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Tony Cárdenas casts himself as man to lead DCCC through fire

Tony Cárdenas casts himself as man to lead DCCC through fire
© Greg Nash

Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.) stayed in politics because of his father and his father’s legacy. 

The older Cárdenas, a Mexican immigrant farmworker named Andrés, drove a tractor through a burning field near Los Angeles in the early 1950s to rescue a fellow worker who’d been entrapped by the flames.

Andres Cárdenas didn’t share the story with his family, and the California lawmaker only heard it for the first time nearly 50 years later, when he was an electrical engineer from Pacoima, Calif., running an uphill battle for a California Assembly seat. 

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The man saved by Andrés Cárdenas in that field turned out to be the father of the accountant who ran Tony Cárdenas’s campaign finances. He shared the story with the Cárdenas family in 1996.

Tony Cárdenas had just finished reading a Los Angeles Times story trashing his long-shot race in 1996 when his campaign treasurer and sister relayed the story about their father. 

“It came to me. For the first time in my life I heard this story. The night that I was doubting whether I was doing the right thing, I was doubting whether or not I belonged as a candidate, as I was feeling down,” Cárdenas said. “When my sister told me that story, I knew that was my father.”

Cárdenas, 57, is now running to lead the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), a high-risk position for anyone looking to climb the ranks of House leadership.

He’s running against Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), a front-line moderate who’s expected to win his 2020 race, although it hasn’t yet been officially called.

Both men have chased higher caucus offices, only to be derailed by extraneous circumstances or electoral defeat.

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Maloney, 54, sought to become New York attorney general in 2018 only to lose the Democratic primary, and later that year he ran for DCCC chairman before being sidetracked by a bacterial infection that landed him in the hospital.

Cárdenas, who joined the House in 2013, has made no secret of his aspirations to leadership.

But before he could launch a campaign in 2018, Cárdenas revealed himself to be the subject of a sexual assault lawsuit that derailed his leadership aspirations for that year.

Cárdenas vehemently denied the accusations and the lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice the following year, a result that his lawyers termed a “total vindication.”

Cárdenas has been running the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s (CHC) campaign arm, Bold PAC, achieving record fundraising for each of the three cycles he served as chairman.

Bold PAC, long a minor operation dedicated to protecting CHC incumbents, grew under the tutelage of former chairman Sen.-elect Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), but its influence exploded under Cárdenas.

That success led many House Democrats to call earlier this month for Cárdenas to take over as DCCC chairman, once it was clear that the House Democratic Caucus would lose seats after the general election.

The CHC on Monday announced its endorsement of Cárdenas for head of the DCCC in a letter signed by Rep. Ruben GallegoRuben GallegoFavorites emerge as Latino leaders press Biden to appoint 5 Hispanics to Cabinet Tony Cárdenas casts himself as man to lead DCCC through fire Hispanic Caucus endorses Cárdenas to lead DCCC MORE (D-Ariz.), who is slated to take over at Bold PAC. 

Cárdenas had pledged not to challenge DCCC Chairwoman Cheri BustosCheryl (Cheri) Lea BustosDemocratic Women's Caucus members endorse Cárdenas for party's House campaign chief Rep. Rick Allen tests positive for COVID-19 Maloney vows to overhaul a House Democratic campaign machine 'stuck in the past' MORE (D-Ill.) “out of respect” and stayed in the race for assistant Speaker of the House, a leadership post that was being vacated by Luján. Once Bustos announced last week that she would not again run for DCCC chairwoman, Cárdenas quickly jumped in, followed by Maloney.

“Next cycle will be challenging, and we need someone with the experience and dedication to lead the DCCC,” said Cárdenas.

“As Bold PAC chair for the last six years with the support of my colleagues, I have led a large political organization, surpassing all expectations and achieving unprecedented success. I will work collaboratively with the caucus, as I did at Bold PAC, to ensure we maintain and expand our majority in Congress,” he added.

Since deciding to run for DCCC, Cárdenas has more often reminded staffers of the story about his father driving a tractor through a field of fire.

The 2022 cycle promises to be a brutal challenge for House Democrats, who enter it with a slim majority, divided after the 2020 results, and in the first midterm for a new president — historically a precedent for a governing party to lose seats or even a majority.

If leading the DCCC through 2022 will be like driving through fire, the race for the post has become good practice for that ordeal.

Maloney was quick to poach two key CHC members, Reps. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.) and Verónica Escobar (D-Texas), to his whip team; Sánchez had been a top cheerleader for Cárdenas’s assistant Speaker effort.

But Cárdenas has built goodwill throughout the caucus, partly due to his expansion of Bold PAC beyond its traditional constraints of only supporting Hispanic candidates.

And Cárdenas, a member of the New Democrats, is a moderate with close progressive connections and a person of color from a safe seat — attributes that could potentially spare him lines of attack that hurt Bustos during her tenure.

The Bold PAC post served as a good stepping stone for Luján, who oversaw the DCCC through the difficult 2016 election that saw President TrumpDonald John TrumpMinnesota certifies Biden victory Trump tells allies he plans to pardon Michael Flynn: report Republican John James concedes in Michigan Senate race MORE’s rise to power with Republican majorities in both chambers and the 2018 cycle that saw Democrats recapture the House.

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For Cárdenas, Bold PAC is so far a résumé topper after he raised more than $30 million over three cycles while expanding the CHC to its historical high of 39 members.

“Bold PAC had a lot of potential. I saw it for what it was, I saw we didn’t have enough Latinos in Congress, I saw that our influence could grow, that we could be a bigger part of the Democratic Caucus and that the way to do it was to increase our numbers, increase our stature, get closer to our colleagues, support our colleagues and be a force in Washington, D.C.,” said Cárdenas.

“It’s a little more complicated than deciding ‘I’m going to drive through that fire or else that guy is going to die,’ but to me it’s the same feeling. Something needs to be done and somebody needs to step up,” he added.