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WASHINGTON – When he campaigned for chairman of the Hispanic Caucus’ political action committee – BOLD PAC – Rep. Tony Cárdenas promised to double, maybe triple the $1 million in its coffers.
“People laughed. They voted for me anyway and said ‘You want to try it, do it. Go for it, dude,'" Cárdenas said.
He ended up raising $6 million by 2016 and now BOLD PAC is on course to raising $10 million for the caucus to help elect candidates – many of them Latino – to Congress.
Last year, six additional Latinos – all backed by BOLD PAC and all Democrats – joined the U.S. House. BOLD PAC also backed Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, the first Latina elected to the U.S. Senate.
Cárdenas is one of at least three Latinos in positions to steer the Democratic Party’s 2018 election races. In addition to him, Tom Perez is chairman of the Democratic National Committee and Ben Ray Luján chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which does the work of winning congressional races for its party's candidates.
BOLD PAC isn’t an official party organization. But having a lot of money to back candidates gives Latinos a say in picking and endorsing candidates and shaping the election races.
“Should Democrats take back the House, I think it’s going to have Tony’s fingerprints all over it,” said Albert Morales, senior political director of Latino Decisions polling firm and the former Hispanic engagement director of the Democratic National Committee. Morales cited not only the money Cárdenas has raised but his energy and the team he's surrounded himself with.
Morales recalled being on the golf course with Cárdenas, then a Los Angeles city council member, and being a bit “taken aback” by his “laser-like focus” on work, discussing state and federal education policy, over the four to five hours they played.
“He’s just a workhorse,” Morales said.
Every political candidate will acknowledge that it takes money to run, although it's not always the determiner of a race. His fundraising success has helped Cárdenas move into House leadership and may move him up the ranks in the future.
"Money is always a measure of strength" in politics, Morales said. "If it holds, he's positioning himself well for leadership."
Cárdenas has had a role in shaping election races since his days in the California Assembly. He won that job in a district in the San Fernando Valley, where he grew up, becoming the first person of color to represent the district.
“But my goal wasn’t to be the first. It was to make sure I wasn’t the last,” Cárdenas told NBC News.
When he got to the state's Legislature in 1996, he and former California State Senate Majority Leader Richard Polanco, then a member of the Assembly, raised money to contribute to campaigns.
They contributed to the city council campaign of Alex Padilla, now California’s Secretary of State; the school board race of Nury Martinez, now an Los Angeles councilwoman and others. Candidates they supported included non-Latinos such as congressman Adam Schiff, who got support for his California state Senate campaign, Cárdenas said.
“We raised more money and turned it over to candidates and they got elected. We doubled the Latinos in the state Legislature,” he said. The California Latino Caucus increased from 12 in 1996 to 24 in 2002, the year term limits required Cárdenas to leave the Assembly.
Now in Congress, Cárdenas is furiously working to increase the money BOLD PAC can contribute to candidates. His new ambition: get 50 Latinos in Congress by the time he hits his 10 years on Captiol Hill, which would be 2023 if he continues to be re-elected.
“I don’t think that’s a lofty goal. I think that’s an honest and realistic goal," he said.
Cárdenas’ parents migrated to the U.S. in the mid 1940s, although his mother was a U.S. citizen born in Catalina, California. His father first was a farm worker in California’s Central Valley. A large painting of his father and grandfather working in the potato fields, made from a family photo, hangs in Cárdenas’ office. Cárdenas likes that in the middle of an idle moment of the back-breaking field work someone had a camera andt captured his father looking up and smiling.
Cárdenas is the youngest of 11 children, with 15 years between him and his oldest sibling. His siblings have bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees. There are engineers, a psychologist and teachers among them, he said.
He described a life-altering moment before he decided to run for office.
It came when he was working for Hewlett-Packard as an electrical engineer in Santa Barbara, California. He was in his 20s and had what seemed like a dream job. He had an expense account, company car and flexible hours.
“I was sitting there in my office and I said, I could grow old sitting right here. There’s got to be more out there,” he said. “I went to my manager and gave my two-week notice.”
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He returned to California without a job – having to face his Latina mom and explain why he quit without another job lined up. First, he sold life insurance and then went into real estate, starting his own brokerage firm, got married and had children.
Then, “I did this 180-degree turn when this Chicano activist convinced me to run for office,” he said.
He went from the Assembly to Congress where he's quickly emerged as an up-and-comer. Last December, Cárdenas was elected to a new position for members who have served five years or less in the Democratic House leadership, bringing political power to Latinos and the legislative objectives of Latino policymakers.
Larry Gonzalez, a BOLD PAC donor and former director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Washington, D.C. office, said Cárdenas is part of an "evolution of the Hispanic Caucus members."
"We have this new breed coming in and being assertive about what they want in terms of policies that are going to affect our community," he said. "Things are happening in the Congress with our Latino members that people need to pay attention to."
Cárdenas' colleague Rep. Linda Sanchez, also a California Democrat and the vice chairwoman of the Democratic Caucus, last month called for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and Assistant Minority Leader James Clyburn to step aside after the 2018 elections to make room for the next generation of leaders.
Cárdenas said Democrats need to be “honest with ourselves and not nostalgic, be honest and say where are we today?”
“We lost in 2010, we tried to get back in 2012, that didn’t work, whatever we did. We tried to get back in 2014, that didn’t work. We tried to get back in 2016, that didn’t work," he said.
“I just think we need to be honest with ourselves and ask tough questions. Is what we are doing working? Are we going to get back in the majority? Is Nancy that leader that’s going to help make sure that happens?”
If there is a change in Democratic leadership in the House, Cárdenas financial support for other Democrats could mean a more powerful position for the California congressman.
Meanwhile, he's trying to continue the success that Hispanic congressional candidates had last year despite a disappointing 2016 presidential race for Democrats. As their numbers grow, so can their influence shaping policy.
“We just want to make sure we have a fair playing field and people can go out and get a job and participate in the No. 1 economy in the world … pursue their dreams .. have safe streets … That’s the American agenda and it fits mirror to mirror with the Hispanic agenda.”