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Historic Time for CHC: Two Latinas Lead the Hispanic Group

Congressional Hispanic Caucus chairwoman Rep. Linda Sánchez discusses group's priorities in the 114th Congress.
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Eight years after walking out on the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in protest of the treatment of female members, Rep. Linda Sánchez finds herself in charge of the Latino lawmakers' group, with another woman as her lieutenant.

Sánchez, D-Calif., assumed the top post of the male-dominated group in her 12th year in the House, the dust clearly settled on the equity issue within the caucus.

Sánchez heads the CHC in the congressional session leading up to the 2016 presidential contest that could feature Hillary Clinton as Democratic nominee and one where the Latino vote is once again expected to be key to the outcome.

“I think the caucus is really in a good place right now. Having two women in top leadership posts will say a lot about what the caucus is capable of,” Rep. Linda Sánchez, Congressional Hispanic Caucus chair.

For added measure, the California legislator will lead the caucus of 26 men and 7 women with Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a New Mexico Democrat, as first vice chair. Three other Latinas have headed the caucus, but this is the first time in its history that the caucus’ top two leaders have been women. Sánchez wasn't due to take charge of the group for another two years, but Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., who was likely the next CHC chairman, was made chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, moving up the two Latinas in the CHC leadership.

In 2007, Sánchez suspended her membership in the CHC to protest then-chairman Joe Baca and treatment of female members in the group. She was joined by her sister, Rep. Loretta Sánchez and Hilda Solis, the former Labor Secretary and then a House member.

“I think the caucus is really in a good place right now,” Sánchez said. “Having two women in top leadership posts will say a lot about what the caucus is capable of.”

Image:  Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Congressional Hispanic Caucus, 1st vice-chair
Rep. Michelle Lujan GrishamNBC News

Sánchez, who celebrates her 46th birthday Wednesday, said she wants younger and newer members of the Caucus more involved.

“I remember when I was first elected having all this passion and energy and really wanted to sink my teeth into some of the meatier issues at CHC and there’s sort of this mindset that members who have been there longer and have more seniority are the national spokespeople for everything,” Sánchez said.

Age is a key factor, Sánchez noted, because the Latino population is younger than the national U.S. population and growth of the Latino electorate depends heavily on the 70,000 or so young Hispanics turning 18 every month.

To that end, Sánchez said she plans some restructuring of the historic caucus founded in 1976 by making more use of younger lawmakers.

“There is a lot of knowledge that the more seasoned members have that is valuable. But we also need to engage the newer members so that passion and commitment and energy doesn’t go to waste. We need to harness that and sort of multiply the voice of the caucus.”

The average age of the caucus, which includes delegates who can't vote on the House floor, in the 114th Congress is 55.8 and the median is 43.

The caucus found itself at odds with a faction of young Hispanics last session over the issue of deportations and President Barack Obama’s delay in taking executive action on immigration.

Obama finally did in December, following months of protests targeting him and members of the caucus who some young immigrant activists criticized as not standing up enough to Obama.

But Sanchez said CHC can take some credit for helping get Obama to authorize deferred deportations for young immigrants, known as DACA, and the plan to provide relief for some immigrant parents here illegally, or DAPA. "Without CHC's involvement in that, we don't know if that would have come to pass," she said.

Sánchez has already shown she’s going to be a hard-hitting spokesperson for what has become a perennial issue for the caucus, immigration reform.

She made a tough statement right out of the gate as the House moved to vote to attach amendments to the Homeland Security funding bill that would block or undo executive actions allowing immigrants in the U.S. illegally to work and avoid deportation.

“Shame on Republicans for attacking the Latino community yet again,” Sánchez said, a comment that could reverberate as 2016 presidential hopefuls look for a share of the Latino vote, which went overwhelmingly for Obama in the last presidential election.

The CHC is a bipartisan group, but all of its members are Democrats. Republicans broke off and in 2003 formed their own group, the Congressional Hispanic Conference.

Some in the Republican conference support immigration reform that provides a form of legal status for those here illegally. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., had worked with Democrats, including Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., on legislation that was later scrapped and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., was one of the “Gang of Eight” who helped negotiate the 2013 comprehensive immigration bill in the Senate. Rubio later rejected the sweeping bill he helped author in favor of a piecemeal, border security first approach.

“You need to pick your battles, but I think on certain issues you need to speak truth to power and you need to call people out on what they are doing,” Rep. Linda Sánchez, chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

On the other hand, some Republican conference members are among the most strident on stopping Obama’s executive action, such as Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

“You need to pick your battles, but I think on certain issues you need to speak truth to power and you need to call people out on what they are doing,” Sánchez said.

“I sincerely want to work with the other side. I’m looking for anybody there who is willing to sit down and have a rational discussion about what our community needs,” Sánchez said.

She further hopes to extend the caucus’ visibility on other issues. Too often Latino lawmakers are consulted only on the immigration issue, she said. But CHC members serve on a variety of committees. Sánchez is on the Ethics Committee and the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee and is on the select committee Republicans created to investigate the attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi.

Last week, Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard’s Democratic colleagues nominated her to be the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on Homeland Security.

“By 2025, one in every four U.S. families will have some kind of Latino heritage in their background. Really, what is good for Latino families is ultimately what is going to be good for the country,” Sánchez said. "Focusing on issues that affect the middle class is a top priority for the CHC.”