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House Democrats Elect California Rep. Tony Cárdenas to Leadership Role

Viacom/EPIX Present "Underwater Dreams" at MPAA in DC
File photo of Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-CA) during a panel discussion after a screening of the film "Underwater Dreams" on April 15, 2015 in Washington DC. Kris Connor / Getty Images for EPIX

House Democrats beset with internal friction over the makeup of their leadership have elevated Rep. Tony Cárdenas of California to a new caucus leadership role.

Cárdenas, a son of Mexican immigrants, was elected Monday to the position, intended for a representative who has been in Congress for five years or less. It was created by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi after some younger, Midwestern members challenged her re-election as head of the House Democrats.

The internal conflict came after Democrat Hillary Clinton failed to win key states in the Midwest, such as Ohio, that President Barack Obama had won. Her losses in Rust Belt states led some to charge that Clinton and Democratic leaders were not speaking to white working class voters in those states.

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Even so, House members chose Cárdenas, who represents a majority-minority district in California's San Fernando Valley, over Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., 91-76. He was elected to the House in 2013.

"As I said to my colleagues last night, I believe with all my heart that no matter our divisions, we are all Democrats. We must stick together and support each other, working together to make a difference in the things that really matter to Americans," Cárdenas said in a statement.

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“All of us share the same core values. We want freedom to be ourselves, and the opportunity to live in peace and feed our families with an honest day’s work. From the San Fernando Valley, across the districts of my Democratic and Republican colleagues, we all have hopes and principles that have nothing to do with our party affiliation," he stated.

Oscar Ramírez, a political strategist and principal at Podesta Group, said the election was a microcosm of the friction within the party.

"Right now there’s definitely a fight for what the future of Democratic party looks like. Some people think we should be focusing on the white working class voters we lost in the Midwest. Others think should be working on increasing coalitions that elected President Barack Obama," Ramirez said.

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Cárdenas sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. On his congressional website, his bio touts his legislative work on behalf of youth.

While his California roots may differ from other House members, the strategists said that his work on the House and Energy Committee and other issues not often thought of as traditional Latino issues — legislation he drafted on digital currencies and bitcoin recently, for example - show his ability to connect with various groups within the party and speak to issues that unify them, such as the economy and jobs.

"He's one of the hardest working people. He’s very assertive, and that colored the perspective of the members who felt, 'here’s a guy who can raise money for the party,' and he’s part of the fastest growing community in the United States," said Larry Gonzalez, a lobbyist with the Raben Group and BOLD PAC donor.

And his election makes the leadership more racially inclusive.

"He represents where this country is going from a demographic standpoint," said Democratic strategist María Cardona of Dewey Square Group. But, "just because he's Latino doesn’t mean he can't talk to all voters, those on the West Coast, Hispanics, millennials women, LGBT. He can talk to African Americans, Muslims, Asian Americans, but also talk to working class voters who have always been the backbone of the Democratic Party."

Cárdenas comes into the job having had an immensely successful couple of years as the head of BOLD PAC, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus' political action committee that raises money to contribute to campaigns of Latino candidates for congressional office and others such as Clinton.

Under his leadership the PAC raised close to $6 million, a record for the PAC. The previous high had been $1 million.

His election increases the Latinos in upper ranks of Democratic leadership.

He joins Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., in the leadership. Sanchez, president of the CHC will serve as House Democratic Caucus vice chair.

Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., was re-elected to serve as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which works to increase the number of Democrats in the House.

"It’s an exciting evolution of the Hispanic Caucus members to have this newer breed of congressional members coming in and being assertive about what they want in terms of policies that are going to affect our community," Gonzalez said.

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