Rep.-elect Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, left, greets outgoing member Rep. Charlie Gonzalez, D-Texas, in the basement of Longworth Building. Castro is succeeding Gonzalez as representative for Texas’s 20th District. ( Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Newly elected Latino legislators urged to seize moment on reform

The U.S. Congress has had quite a rocky time of late, and in recent polls Americans have given pretty dismal marks to the increasingly polarized House and Senate. Today’s newly sworn-in Latino legislators say they are ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work, and political observers say these new legislators don’t have a choice.

“This new Congress has an opportunity to change the legacy of the 112th Congress,” referred to by many as a ‘do-nothing’ Congress,” says Latino Decisions political scientist Sylvia Manzano. “Latino voters do feel they have some political capital after the election, and voters expect legislation and action on issues such as the economy and immigration reform,” she adds.

The 113th Congress has 31 Latinos in all.  There are nine new Latino House members, bringing the total to 28 Hispanics in the House.  Texan Republican Senator Ted Cruz became the nation’s third Latino Senator after being sworn in today. Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) Vice Chair and New Mexico Democratic Congressman Ben Ray Luján said, “it is exciting to have a House of Representatives that looks more and more like the faces of our nation.”

“I hope to work in a bipartisan manner with my colleagues to address some of the nation’s most pressing challenges, such as the need for comprehensive immigration reform,” said Florida’s new Congressman Joe Garcia, who is actually the first Democratic Cuban-American elected to Congress from the state.  “No political party is right all the time, which is why I am committed to listening to members from both parties – on behalf of America’s families,” Congressman Garcia added.

Newly sworn Congressman Juan Vargas, a Democratic Congressman from San Diego, California’s 51st Congressional District, said he was looking forward to “working with my colleagues in Congress to further fuel our recovering economy and promote job growth.”  Other new Latino legislators include Democratic Texan Congressman Joaquin Castro, and California Democratic Congressman Raul Ruiz, who is also an emergency room doctor. Ruiz, whose parents were migrant farm workers, said to Telemundo’s Liliana Henao that “being here means our dreams are coming true, we have more of a voice in Congress.”

Latina legislators are part of a record number of women in the 113th Congress – 20 in the U.S. Senate and 78 in the House. Two new Latina legislators include New Mexico Democratic Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham, and California Congresswoman Gloria Negrete McLeod, a mother of 10 and grandmother to 27 grandchildren.

Speaking to C-Span today, Negrete McLeod spoke of her position on various issues, including gun control.  The new Congresswoman, whose husband is a former LAPD police officer, says she believes in the second amendment right to own guns, but she does not support assault weapons. The California legislator also spoke of the need to pass immigration reform; “not willy nilly but something we do comprehensively,” she says.

“Latino legislators are well poised to be ambassadors in Congress to negotiate with less moderate members and more radical members,” Manzano says.

Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino and Elected Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund, says while Latinos sworn in today might be diverse, “there was a consensus on policy priorities, and poll after poll showed the economy and immigration are key issues for Latino voters,” says Vargas. “I do think many of these new members from both parties feel the onus of trying to ensure the 113th Congress is responsive,” Vargas adds.

A majority of the Latino representatives sworn in today are Democrats. Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) Chair and Texas Democratic Congressman Rubén Hinojosa said, “we now have an unprecedented 26 members in our Caucus.”  Hinojosa did say, however, “now it’s our responsibility to unite with all members of Congress.”

Manzano says in a way, these legislators don’t have an alternative if they want to be seen as effective. “I don’t think many new people got elected just to make a point.  While in some corners the word bipartisan might be seen as bad, most voters, including Latino voters think doing nothing is even worse.”  When it comes to addressing crucial fiscal issues as well as immigration reform, Manzano says, “the onus is going to be on the leadership of both parties to work it out.  There is no incentive for either party to leave issues at the table.”

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