What Lies Ahead for the Hispanic Caucus?

Juan Williams talks with the Rev. Joseph Watkins, a GOP strategist, and Democratic strategist Donna Brazile about the future of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Here's NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams with our Political Corner.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Thanks for joining us on Political Corner. This week, we're joined by the Reverend Joseph Watkins, part of the government relations group at Buchanan Ingersoll and Rooney. He's a former White House aide to the first President George H.W. Bush. And Donna Brazile, Democratic political strategist and author of "Cooking with Grease: Stirring The Pots in American Politics". Ms. Brazile was campaign manager for Al Gore's 2000 campaign for president.

Donna Brazile, Joe Watkins, thanks for joining us.

Reverend JOSEPH WATKINS (Government Relations Group, Buchanan Ingersoll and Rooney; Former White House Aid): Thanks, Juan.

Ms. DONNA BRAZILE (Campaign Manager for Al Gore's 2000 Campaign; Author): Thank you, Juan.

WILLIAMS: Let's start with the crisis in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. A report in the Hill Newspaper said this week that the caucus is, quote, "on the verge of falling apart." At least five more members of the caucus threatening their resignation after the chairman, Joe Baca, allegedly called one of his caucus members - Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, a Democrat from California - a whore. This apparently took place in a meeting between members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and members of the California state legislature last year.

If you have five members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus resigning - and it's only a caucus of 21 people - Donna Brazile, does that mean the Hispanic caucus is pretty much out of business?

Ms. BRAZILE: Well, first of all, Juan, this controversy has gotten out of control. Over the past couple of days, several members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus led by Congressman Gutierrez of Illinois has tried to reassemble the caucus to get them to talk about their differences and to try to come to some conclusion.

Like the black caucus, the Hispanic caucus has so much on their political plate this year: immigration, the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, the reauthorization of the food stamp program, the issues of health care and the environment. So I think that the caucus really needs to regroup and to try to heal this internal rift.

WILLIAMS: Well, the two of you as inside political players might help me with something. Apparently, in this session in which Baca calls Sanchez this name, this session with the California state legislature was in large part over the Congressional Hispanic Caucus' use of its political action group, which is called BOLDPAC.

And at the start of 2006, several caucus members threatened that they were going to cut their ties to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus because the claim was that Baca was using money in that political action committee to support Hispanic candidates at the local level, including some of his own relatives.

So, is this an extraordinary, exceptional event? Or do you see that kind of thing inside political action committees all the time? Donna? Joe?

Ms. BRAZILE: Unfortunately, it happens a lot. Look, there's always allegations of nepotism involved in politics today. And it's unfortunate that this may have sparked this ridiculous comment that Chairman Baca made. But the truth of the matter is is that they have ways - we have ways of dealing with whether or not Mr. Baca is appropriating the money in the right way. And if he's not, I think members of the caucus have every right to stop raising funds for this leadership pact and to, perhaps, start another pact.

But for now, I think it's - this whole controversy is a distraction from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus at a time when Democrats are in control of the Congress, when congressmen - several Congress people like Congressman Reyes, who is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez who's chair of the Small Business Committee - they should be focusing on the big issues, and again, call on Mr. Baca to apologize and move on.

Rev. WATKINS: (unintelligible)

WILLIAMS: Joe, how would you handle the - I'm sorry - Joe Watkins, how would you handle the crisis with regard to BOLDPAC? Would you have him change the way that business is done in terms of handing out aid to political candidates, especially to those who - to whom he's related?

Rev. WATKINS: I think that it would be smart to - certainly going forward for that political action committee as any other did - consider ways to at least forego the appearance of impropriety. That's what it looks like here. Obviously, a lot of the controversy stems from the fact that he had a couple of sons running for office, and that money was being steered their way. And no talk, of course, about whether or not they were qualified as candidates or not, but just the fact that they were sons, relatives, blood members of the same family being targeted for money certainly has the outward appearance of impropriety.

So those cases, much better to have a dispassionate group of people who are not related, maybe some kind of a committee to oversee the contributions to guard against that kind of activity, that kind of nepotism going on in the future.

WILLIAMS: Donna Brazile, what's the relationship like between the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus? As I mentioned, Congressional Hispanic Caucus has 21 members. Congressional Black Caucus has 42, I believe. So is this a good relationship? Is it a part - is it a point of coalition that you could say their focus should be on working with like-minded groups in the Congress to build their political power?

Ms. BRAZILE: They work very closely. There is something called a Tri-Caucus made up of members of the black Caucus, the Hispanic Caucus and the Asian Pacific Islander Caucus. So these caucuses gather annually together. They go on retreats. They try to support one another in terms of legislation on the floor, and of course they share internal memos and research that's available to all members of Congress.

WILLIAMS: And so on - can you think of a specific issue - we were talking earlier, I heard you say stuff about immigration, education. I know that Baca as chairman who said he wants to develop a better relationship with corporate America. Is there any specific issue where you could say, oh, look at the alliance, look at the power of the minority caucuses in the Congress come together to achieve something.

Ms. BRAZILE: Well, no question. They work together on the raising of the minimum wage. They make sure that the Blue Dog Caucus in the House of Representatives supported their attempts on the floor. You'll see more collaboration in the future. There was of course strong support for the recent anti - the Iraq surge resolution, the caucuses work together. But going forward, there is no question that they will work together on immigration. They will work together on the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind so that there is money to support these initiatives. And clearly they are anxious to get to helping out on many what I would call domestic issues, health care, and making sure that we have more accessibility for people across the board.

WILLIAMS: Reverend Watkins, Donna Brazile, thanks so much for joining us on Political Corner.

Rev. WATKINS: Thank you so much, Juan.

Ms. BRAZILE: Thank you, Juan.

CHIDEYA: NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams joins us every Thursday for Political Corner.

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