in Washington, D.C.

Barragán, who chairs the Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Border Security, Facilitation and Operations, is “absolutely” ready for that conversation, she said.

“It’s really shameful what they’re doing,” she said of the pair of GOP governors, who are both running for reelection this year. “But it’s a distraction. They don’t want to talk about the real issues at hand, which are things like abortion is at stake, our democracy is at stake.”

Barragán appears to have broad support within the caucus, though she is the only member to declare interest in succeeding Ruiz.

Rep. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) described her as a hardworking “Energizer bunny” who “beat the odds” to get elected to Congress.

“I think she deserves to be chair, and I’m going to support her,” he said. “She’s consistent, and I like that about her. I think she’s got her heart in the right place when it comes to Hispanic, Latino, Chicano issues, and that’s why I think she’s going to make a good chair.”

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), the rare congressional Democrat who opposes abortion rights, conceded in an interview that he didn’t know whether a second candidate was running to become the next caucus chair.

“If it’s her and she’s the candidate, I’d be happy to support her,” he said. “She’s very talented, very involved, knows the issues, and she’s also understanding that in the Hispanic Caucus, there’s different viewpoints.”

One member of the caucus, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about internal dynamics, recalled that Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) was interested in serving as caucus chair this Congress. The member said it was unclear whether Escobar remained interested in the post or would challenge Barragán.

Asked about her interest, Escobar said she had her eyes set on a post outside of the caucus. “I’ll be running for a different leadership position,” she said. “But I’m going to talk to my colleagues about it first.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.