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Pete Aguilar, No. 3 Democrat in the House, makes history as he aims to keep party ‘united’

The California congressman, the highest-ranking Latino ever in the House, will help steer Democrats, soon to be in the minority, as they push their legislative priorities.
Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., at the Capitol on Nov. 30, 2022.
Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., at the Capitol on Wednesday.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Rep. Pete Aguilar, a California Democrat, is taking on the highest-level job ever held by a Latino in the House, the party's No. 3 position, with a promise that his party will take back the majority in 2024.

Aguilar was elected by his colleagues Wednesday to serve in the next Congress as chair of the House Democratic Caucus, a role bumped up to No. 3 position in House leadership, from No. 4. Aguilar, 43, has been serving as caucus vice chair.

His colleagues shouted, "We want Petey Pie," a nickname from his grandmother, during elections, according to a source who was in the room during the closed-doors leadership elections.

Aguilar's job will be to help steer the House Democrats, now in the minority, as they try to push their legislative priorities, keeping members united on issues, conveying the party message and working to take back the majority in 2024. Messaging is an issue that Democrats were seen to struggle with in recent elections.

"We are going to do everything we can to stay united, to lower the cost prescription drugs for Americans, lower everyday costs at the pump. Those are the things the House Democratic Caucus is going to stand for, as well as implementing the legislation we've already passed, bipartisan infrastructure bill to create good paying jobs in our communities," he said.

Aguilar said if they can do that and stay united and focused, "we're not going to be in the minority long. The path is in front of us for the majority in 2024."

He said Democrats have to take advantage of that path for the sake of democracy, of fixing DACA — a program that allows young people without legal status to stay and work in the U.S. — and for the sake of ensuring people have health care.

Aguilar, who will enter his fifth term in January, acknowledges that his work investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol violence could make it tougher to build the kind of across-the-aisle relationships that were critical to his political ascent.

Part of a new generation of leaders — one that is more diverse and younger — Aguilar said he wishes for a governing style of the past.  

“Traditionally, Democrats and Republicans, we can have some policy disagreements. Some of these individuals, they don’t want to have policy disagreements, they want to do anything they can to win and subvert the vote, rerun elections and deny free and fair elections,” Aguilar told NBC News on the eve of the leadership elections. “I want to go back to that time when that comity was at the forefront.”

Aguilar counts the CEO of a credit union where he worked as a young man as a mentor who gave him the push to get into city politics. The CEO was a Republican. A bipartisan Redlands city council picked him to fill an open seat and then later was elected. The council later picked him twice to serve as mayor.

In a 2014 interview with NBC News, he discussed working for then-California Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, in Riverside, when the area was very "red." Articulating the governor's position in those circumstances taught him to be a good listener, understand other viewpoints and find solutions, he said in the interview.

Aguilar noted in his speech at Wednesday’s leadership election the significance of his No. 3 post for Latinos, California and his hometown, according a source in the room during the closed-door elections.  

“I think it’s important to have a Latino to be in the top three in House leadership. I think the time has come. I think our growing number in the Hispanic Caucus of the Democratic Caucus and we were successful in delivering Latino representation in seats in Denver, Colorado, and Portland, Oregon, and Las Cruces, New Mexico and Chicago, Illinois, and an Afro Latino in Orlando, Florida,” Aguilar said Tuesday evening.

“They will tell their own stories … I want to be an ally and I want to speak with them and for our own communities,” said Aguilar, who is Mexican American but whose family has deep roots in the U.S.

Aguilar was recognized as an up-and-comer soon after arriving in Congress, but his rise in the ranks has been largely done outside the spotlight. Some have seen him as potentially becoming the first Latino House speaker.

He has built strong relationships with colleagues during his four years in Congress. He raised $15.2 million for colleagues and campaigns this election cycle, according an aide.

“Pete is a nose to the grindstone kind of guy, a really hard worker,” said Larry Gonzalez, a lobbyist with Raben Group who has worked for decades with Latino lawmakers on Capitol Hill. “I know they say that about a lot of people, but with Pete it’s real. He just kept his head down, built the relationships necessary and helped candidates across the country.”

Two other Latinos have also served as House Democratic Caucus chair, Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, when he was in the House, and Xavier Becerra, the Health and Human Services secretary, when he was in the House representing California.

However, the position was not previously one of the top three leadership jobs when they held it.

Aguilar said in a 2021 interview that he doesn’t like losing, whether it be playing board games or his own children running for office. His loss in a 2012 congressional primary taught him about consensus building, he said.

But his grandmother’s advice also shaped him, he said. She always tells him to be careful, that the world can be a terrible place, but to also never forget “who I am and where I came from.”

“That sticks with me. I’m still a kid from San Bernardino who loved playing baseball growing up and whose parents really, really did work their ass off to make it so we had an opportunity,” he said.

His father worked for 37 years at Southern California Gas Company, rising from meter reader, to serviceman and eventually to district manager, the furthest he could go without a college degree. He’s now retired.

“They knew they weren’t necessarily going to go to college, that some goals they’d never reach," he said, "but they believed in that promise, that if they worked hard that some doors could open for us."