Rep. Steve Israel is going on a charm offensive with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in advance of the 2012 election cycle, hoping to avoid the tensions that erupted with black Members of Congress earlier this month.
“I’m anxious to meet with the CHC and hope to have it scheduled soon,” the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman said.
The New York Democrat said his message to CHC members is simple: “We’ve got to get back in the majority, and the only way to get back in the majority is by working together.”
That’s a clear departure from the message some Congressional Black Caucus members say Israel left them with after a recent meeting. Israel reportedly said the CBC would be helpful to Democrats’ 2012 prospects, but not essential. A CBC backlash followed, and the DCCC has since formalized a new working relationship with the CBC.
Now, Israel is looking to solidify his relationship with Hispanics in Congress.
Even though he downplayed the idea that there are historical tensions between the CHC and the DCCC, saying “25 seats are in sight and that bonds us,” Israel appears to be conscious of the need to ingratiate himself with Hispanic lawmakers. Several members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus said the DCCC needs to work harder to foster a more collaborative approach with minority caucuses.
Rep. Joe Baca said that a meeting with Israel would be a positive step and that there was “not much” of a relationship between the DCCC and the CHC now.
“It should be a lot better, and he needs to reach out,” the California Democrat said. “A lot of us are willing to sit down and talk to him and find out exactly what is he doing, what kind of recruitment, what kind of involvement, because we want to be included, not excluded, as part of that process.”
The ex-CHC chairman stressed it was important for the group to have increased input on recruiting efforts, both to promote Hispanic candidates and also to make sure Democratic recruits do not harbor anti-immigrant views. Some House Democrats’ support for an enforcement-only approach to immigration — such as the SAVE Act sponsored by Rep. Heath Shuler (N.C.) — has angered Hispanic lawmakers.
“We’re looking for individuals that are sensitive to the issues that impact our country and our world,” Baca said. “You can’t continue to have individuals that are going to be anti-immigrant, anti-everything else.”
Redistricting also could prompt changes in many districts’ Hispanic populations, further boosting the need for CHC-DCCC collaboration, Baca said.
“Are we now looking for a person that reflects the demographics and the changes in that population?” he asked. “If [Israel] doesn’t dialogue with us, then we end up saying, ‘Well, wait a minute, the candidate that you recruited doesn’t meet the profile ... of that district.’”
CHC members suggested the DCCC needs to hire someone specifically focused on Latino voters and Latino lawmakers.
“Our only question is simply — they are identifying districts, identifying potential candidates, but what do you have in place to make this a reality? Who do you have on board in-house that is assigned to this particular task?” CHC Chairman Charles Gonzalez asked.
The Texas Democrat said it is important to have someone in place whom CHC members are familiar with because it will allow for a good working relationship. Gonzalez also said that so far he is encouraged by the conversations he has had with Israel and that the CHC is just starting to engage with the new chairman.
Rep. Henry Cuellar said the DCCC’s relationship with CHC members is significantly improved from the days when then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) ran the committee. Emanuel and other Democratic leaders supported vulnerable Democrats who sided with Republicans on anti-immigrant legislation.
In November 2007, for example, the CHC boycotted a procedural vote on a Democratic tax bill that was a high priority for leadership. The move prompted an angry exchange between Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Baca, who helped spearhead the boycott to protest Democratic support for a Republican English-only proposal.
And CHC members were furious in 2005 when Emanuel and other Democratic leaders urged vulnerable Frontline Democrats to vote for a GOP proposal designed to crack down on illegal immigrants.
The tension between the DCCC and the Congressional Black Caucus has no shorter a history, including a long-simmering disagreement over dues. The DCCC has long complained that CBC members are slow to pay dues into the campaign fund, and CBC members have responded by arguing that the dues structure fails to take into account that many CBC members’ districts are less affluent.
To make amends with the CBC, Israel created a Member Advisory Board that will be chaired by the most senior black member in the House, Assistant Leader James Clyburn (S.C.). Israel has also pledged to rework the DCCC’s Member point system to address the fundraising issue.
Several CBC lawmakers said that while Israel’s overtures are well-taken, it hasn’t allayed all of their concerns.
“It’s still lingering, but it didn’t start with Israel,” Clyburn said. “It’s been there for a long time.”
Clyburn said Israel “may not have appreciated the extent to which those bruised feelings exist.”
“But we’re going to work [through] all of that,” he said, adding that Israel now has a clear picture of the relationship history.
Rep. Chaka Fattah said he had also observed Israel reaching out to black lawmakers and the African-American community.
The Pennsylvania Democrat said he accompanied Israel on Thursday to a meeting with African-American newspaper owners at which Israel talked about changes he was making at the DCCC that were designed address complaints CBC members have had with the group in the past.
“He was saying to them that they are going to be in the loop,” Fattah said.
Cuellar said Israel is doing a “good job” on outreach to the CHC, but he acknowledged that as with CBC members, there is always concern about Members being able to pay their dues. The Texas Democrat has already fulfilled his $300,000 in DCCC dues.
“That’s always a concern from some Members who say, ‘We can’t raise money, we can’t do this,’” he said. “I would encourage Members to do as much as they can no matter what district you come from.”