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Hispanic Caucus campaign chief to mount leadership bid

Hispanic Caucus campaign chief to mount leadership bid
© Greg Nash

Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.) is mounting a run for a leadership position in the House, building on three record-breaking fundraising cycles as head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s (CHC) campaign arm.

Cárdenas, a San Fernando Valley native who has represented the area in Congress since 2013, confirmed he wants to join leadership for the next Congress.

“After much consideration, I have decided to seek a leadership position within the Democratic caucus. Over the coming days, I will speak with my family, friends, and colleagues to determine how best to serve the caucus and my country to achieve our Democratic goals and improve the lives of the American people,” said Cárdenas in a statement to The Hill.

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Cárdenas's options in leadership are relatively limited, as the top three Democrats in the House — Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPush to expand Supreme Court faces Democratic buzzsaw Schumer labels McConnell's scheduled coronavirus stimulus vote as 'a stunt' Pelosi: White House made 'unacceptable changes' to testing language during negotiations on coronavirus stimulus MORE (Calif.), Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerTop Democrats introduce resolution calling for mask mandate, testing program in Senate Trump orders aides to halt talks on COVID-19 relief This week: Coronavirus complicates Senate's Supreme Court fight MORE (Md.) and Majority Whip James Clyburn (S.C.) — are expected to remain in their positions after November's election.

One senior leadership post, the assistant speakership, will be vacated by its incumbent, Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), who is running for an open Senate seat in New Mexico.

Incumbents in other positions on the ladder, such as House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesA tearful lesson of 2016: Polls don't matter if people don't vote Overnight Health Care: House Democrats slam pharma CEOs for price hikes driven by revenue, executive bonuses | Ex-FDA employees express worries to Congress over politicization of vaccines | Fauci said his mask stance was 'taken out of context' by Trump Top House Democrat: Parties 'much closer' to a COVID deal 'than we've ever been' MORE (D-N.Y.) and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) Chair Cheri BustosCheryl (Cheri) Lea BustosHouse Democrats target Hispanic voters in battlegrounds with new barrage of ads Republican fears grow over rising Democratic tide Biden, Democrats see late opportunity in Texas MORE (D-Ill.), are expected to seek reelection to their posts.

It's likely the two positions up for grabs will be the assistant speakership and potentially the vice chairmanship of the Democratic Caucus, if current holder Rep. Katherine ClarkKatherine Marlea ClarkPocan won't seek another term as Progressive Caucus co-chair Democratic leaders: Supreme Court fight is about ObamaCare Rep. Robin Kelly enters race for Democratic caucus vice chair MORE (D-Mass.) seeks a promotion.

Cárdenas's claim to leadership is rooted in his work as chairman of Bold PAC, the CHC campaign arm, which he first took over for the 2016 electoral cycle after Luján resigned the post to lead the DCCC.

In 2016 Bold PAC's success became one of the few silver linings for Democrats in an otherwise dismal election, as the CHC gained eight new members and Bold PAC exponentially increased its fundraising.

Rep. Ruben GallegoRuben GallegoLeadership matters: President's words and actions show he is unfit to lead our nation Overnight Defense: Pentagon IG to audit use of COVID-19 funds on contractors | Dems optimistic on blocking Trump's Germany withdrawal | Obama slams Trump on foreign policy House Democrat optimistic defense bill will block Trump's Germany withdrawal MORE (D-Ariz.), a Cárdenas ally who is hoping to succeed him as head of Bold PAC, said Cárdenas "recreated" the organization into "by far one of the most powerful congressional PACs on Capitol Hill."

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Bold PAC's fundraising grew from just under $1 million for the 2014 midterms to $6.1 million in 2016, $11.4 million in 2018 and $9.6 million as of July 31 of this year, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

The organization's campaign reach has amplified the political influence of its board members, as Bold PAC strategically invests in non-Hispanic candidates throughout the country in addition to its mission of supporting candidates who will grow the CHC.

Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.), a Bold PAC board member known for her skill in recruiting candidates, credited the organization's success to board members' collective efforts. "Tony at the helm helped channel the efforts and helped produce results,” she added.

"That shows an ability on his part to be strategic and to think about ways to take something not living up to its potential and supercharge it to live up to its potential," Sánchez said.

That skillset could serve Cárdenas well in leadership, as the current open positions have often been derided as invented positions with few real responsibilities.

The assistant speakership, for instance, was created ad hoc for Luján, after his stewardship of the DCCC regained the House majority for Democrats in 2018.

Barring an electoral disaster for Democrats in November, it's unlikely anyone will want to challenge the top three members of the caucus, none of whom have indicated plans to retire in the near future.

Given the House's strictly hierarchical decisionmaking structure, the remaining leadership positions guarantee little more than a voice at the leadership table.

Cárdenas has been at that table before, as the representative for members serving their first five years in office, where he relished having a voice among the decisionmakers.

"It's more along the lines of what you decide to do with [a seat at the table]," said Gallego. "You could have an important position and not end up doing anything with it."

And some of Cárdenas's colleagues already believe he could make the best of a seat.

"He's a really humble guy, he's not forgotten where he comes from," said Sánchez. "One of the things he's really passionate about is being the voice of people who are often shut out of the conversation."

Clyburn, who has not endorsed Cárdenas for a leadership position, said he considers Cárdenas a friend who "is among several talented caucus members who possess significant leadership qualities."

"His 20 years of public service have been dedicated to lifting up the needs of our youth and immigrant communities. His support for common-sense gun safety laws like my legislation to close the Charleston Loophole is greatly appreciated,” said Clyburn.

Still, Cárdenas was once before poised to make a run at leadership in 2018, at the height of the #MeToo movement, when he was blindsided by a lawsuit alleging sexual misconduct in 2007.

Cárdenas made public that he was the target of that suit and denied the allegations vehemently.

The plaintiff's lawyers ultimately dropped her as a client, citing rules of professional conduct, and the judge dismissed the lawsuit with prejudice in July of 2019, meaning it cannot be refiled.

"In Tony's case, the way in which that allegation was dropped definitely gave the impression that the attack was politically motivated — whether it was or not I can't say, but I think it was a bump in the road for Tony," said Sánchez.

"Given how that ended he can move forward and not look back," she added.

In part because of his tenure at Bold PAC, Cárdenas, who holds relatively moderate views, has built an ideologically broad network of alliances within the caucus and with incoming members.

For instance, New York City Council Member Ritchie Torres, who is all but certain to occupy the House seat vacated by retiring Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.) next year, credited Cárdenas as playing a major hand in his tough primary win in June.

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In a recent interview, Torres, a progressive, told The Hill he would join the CHC and Bold PAC in January, calling Cárdenas "a force to be reckoned with."

Still, Cárdenas is better known among the members of the CHC and by the non-CHC members he's helped fund through Bold PAC.

A seat at the table, even with relatively few statutory powers, could present Cárdenas with an opportunity to expand his reach among all House Democrats.

"It gives you access to leadership, but also an opportunity to present yourself to your caucus," said Gallego.