At Age 35, Why Congress Needs Hispanic Caucus

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus has grown and changed since its inception, and few people know that better than the chair, Rep. Charles Gonzalez, D-Texas. His late father was one of the founders of the group. He speaks with host Michel Martin about the CHC's evolution and its mission.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we wrap our series we've called In Limbo. We've been hearing personal stories of people stuck in immigration limbo. We're going to wrap up with a conversation with Mark Krikorian. He's a well-known supporter of tougher restrictions and enforcement of immigration laws. We'll hear what he has to say a little later. But first, there is a milestone we want to tell you about. This week the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the CHC, celebrated its 45th anniversary.

The caucus was formed by five congressman in 1976 as a response to the lack of Hispanics in public service at that time. Since then, the caucus has grown to 21 members and has created an institute with the mission of developing the next generation of Latino leaders. Here to tell us more about the CHC is its current chair, Congressman Charles Gonzalez, whose father was a founding member. Mr. Gonzalez is a Democrat representing the 20th district of Texas, including a large part of San Antonio and he recently announced that he will be retiring from his seat next year.

Congressman Gonzalez welcome back, thank you so much for joining us once again.

REPRESENTATIVE CHARLES GONZALEZ: Oh, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And I'm going to start I'm afraid with a subject that you might find boring but which I think many Americans, you know, want to know. It's something we've talked about before. Capitol Hill is in gridlock in part because many people perceive that there are just too many factions, not enough thinking about the greater good of the country. So, I think the question some people would ask if they have not had a chance to hear this from you before, why does the Congress need an Hispanic caucus?

GONZALEZ: Absolutely a need for it only because the way Congress is structured there's always going to be strength in numbers. So, if you look at any caucus and there are different type of caucuses based on different needs of regions and areas and subject matter, but for Hispanics I think if you look at the concentration of Hispanics in certain areas of this country and the growing population, we face very unique challenges many times that maybe a little different than others or we are disproportionately represented in certain areas that require more attention, more resources, more thought.

So, the caucus is really strength in numbers and a clearinghouse for strategies and addressing different issues and viewing, again, legislation through the prism of what is a minority community and the unique needs and challenges.

MARTIN: Well, what do you think the most important accomplishment of the caucus has been over the last 35 years?

GONZALEZ: I think over the 35 years is encouraging and assisting in the new wave of Latinos coming to the halls of Congress and also at other levels of government, but policy-wise I would say it's always going to be in the areas of education and health, which are two areas obviously very important to Latino families. And unfortunately, again, we are disproportionately represented in those that are under insured, uninsured; most of our kids do go to the public schools.

We have a greater investment in the public school system. So, I think in those two particular areas - I don't want to leave out immigration, that is important no doubt, but overall in the expanse of the 35 years it's going to be in the areas of health care and education.

MARTIN: Now as we talked about earlier, the caucus in the present time is only Democratic. It didn't start out - well, it did start out that way. It was bipartisan for a time but then the Hispanic Republican members left to form their own group. Do you think that that makes your group less effective?

GONZALEZ: Well, I would love for it to be a bipartisan group. It's not and for the reason that the majority of Latinos in Congress are members of the Democratic Party and I would imagine the Republicans during those policy decisions and votes that were being taken as to official positions of the caucus were in the minority and felt that they would go off to their side of the aisle. I don't think that really helped matters.

It happened before I got there. We still work together on some issues but in the context of the institute - which is the nonprofit more or less foundation that was the off spring of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus - there we have more of a bipartisan involvement. But we don't when it comes to the caucus within the legislative process on the Hill.

MARTIN: And then speaking of another issue that has sort of percolated before the caucus in the past. In 2007, several women members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus complained about their treatment within the caucus. Congressman Loretta Sanchez resigned, then Representative Hilda Solis, who's now the Secretary of Labor - actually we spoke with her earlier this week - said at the time that she shared the concerns about a, quote, "lack of respect afforded to women members of the Hispanic Caucus." Well, do you think things have changed since then?

Is there anything in particular you've done as chair to make the women members feel more respected?

GONZALEZ: I think you'd have to speak to the women members, but I don't think you're going to hear that kind of a complaint. I attribute what happened, what transpired a few years ago, more of personalities. Those were individuals, and I don't want to get into particulars of personal relationships, but many times in Congress some things are driven more so by a personality conflict among members than it really is on substance and such, process or what's going on within the caucus. I can tell you with the greatest assurances that if you spoke to Congresswoman Sanchez at that time I think was in the middle of that particular dispute, our Secretary Solis, I think they would tell you that the caucus operates in a manner that surely affords everybody equal treatment and opportunity to have their say and have their influence felt.

MARTIN: And if you're just joining us I'm speaking with Congressman Charles Gonzalez. He's the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. We're speaking with him about that group's 35th anniversary, which was acknowledged this weekend. Mr. Gonzalez's father, Henry B. Gonzalez, was one of the actually one of the founding members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. You know, to that point, your father was in Congress for many years and in fact between the two of you there's been a Gonzalez from your family in Congress for the last 50 years.

And you've just recently announced that you are going to retire. What are you going to do?

GONZALEZ: I'm not really sure. I have another year in office. I look forward to doing some good things still and I'll be worrying about it probably around this time next year, so wish me luck. But I really don't have any plans. I just figured that it was now or never at my particular age if I'm going to have what we refer to as an encore career, now would be the time and that's what I'm doing. I will miss it tremendously but I think there has to be another chapter in my life and I'd like to be the one to write it.

MARTIN: You know, I don't whether you take a special care not to talk about your children publicly but I know you have a son, I believe, right? Do I have that right?

GONZALEZ: I have a 37-year-old son, Leo.

MARTIN: And do you encourage him to follow in your footsteps and his grandfather's footsteps?

GONZALEZ: No, he doesn't have any interest at all. I have a nephew that we thought might, but he's pretty successful now in his career with his law firm and this maybe the end of Gonzalez's representing the 20th District. I would hope not but it appears that way.

MARTIN: You know, well, what do you think about that Mr. Gonzalez? You know, on the one hand many people have talked about just how viscous public life is these days. I mean, it just, you know, and people can debate the various reasons why that is. You know, whether it's new media, whether it's, you know, whatever it is. But on the one hand we have people saying that just public life has just become so difficult, so personally challenging for people and their families.

On the other hand you have stories like your family, the Gonzalez family; of course, the Bush family, you know, to a father and son both serving in the White House and, you know, I'm just, you know, wonder what that says. I mean, do you think that it's that perhaps only people who are raised in the culture of politics now really have the appetite for it, or what do you think?

GONZALEZ: You know, not at all. My father did not encourage me to follow in his footsteps. It was just like osmosis. He saw how much satisfaction and fulfillment he derived from serving people and so you gravitate to it, and so maybe that was the advantage or the environment that produces, you know, siblings and children following in the footsteps of parents and such.

But I don't know what's going on in this country today. It goes way beyond anything of Gonzalez' serving for 50 years and others wanting to follow and such. You have to have a respect for government. You have to acknowledge that there's a proper role for government.

You have to love the institution of Congress. You cannot seek election with the intent of bringing down, you know, Washington, D.C. and posing it as a great evil empire. How can anyone function in that kind of environment? But anyone that wants to help a lot of people, the greatest opportunity to do that will be, again, in the legislative branch.

MARTIN: And, finally, before we let you go, two-thirds of Hispanics did vote for President Obama in 2008. There's been a lot of talk about whether he will be able to match that success in the upcoming election in 2012 and certainly there are some interesting messages on the Republican side on this question.

I'm just wondering whether you feel that Mr. Obama will be able to match his success with the Hispanic vote in 2012 or are there other candidates who are equally appealing, and why?

GONZALEZ: Yeah. I don't speak for the president, but I will say this. I believe I'm accurate in these observations. One, the president is not going to take the Latino vote for granted. He will earn, not just the respect, but the vote. The question will be the degree of enthusiasm, which will determine turnout.

But once we have that contrast, once we have the frame of reference with the opponent, the nominated Republican candidate for President of the United States, it will be a clear choice. And I think, not - will we maintain our numbers. We're going to improve on them because the Republican party, at this point in time, is so far removed from the realities of the needs and the challenges of not just Latino families, but probably all working families in this country.

MARTIN: What about Rick Perry, the current Texas governor? Texas, you know, governor like, you know, President George W. Bush, has often found a way to do both, to appeal to Latinos and also to have a broader appeal. What about him?

GONZALEZ: The only reason that Rick Perry may look somewhat attractive at different points in time was about in-state tuition for dream kids, children that were brought here when they were very young by their parents who don't have legal status. He's walked away from that.

But it's not just about immigration. What we're talking - Latino families are like all the others. They want to send their kids to good schools. They want to get their kids into college and they want to have health care coverage and the health care services.

Rick Perry has set this state back probably half a century through his legislation.

MARTIN: OK. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have opened the door to that conversation. I see that I got you kind of interested in talking about the upcoming race. Well, as you said, you still have a year to serve, so hopefully we'll talk again.

Congressman Charles Gonzalez is the Chair of the Congressional Hispanic Conference. He's a Democrat. He represents Texas' 20th District that includes a large part of the city of San Antonio. And he was kind enough to join us from San Antonio.

Congressman, thank you so much.

GONZALEZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Coming up, all this week, we've been bringing you stories about people mired in this country's immigration system. Today, we'll wrap up our series by examining the policies that cause people to be left in limbo. We're talking with the well-known advocate of tougher immigration policy.

MARK KRIKORIAN: When you leave your immigration as feckless and badly run as ours is, there is no kind of easy, clean, quick solution that's going to fix everything. There's just going to have to be some significant number of people who are going to end up staying in limbo.

MARTIN: That conversation is just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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