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Rules of the Game: Hispanic Caucus Leverages Latino Power

The growing clout of Latino donors and voters has quietly boosted the fortunes of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which has gained members, political leverage and fundraising power in the 113th Congress.

Through its increasingly lucrative political action committee, known as BOLD PAC, the caucus helped elect nine more Latinos to the House in November, growing the membership of the all-Democratic caucus to 27. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has tapped a pair of caucus members to cultivate Latino candidates and donors and leading caucus members are also in the thick of immigration overhaul negotiations on Capitol Hill.

“In many ways they’re the vanguard of this growing power,” said Albert Jacquez, director of legislative, congressional and political affairs at the National Council of LaRaza. Hispanics accounted for a record 10 percent of voters on Election Day, according to the Pew Research Hispanic Center, and the number of eligible Latino voters is expected to explode from 23.7 million now to 40 million by 2030.

“I would anticipate that Hispanics would be a big part of the numbers that it will take for Democrats to take back the House,” said Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., chairman of BOLD PAC. (The acronym stands for Building Our Leadership Through Diversity.) The PAC spent $844,000 on the 2012 elections, more than twice its spending in the 2008 cycle, when Democrats were in the majority.

Luján and Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, were tapped this month by the DCCC to spearhead the committee’s Latino Council, positioning them to both recruit Latino candidates and woo an increasingly well-organized cadre of Hispanic donors, who helped raise record sums for President Barack Obama’s re-election. San Antonio architect Henry Muñoz, who chaired the pro-Obama Latino donor network the Futuro Fund in 2012, is now the Democratic National Committee’s finance chairman.

But the members of the CHC, chaired in this Congress by Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Texas, are on the front lines of an intentionally nonpartisan campaign to enact a comprehensive immigration overhaul, say Latino leaders who have worked closely with the group.

Caucus members Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., and Luis V. Gutierrez, D-Ill., who chairs its Immigration Task Force, are members of an unofficial bipartisan working group of about eight House members trying to craft an immigration overhaul.

“We have helped keep the spotlight on immigration reform even when it felt pretty lonely to do so,” Gutierrez said in a statement. “And when we were not out fighting for reform publicly, we were doing so behind the scenes.”

Group members have also worked closely with the bipartisan “gang of eight” senators, who are expected to unveil an immigration bill in the coming weeks. Gutierrez and Becerra were among some half-dozen leading CHC members who met with Obama to discuss immigration in February. The caucus, which consists of mostly of House members but includes Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., released a list of principles in November that leads with a path to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants.

The caucus is “focused on getting to a solution and not on making this a political weapon,” said Clarissa Martinez, the National Council of LaRaza’s director of civic engagement and immigration. Gutierrez has applauded recent calls by the Republican National Committee and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., for GOP action on immigration.

Gutierrez is scheduled to speak April 22 at joint appearance in Chicago with House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis. The event “sold out in the first 12 minutes that tickets were on sale,” he told reporters at a recent Christian Science Monitor Breakfast. A longtime advocate of immigration changes, Gutierrez has been traveling the country to rally grass-roots support for an overhaul at packed events in California, Florida, New Jersey, Texas and elsewhere, many of them with fellow caucus members.

“It wasn’t just about showing up on Election Day, but we are in the thick of things day in and day out,” Martinez said. “And we need to continue that pressure.”

The immigration debate has sparked massive demonstrations and lobbying by labor, Latino, civil rights religious and other organizers, including protests in Senate hallways last week by activists pressing for a bill. Their next event will be an April 10 rally and demonstration on the Capitol’s West Lawn.

Lobbying expenditures and fundraisers by interests backing an overhaul, from technology industry heavyweights such as Microsoft Corp. to trade groups such as the Associated Builders & Contractors, have also intensified. The number of clients lobbying on immigration reached 355 last year, the highest level since 2008, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Private sector companies with a stake in the issue have hosted a flurry of recent fundraisers for lawmakers playing an influential role in the debate, according to the Sunlight Foundation. These included a March 15 breakfast for Becerra at the National Democratic Club, and a “Spring Kick Off Reception” for BOLD PAC hosted by Comcast that was attended by all but a half-dozen or so members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

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