This week's congressional recess has provided a timeout for feuding members of the Hispanic Caucus, whose tempers have been simmering over issues such as the group's governance and whether the chairman labeled one of the female members a "whore."
The chairman, Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.), is trying to hold together the group of 20 Democrats and smooth over multiple rifts.
"We've all got to come together, put personalities aside," Baca said yesterday by phone from California. "We've got 45 million Hispanic constituents we have to think about."
But several female members of the mostly male caucus say Baca himself is a source of problems, and one, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), resigned last month in protest. There were six female members and 15 male members before Sanchez quit.
Sanchez, who declined to comment yesterday, has said that Baca called her a "whore" in a conversation with another Latino politician in Sacramento last summer. She said she did not hear the remark firsthand but learned about it later, and she has not revealed the source. She has said the slur demonstrates Baca's lack of respect for women.
Baca has denied making the comment. "I never used the five-letter word," he said. "All of a sudden because we have a female speaker, I and the caucus are being accused of being insensitive. I think we're being falsely accused."
Baca acknowledged that he made a crude remark about another member, Rep. Hilda Solis (D-Calif.), saying that she "was a kiss-up" to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). But he apologized privately to Solis. "She wants a public apology, so, okay, I am apologizing in The Washington Post," he said.
At a closed meeting last week designed to mend fences, Sanchez made an appearance and, along with several other women, aired grievances, said sources familiar with the caucus's workings. The women said their requests of the caucus staff are not taken seriously, among other things.
Baca pledged yesterday to correct problems but added that the complaints so far have been vague. "They haven't specifically spelled out where the problems are," said Baca, who was unchallenged in caucus elections in November. "I've only been in office five weeks. I will answer any concerns, but give me a chance."
When Baca was elected, Solis, Sanchez and her sister, Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), disputed the election procedure and unsuccessfully pushed for a new vote by secret ballot. They now say they want the governance to be restructured along the lines of the Blue Dog caucus, which disperses power among three co-chairs instead of a single chairman.
Baca said yesterday that any reforms must be approved by the caucus but that it seems odd the women didn't broach the subject before the recent elections. "Why now? Why change in midstream?" he asked. "If people wanted to do this, why didn't the body do it prior to electing the chair on Nov. 15? I ran unopposed. That's why this whole thing is really ludicrous."
Rocky relations between Baca and Loretta Sanchez and some other caucus members stretch back at least a year, to when the political action committee affiliated with the caucus gave about $3,000 to help Baca's sons, Joe Jr. and Jeremy, run for California offices.
Baca said he recused himself from any of the decision making regarding his sons and the PAC. Both sons lost their bids to women. The Sanchez sisters and Solis were among six caucus members who severed ties with the PAC, saying the committee should support federal office seekers, not candidates running for state or local election.
The Baca sons returned the money to the PAC, but resentments linger, Baca said.
"It's a personal thing," Baca said about the squabbles inside the caucus. "I hope this thing goes away and we can work together as Democrats."