Mi­nori­ties pow­er­ful in Pelosi’s ma­jor­ity

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Tal Kopan

WASH­ING­TON — Nearly ev­ery night last year, some­times near­ing mid­night, Michelle Lu­jan Gr­isham’s phone would ring late. On the line would be Rep. Nancy Pelosi.

Some­times, the San Francisco Demo­crat would call again at 6 a.m. to up­date Lu­jan Gr­isham, a New Mex­ico Demo­crat who was then the chair­woman of the Con­gres­sional His­panic Cau­cus, on House ne­go­ti­a­tions in­volv­ing im­mi­gra­tion and bor­der se­cu­rity.

“Re­ally,” said Lu­jan Gr­isham, now the gov­er­nor of New Mex­ico. “To her credit.”

The calls were a re­flec­tion of how se­ri­ously Pelosi, now the House speaker, and other Demo­cratic lead­ers take the in­flu­ence of the His­panic cau­cus and two coun­ter­part groups that rep­re­sent black and Asian Pa­cific Amer­i­can law­mak­ers. Pelosi’s No. 2, Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., even helped Lu­jan Gr­isham crash an im­mi­gra­tion meet­ing with Pres­i­dent Trump, tak­ing her to the White House unannounced as part of his en­tourage.

It’s a re­la­tion­ship that Pelosi will need to main­tain as she pre­sides over the Demo­cratic House ma­jor­ity this year. Af­ter all, as Hawaii Demo­cratic Sen. Mazie Hirono, a for­mer rep­re­sen­ta­tive and mem­ber of the Con­gres­sional Asian Pa­cific Amer­i­can Cau­cus, put it: “Nancy knows how to count.”

More than 100 of 235 Demo­cratic mem­bers in the new House, many from Cal­i­for­nia, be­long to one of the three affin­ity groups known col­lec­tively as the Tri-Cau­cus. It will ar­guably be the most pow­er­ful vot­ing bloc for the Demo­cratic

ma­jor­ity.

The growth in the groups’ mem­ber­ship — in the last Congress, the Tri-Cau­cus had roughly 90 core House mem­bers — re­flects the di­verse lineup of Democrats who won elec­tion in the Novem­ber midterms. It also sig­nals that their in­flu­ence will be wide-rang­ing.

Among the Tri-Cau­cus mem­bers will be eight com­mit­tee chairs, lead­ing pan­els rang­ing from en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues to home­land se­cu­rity to small busi­ness. They will have rep­re­sen­ta­tives in the No. 3, 4 and 5 spots in Demo­cratic lead­er­ship. Lob­by­ing firms in Wash­ing­ton are hir­ing staff with con­nec­tions to the Tri-Cau­cus, a sig­nal of their im­por­tance.

The groups’ chairs, two of whom rep­re­sent Cal­i­for­nia dis­tricts, said in in­ter­views that they plan to work to­gether to shape leg­is­la­tion, speak up for of­ten-over­looked com­mu­ni­ties and show peo­ple of color that there is a place for them in Wash­ing­ton.

“We’re go­ing to be ac­tive on just about ev­ery pol­icy area that this House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives will con­cern it­self with,” said Rep. Joaquín Cas­tro, DTexas, now chairman of the Con­gres­sional His­panic Cau­cus.

Pelosi has al­ready com­mit­ted to con­vene weekly meet­ings be­tween lead­er­ship and the chairs of the Tri-Cau­cus groups. Dur­ing her suc­cess­ful cam­paign to re­claim the speaker’s gavel, Pelosi sat down with each of the groups — and made prom­ises to them.

She told the His­panic cau­cus that she would call for a vote on the Dream Act, which would make per­ma­nent the pro­tec­tions that young un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants who came to the U.S. as mi­nors were granted un­der the De­ferred Ac­tion for Child­hood Ar­rivals pro­gram, or DACA. That bill is also a pri­or­ity for the Asian Pa­cific Amer­i­can Cau­cus.

Pelosi said the House would vote quickly on leg­is­la­tion to re­in­state some pro­vi­sions of the Vot­ing Rights Act that were negated in a 2013 Supreme Court de­ci­sion, a pri­or­ity of the black cau­cus. She also has backed Tri-Cau­cus mem­bers for lead­er­ship and se­lec­tive com­mit­tee spots.

The groups that make up the Tri-Cau­cus have so­lid­i­fied their co­op­er­a­tion the past two years in re­sponse to Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion poli­cies on im­mi­gra­tion and civil rights is­sues. A key mo­ment came in Jan­uary 2018 when Sen. Bob Me­nen­dez, D-N.J., con­vened a con­fer­ence call to sell fel­low His­panic cau­cus mem­bers on a Se­nate-ne­go­ti­ated DACA-bor­der se­cu­rity deal. It would have ex­tended pro­tec­tion for DACA re­cip­i­ents and in­cor­po­rated some White House de­mands for lim­its on two ve­hi­cles for le­gal im­mi­gra­tion — a “diver­sity lot­tery” for en­trance to the U.S. from coun­tries with few im­mi­grants, and re­stric­tions on im­mi­grants’ abil­ity to spon­sor rel­a­tives for U.S. en­try.

Those were par­tic­u­larly sen­si­tive pro­pos­als for the Con­gres­sional Black Cau­cus and the Con­gres­sional Asian Pa­cific Amer­i­can cau­cus. The diver­sity lot­tery is the main source of mi­gra­tion to the U.S. from sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa and a ma­jor driver of im­mi­gra­tion from Asia, and fam­ily visas are also ex­ten­sively used by Asian im­mi­grants. But at stake were pro­tec­tions for DACA re­cip­i­ents — a pri­or­ity for the His­panic cau­cus.

Mem­bers of the Tri-Cau­cus were con­sid­er­ing a com­pro­mise — and then Trump re­jected Me­nen­dez’s bro­kered deal in a now-in­fa­mous White House meet­ing in which the pres­i­dent den­i­grated im­mi­gra­tion from “s—hole coun­tries.” The groups de­cided then that they would not en­dorse the Se­nate deal even if it could pass that cham­ber.

“Ac­cept­ing any el­e­ment of that truly would have pit­ted one of our groups against the other,” said Rep. Judy Chu, D-Mon­terey Park (Los An­ge­les County), chair­woman of the Asian Pa­cific Amer­i­can cau­cus.

Lead­ers of the three groups said the un­suc­cess­ful deal was an ex­am­ple of the way the White House has taken a di­vide-and-con­quer ap­proach to com­mu­ni­ties of color.

“Those are all dif­fer­ent sub­jects that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion would cer­tainly like to get ev­ery­body fight­ing about. And no one took the bait,” said the Con­gres­sional Black Cau­cus’ chair­woman, Demo­cratic Rep. Karen Bass of Los An­ge­les. “That was to­tal unity. There was no in­ter­est from the Latino cau­cus to move for­ward.”

It was also a learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who was work­ing with Me­nen­dez on the deal.

“On im­mi­gra­tion, I couldn’t make a move with­out them, and when it came to crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form, the same thing is true,” Durbin said of the Tri-Cau­cus. “I can al­lay a lot of fears by get­ting to them early and ex­plain­ing some of the things that are hap­pen­ing be­fore they’re mis­char­ac­ter­ized.”

While im­mi­gra­tion may be where the Tri-Cau­cus is most vis­i­ble, the coali­tion has been in­stru­men­tal in shap­ing Democrats’ stances on other is­sues.

The co­op­er­a­tion of the TriCau­cus as a bloc goes back at least to the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, when the groups were key in­flu­ences in shap­ing the Af­ford­able Care Act. For more than a decade, the three cau­cuses have taken turns in­tro­duc­ing the Health Eq­uity and Ac­count­abil­ity Act, which would cre­ate pro­grams in­tended to im­prove ac­cess to men­tal and phys­i­cal health care for com­mu­ni­ties of color and tighten fed­eral law on dis­crim­i­na­tion in care.

All three groups’ chairs say one of their big­gest pri­or­i­ties is en­sur­ing that un­der­rep­re­sented per­spec­tives con­trib­ute not just to pol­i­cy­mak­ing, but to the broader cul­ture.

“Part of it is re­claim­ing your place in Amer­i­can so­ci­ety,” Cas­tro said. “That’s not a piece of leg­is­la­tion nec­es­sar­ily, or a pol­icy, but it’s im­por­tant that that emanate from this cau­cus.”

Cas­tro has served on the high-pro­file and se­lec­tive In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, mak­ing him a fre­quent TV guest on na­tional se­cu­rity is­sues and the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion. The sig­nif­i­cance of that is not lost on him.

“Grow­ing up, I would turn on the TV and you’d look at the peo­ple com­ment­ing on the news and you would never see any­body that looks like you,” Cas­tro said. “Hope­fully, young peo­ple know that they have a place in this coun­try in ev­ery as­pect of the coun­try.”

Bass said one of her pri­or­i­ties is mak­ing it clear to me­dia out­lets that cau­cus mem­bers can be more than to­ken talk­ing heads. That’s still an up­hill climb, she said. Sev­eral mem­bers of the black cau­cus are ac­tive in crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form, for ex­am­ple, but when Bass watched a re­cent ca­ble news re­port on the is­sue, she was an­gry to see the host in­ter­view­ing a rap­per.

“You don’t get called on to be in the press, you call the me­dia and say, ‘Hey, I’d like to come on your show and talk about X, Y, Z,’ ” Bass said. “You turn on ca­ble TV, and they’re talk­ing to the same five white guys on al­most ev­ery show.”

Chu said she re­mem­bers when all the Asian Amer­i­cans in Congress “could fit in a phone booth” — there are now 20 Asian Amer­i­can or Pa­cific Is­lan­der mem­bers of Congress — and pic­tures of the Demo­cratic cau­cus were over­whelm­ingly white and male.

“There were these sprin­klings of peo­ple of color there, so of course they had to strug­gle to stop be­ing marginal­ized,” Chu said. “No­body would marginal­ize us now.”

Ric­cardo Savi / Spe­cial to The Chron­i­cle

Rep. Judy Chu, D-Mon­terey Park (Los An­ge­les County), takes the oath of of­fice last week. She is chair­woman of the Con­gres­sional Asian Pa­cific Amer­i­can Cau­cus, a pow­er­ful affin­ity group.

An­drew Mangum / Spe­cial to The Chron­i­cle

Rep. Karen Bass, D-Los An­ge­les (cen­ter), wel­comes fe­male leg­is­la­tors to the Con­gres­sional Black Cau­cus, which she chairs. Join­ing her is Sen. Ka­mala Har­ris, D-Calif. (cen­ter right).

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