Strength in Numbers, Challenges in Diversity, 1977–2012
Like their female and African-American colleagues, the post-civil rights era generation of Hispanic lawmakers created a legislative groundswell on Capitol Hill. The civil rights movement, the ensuing civil rights legislation of the 1960s, and court-ordered redistricting opened new avenues of political participation for many Hispanic Americans. Consequently, many more Hispanics were elected to political office at the state and national levels. Fifty-four of the 91 Hispanic Americans who served in Congress through 2012—nearly 60 percent—were seated after 1977. The overwhelming majority of these representatives (44 of 54) were elected as voting Members of Congress—a departure from the trend in the prior three generations of Hispanic Members. Moreover, in the 1970s, for the first time, Hispanic Members were elected from states outside the Southwest, including New York, New Jersey, and Illinois. With the election in 1989 of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, who succeeded the late Claude Pepper, two more barriers were broken: Ros-Lehtinen became the first woman of Hispanic descent and the first person of Cuban descent to serve in Congress. These gains over several decades were punctuated by occasional surges, such as the one after the 1992 elections, when the number of Hispanics in Congress increased by one-third. Additionally, the elections of Mel Martinez of Florida and Ken Salazar of Colorado and the appointment and subsequent election of Robert Menendez of New Jersey meant there were more Latino Senators in the 109th Congress (2005–2007) than there had been in the entire history of Congress. No Hispanic Senators had served in the chamber since the departure of Joseph Montoya of New Mexico at the end of the 94th Congress (1975–1977).
The increase in Hispanic Americans from seven during the 95th Congress (1977–1979) to 31 in the 112th Congress (2011–2013) signaled that the time for formal organization and coordination had arrived. In December 1976, weeks before the opening of the 95th Congress (1977–1979), Representatives González of Texas, Roybal of California, Eligio (Kika) de la Garza of Texas, Herman Badillo of New York, and Puerto Rican Resident Commissioner Baltasar Corrada-del Río formally created the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC). The group, though small, represented the amalgamation of various factions of the larger Hispanic civil rights movement, including activists, mainstream and middle-class reformers, and insular advocates. “The fact that we have joined together,” the fledgling caucus declared, “is a sign of the growing power of our community, and we are looking forward to strengthening the Federal commitment to Hispanic citizens.”11 Indeed, in the following decades as its membership grew, the caucus pushed forward an ambitious legislative agenda. But policy perspectives within the caucus were far from monolithic. An eventual rift among Members over foreign policy toward communist Cuba led to the departure of Republican members of the CHC in 1997. And eventually, the objection by Hispanic Republicans to the CHC’s treatment of an appeals court nominee in 2002 led to the creation of the Congressional Hispanic Conference in 2003.
During this era, Hispanic-American Members of Congress entered a mature phase of institutional development. As members of a cross-section of congressional committees, including the most coveted assignments, such as Appropriations, Ways and Means, and Rules, they were involved with legislation affecting every facet of American life. Representing districts that were electorally safe, many Hispanic Representatives enjoyed long careers that allowed them to accrue seniority and move into leadership positions. Since 1977, six Hispanic Members of Congress have chaired congressional committees—twice the number in the previous three eras combined. And for the first time, Hispanic Members have risen into the ranks of party leadership. The first, Representative Tony Coelho of California, chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the early 1980s and was elected Majority Whip in the 100th Congress (1987–1989) and again at the opening of the 101st Congress. (He served until he left the House in June 1989.) Robert Menendez chaired the House Democratic Caucus from 2002 until 2006, when he was appointed to the U.S. Senate. Previously, Menendez served as vice chairman of the caucus (1998–2002); Xavier Becerra of California filled that role from 2008 to 2012. Others on the leadership ladder have served as Chief Deputy Whips, including Bill Richardson of New Mexico (1993–1997), Menendez (1997–1999), and Ed Pastor of Arizona (1999–2013).
11David Vidal, “Congressional Caucus Is Formed to Speak for Hispanic Population,” 9 December 1976, New York Times: 32.