The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pete Aguilar’s rising star status meets the moment at Jan. 6 hearing

Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) during the House Jan. 6 committee's third public hearing on June 16 in Washington. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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As he dug through deposition testimony, Rep. Pete Aguilar noticed a common thread among the aides to former vice president Mike Pence: the power of prayer.

So when the California Democrat neared the end of his questioning Thursday, he asked the witness about finding solace in the Book of Daniel during the hours spent hiding in the bowels of the Capitol from rioters on Jan. 6, 2021.

“He refuses an order from the king that he cannot follow and he does his duty in — consistent with his oath to God,” Greg Jacob, the former counsel to Pence who sheltered with him that day, told Aguilar.

With the exchange, Aguilar drew out the type of moment he has been searching for as one of nine lawmakers on the select committee investigating the attack on the Capitol. While some are searching for the legal foundation to prompt a Justice Department prosecution of former president Donald Trump, Aguilar sees the mission as reaching the tens of millions of voters who have not paid attention to every detail in the attack.

Even members of his own family have become more concerned about the cost of gas and groceries in these tense economic times.

“Part of this is,” Aguilar explained in an interview in his office late Thursday, “how do I reach my grandmother? How do I get people who aren’t as steeped in the political weeds to pay attention to this stuff?”

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In just his fourth term, Aguilar, 42, takes this approach to both the committee investigation and the work Democrats have to do to expand their appeal beyond their most fervent supporters.

A junior member of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s leadership team, Aguilar is the highest-ranking member of the congressional Hispanic Caucus. He’s also a member of the New Democrat Coalition, a group of largely suburban lawmakers from swing districts.

After serving as mayor of Redlands, a city of 70,000 about 60 miles east of Los Angeles, Aguilar narrowly won the longtime GOP stronghold in 2014 and has built it into a solid blue seat ever since.

That combination, along with ambition that appears to lie only in the House, explains why close friends view Aguilar as the man who could become the first Hispanic speaker of the House.

“We’ve got to spread our message about fighting for the middle class. We have to make it real for folks at the kitchen table. They have to feel it, not just hear it, but they have to feel that House Democrats are fighting for them,” Aguilar said in an interview this month, before the committee launched its high-profile hearings.

Pelosi (D-Calif.) picked him for the select committee because he is the type of lawmaker others gravitate toward, more than just a “team player.”

“Usually it means they’re a good follower, but that’s not the case with you,” she said, according to his recollection of the call.

On June 16, the House committee investigating Capitol attack described a steadfast Vice President Mike Pence despite pressure from President Donald Trump. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

As vice chairman of the Democratic caucus, he ranks sixth in leadership, an amorphous job. He’s told other lawmakers they should view him as a “human suggestion box.”

Sometimes that means convening groups, including Senate Democrats, to discuss what types of immigration legislation have a chance to reach President Biden’s desk. Other times, it means Aguilar listens to complaints about the House schedule.

His recurring theme, on pushing legislation and in campaigning, is that Democrats too often assume voters are devout consumers of politics as if they’re all devotees to MSNBC’s prime-time lineup.

Most don’t understand the historically razor-thin margins in the House and Senate, nor do they fully understand arcane rules like the filibuster.

“They need to feel safer and better, and they need to know that the Democrats care. It isn’t that we aren’t doing things. I think we are. It’s that they don’t feel that we’re doing enough,” Aguilar said. “And they feel that the president is better than the last guy, but that they still don’t feel as comfortable in their own personal position.”

Of Mexican descent, Aguilar has grown frustrated with how Democrats treated all Hispanics with a broad brush, leading to a troubling decline in political support from that voting bloc. The anti-police rhetoric cost Democrats votes in South Texas, he said, where a huge portion of Hispanic families work for the Border Patrol or local law enforcement.

“They’re very different,” he said. “How you talk to a Mexican American in Southern California versus a Cuban American in South Florida, we have to acknowledge that we can’t have boilerplate campaign literature.”

Aguilar has linked arms with Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass.), both just ahead of him in leadership ranks, to forge an alliance that many rank-and-file Democrats see as the next generation of leaders.

“We’re all very close. Pete Aguilar is a good friend, a colleague and a partner in government in the closest possible way,” Jeffries, 51, said of the trio.

But that leads to the most sensitive topic in the caucus: when the trio of 80-somethings — Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) — will step aside.

Most Democrats just publicly pay tribute to the combined 106 years of congressional experience among Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn, more than half of that time serving in their current leadership slots.

“With that status, in my opinion, they get to choose their timing. They get to pick what that looks like and whenever that transition will occur,” Aguilar said.

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When Pelosi called last summer to ask him to serve on the Jan. 6 committee, Aguilar’s first reaction was to try to say no, out of fear for how the profile might impact his wife and two children. “I didn’t need the death threats,” he recalled thinking.

Now, he’s consumed by the investigation. Each hearing has a clearly defined topic that can be presented in a roughly two-hour span, far different from the rolling 10- or 12-hour marathons of some congressional hearings.

It’s meant to have broad appeal to a society that now binge-watches limited series with six or seven episodes on HBO or Netflix, with the pace of the popular “Slow Burn” podcast.

“This isn’t Watergate, where you only have five networks and everybody is going wall to wall. We’ve got to be concise,” he said.

Aguilar drew the assignment of laying out Trump’s pressure campaign to get Pence to simply reject certain states that Biden had won, a completely unconstitutional move.

He spent six weeks poring over the depositions from top Pence advisers and Trump aides, barely doing anything else. That’s when he noticed how faith kept coming up with Pence’s team.

Marc Short, Pence’s former chief of staff, testified that they began Jan. 6 with a prayer in the vice president’s office and that when the tumult ended early the next morning, Short texted Pence a scripture verse that ended with “I have kept the faith.”

This prompted Jacob’s own reflection about the Book of Daniel and defying the king.

Aguilar said those moments need to be drilled into the public so that enough people will learn how perilous that day was.

“There’s these profiles of people along the way that all collectively kind of stood in the breach to protect democracy,” he said. “And I think that’s the story worth telling.”