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Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairman Charlie Gonzalez's retirement will leave a power vacuum atop the organization just as the group expects a windfall 2012 election for Hispanic House Democrats.
Members and staff said that with less than a year until the elections, no frontrunner exists to replace the Texas Democrat as head of the CHC after he announced last week that he will retire at the end of this term.
"It's a shock to all of us. It's a big void," said Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.), a former CHC chairman. "I don't know who is going to replace him. The good thing is there's enough of us that will be there to guide the person who becomes our chair, even if that chair is not strong."
The group picks a new chairman through an internal election every Congressional term, and often the group's first vice chairman will naturally assume the post, as Gonzalez did. That pattern has already been broken, however. Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) took the helm in 2009, even though she was not among the group's leadership, and that scenario might play out again in 2013, Members and aides said.
Current First Vice Chairman Rubén Hinojosa said in an interview that he "will give strong consideration" to running for the chairmanship but stopped short of declaring.
"I don't want to appear braggadocious. I believe that I have to earn the support and the vote of all the Members of the caucus," the Texas Democrat said. "This is a year away, and there will be opportunities during that time to begin to express my wishes."
With Democratic-friendly redistricting maps in Texas and California portending gains in Congress' Hispanic population, those interviewed said it will be important to the group to have a leader in the 113th Congress who can translate potential electoral success into legislative influence.
"I would not underestimate Rubén Hinojosa," Texas Democratic political consultant Matt Angle said. "He's a little more quiet; he's a little more thoughtful. Rubén's also somebody that works hard. He's got a business background, so he thinks in terms of results."
But already, some aides have doubts that Hinojosa is the right man for the job. Although his hold on his south Texas district was strengthened in redistricting and they say his re-election is not in much doubt, some aides say he is not a sufficiently effective communicator to head the group.
"In a perfect world, he would be up for the position," one aide to a CHC member said. "But the guy is not a very good public speaker, the guy is not very good on his toes."