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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."
"Whoever they pick, personality will matter," another staffer said. "I don't see a lot of argument made for Hinojosa running for it."
Aides also said the eight-term Congressman's 2010 bankruptcy could be an issue. Hinojosa filed for protection after he guaranteed a loan to his family's meat company and ended up more than $2.5 million in debt to a bank.
One name floated by sources was that of Rep. Ben Ray Luján, the current second vice chairman of the group. Several people interviewed referred to the New Mexico Democrat as "young," "hungry" and "an up-and-comer" and said he is eager to raise his profile nationally.
Like Gonazlez, who is the son of the late Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez, one of five original founders of the CHC, Luján has a political pedigree. His father, Ben Luján Sr., is Speaker of the New Mexico House.
Luján's spokesman declined in an email to say that his boss has his eye on the chairmanship, saying rather that "his focus right now is on his duties as second vice chair." But that did not stop others from speculating that he could be the next chairman.
When asked who he thought could succeed Gonzalez, Rep. Dennis Cardoza, who is the group's whip this year, said Luján is a proficient fundraiser who has the ability to energize the young Hispanic community.
"He really has the energy to do the job," the California Democrat said. "If you're looking for a really bright rising star, you don't need to look any further than Ben Ray."
Cardoza, in fact, is retiring as well at the end of this term, leaving two of the four top CHC leadership positions vacant.
Other high-profile Hispanic Members who would otherwise be candidates for the CHC leadership have their own leadership positions to tend to, such as House Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra (Calif.) and Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.).
That had Baca speculating that perhaps for the first time in the group's 35-year history, one of the eight serving former chairmen — maybe even himself — could return for a second term.
"I'm not seeking the position, but I wouldn't mind being the chair again," Baca said. "I wouldn't say that I wouldn't be interested, but I would support whatever the members would like."