Watt, Napolitano Poised to Inherit Caucus Slots

Posted May 21, 2004 at 4:32pm

Democratic Reps. Mel Watt (N.C.) and Grace Napolitano (Calif.) are poised to become the next chairmen of the Congressional Black and Hispanic caucuses, respectively.

Watt, a 12-year veteran of the House, is vying to succeed Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) as chairman of the 39-member CBC during the 109th Congress. Napolitano, now serving her sixth term and filling the vice chairwoman slot at the CHC, is set to replace Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (Texas) at the top of the 20-member organization.

Both Watt and Napolitano are running unopposed for their top caucus jobs — a more common scenario at the CHC than at the CBC, which has often experienced contested races for chairmanship. Both jobs have two-year terms.

Watt acknowledged Wednesday that he’s angling for the job, but he added that “there’s a lot of territory to cover before it becomes a relevant issue.”

“If the question is, ‘Is this a done deal?’ then [the answer is] no,” he said. “I’ve got to get re-elected first.”

But Cummings and other members of the CBC said that Watt is all but assured the post. Cummings — who said he has urged Watt to run — described the North Carolina lawmaker as one of his most trusted advisers. He called Watt a “solid and thoughtful” Member who is knowledgeable on issues and politics.

“He is one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met,” Cummings said. “We need a person who the entire caucus has respect for and it’s good to have that respect going in. He’s going to be able to build consensus from the start.”

Rep. Al Wynn, another Maryland Democrat and the head of the CBC’s political action committee, called Watt “one of the most well-respected and well-liked” members of the CBC.

“He’s demonstrated a strong, principled commitment to the goals of the caucus, and demonstrated great leadership skills in terms of bringing people together,” Wynn said.

In the race to chair the caucus during the 108th Congress, Cummings faced off against Rep. Bobby Rush (Ill.). In the previous Congress, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (Texas) edged out Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.).

At the CHC, by contrast, the chairmanship of the group has traditionally been awarded based on seniority and service, Rodriguez said.

He added that the job is Napolitano’s if she wants it. “All indications are that she will be the next chairwoman of the caucus,” he said. “That’s been the tradition.”

Napolitano said she’s definitely interested, and if elected, she plans to work to bring more Hispanics to Congress and to involve more members in CHC efforts.

“I’m not counting my chickens yet, but traditionally you move up in the ranks and hopefully it will continue to be that way,” she said. “I’ve gotten a tremendous amount of support already.”

The minority caucus elections take place after the November elections, as soon as the groups’ memberships are set. The CBC plans to hold its vote before the third week in December, while the CHC is expected to elect officers once Members are sworn in next year.