The topics of gun control, immigration reform, and whether Hispanics are underrepresented in top House committee posts are challenging seniority as the key issue in a feisty two-way race for the Democrats' top seat on the Natural Resources Committee.
Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon is emphasizing his seniority—which has been the more traditional but not always pivotal factor in determining who moves up in committee rank—over Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona. But Grijalva and his allies are waging a decidedly unconventional internal battle within the caucus to upset tradition.
In an interview on Tuesday, Grijalva conceded that going after a fellow Democrat so publicly for his record on issues such as gun control and immigration may upset some within his party.
"But if people get upset with me pointing out history, that's not my fault—that's history," Grijalva said. "At some point, you either have to decide on whether to reward someone simply because of seniority, or make a pick based on merit and sticking to the Democratic agenda." He said the selection of which Democrat will lead the party on the committee should involve consideration of a "composite" of factors, not just seniority.
At stake is the top Democratic seat on a 47-member committee that considers legislation ranging from energy production and mineral lands to the National Park system, monuments, Native Americans, fisheries, and wildlife. The post is opening up with Rep. Edward Markey's victory last week in the special election in Massachusetts for a U.S. Senate seat. With that top Democratic seat also comes more power, including more staff and more attention from campaign donors.
As of Tuesday, no date had yet been set for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and the about 50 other members of the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee to meet and make a recommendation, which is typically ratified by the full House Democratic Caucus.
But Markey is likely to be sworn in as a senator on about July 10. And House Democrats will move swiftly to then choose his successor as top Democrat on Natural Resources. Pelosi has not publicly named a preference. That means the internal lobbying for the seat by DeFazio and Grijalva—which has already been intense—could heat up.
For his part, DeFazio has been emphasizing in letters to fellow House Democrats that he is next in line behind Markey based on his 26 years on the panel. By contrast, Grijalva's 10 years means he would be leap-frogging not just DeFazio, but four other more-senior Democrats, to be committee ranking member.
DeFazio has noted in letters to colleagues that all four of those more senior Democrats are backing him, as well as the two previous top Democrats on the committee, Reps. George Miller of California and Nick Rahall of West Virginia.
In a statement Tuesday, DeFazio said his "record of accomplishment, my leadership, and my passionate defense of environmental issues before the committee has earned me public support from a broad coalition of over 40 Democratic members." He said this list already includes progressives and moderates, freshmen, and seven current ranking members, and that "I have the support of members in leadership, an overwhelming majority of the Steering and Policy Committee, and a majority of the Democratic Caucus."
Grijalva would not say how many members have committed to him, but he says he is just getting started in making his case to fellow Democrats that his bid is "not about seniority," but about a commitment to environmental policy and the Democratic Caucus agenda.
In fact, Grijalva already has dashed off one letter to colleagues questioning DeFazio's positions and commitment to gun control, noting the Oregonian voted in 2009 for an amendment to allow carrying of guns in national parks.
"That same year," writes Grijalva, "he signed a letter to Attorney General [Eric] Holder promising he 'would actively oppose any effort to reinstate the 1994 [assault-weapons] ban, or to pass any similar law' and claiming that gun violence prevention advocates 'intentionally misled many Americans' about the issue." Grijalva also writes that in 2010 the National Rifle Association Political Victory Fund gave DeFazio a "B" rating.
Grijalva is also getting support from some outside Latino groups, who have written their own letters to members questioning DeFazio's record on immigration reform. One letter dated June 19 to members from National Hispanic Leadership Agenda Chairman Hector Sanchez states that Grijalva is viewed as "eminently qualified to represent our nation as Ranking Member of this important committee."
But the same letter says NHLA, which is a coalition of 36 Latino organizations, "holds strong reservations on the consideration of Congressman Peter DeFazio, also under consideration, for this important post." It goes on, "Congressman DeFazio's abysmal voting record on immigration reform, earning him a 'B' rating from the immigration restrictionist group NumbersUSA, is deeply disturbing."
A second letter dated June 17 from the California state director of the League of United Latin American Citizens to Democratic members of the House from California suggests, "While there are many examples of Congressman DeFazio's poor voting record that runs afoul of House leadership's position on immigration reform, one simply unforgivable vote was the Congressman's support for H.R. 4437 in the 109th Congress."
"H.R. 4437, the Border Protection, Anti-terrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act, was a lightning rod in the Latino community, and is still seen as a direct attack on Latinos by the community at-large," that letter states.
There also are arguments from Grijalva and others that there are not enough Latinos holding chairmanships or ranking positions on congressional committees. Among House Democrats, Rep. Nydia Velazquez of New York is the ranking member on the House Small Business Committee, and Linda Sanchez of California is the ranking member on the House Ethics Committee.
Grijalva, a Mexican-American, states that his leadership on the committee would reflect more inclusiveness. And NHLA chairman Sanchez writes in his letter that, "while NHLA notes with great pride that Latinos are increasingly represented in the House of Representatives, we observe with deepening dismay the fact that Hispanics remain severely under-represented as Chairs and Ranking Members in the many Committees of the House."
"Congressman Grijalva's bid to become Ranking Member offers House Leadership with precisely the right opportunity--one NHLA fully expects will be seized--to address this stark Latino diversity disparity," states the letter.
DeFazio could not be reached through his office Tuesday to directly respond to these arguments being made by Grijalva or his backers.
While seniority has long been the biggest determinative factor within the Democratic Caucus in advancing to a chairmanship or ranking-member position, that tradition has not always borne true—including the selection of ranking members to the Appropriations and Veterans' Affairs committees late last year.
Rather than seniority, argues Grijalva in his own letter to Pelosi and the steering committee, "choosing a ranking member is about choosing a strong, consistent, unapologetic Democrat who will speak for Democratic values and Democratic leadership at every opportunity."
"I believe this ranking member race--like any other race--is about more than years of service in Congress. It's about whose record the public will see as the face of the Democratic Party for years to come," Grijalva asserts.
This article appears in the July 3, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.