Shortly after he was elected, state Assemblyman Rocky Chavez took what he said was a natural step and asked to join the California Latino Legislative Caucus. The Oceanside Republican said his request last year was at first met with silence.
"When I didn't get a response, I asked what the deal was and they said that I wouldn't be allowed in," Chavez said. "They do not allow Republicans to be part of the group."
That rejection has sparked debate in and out of the Legislature about the diversity of opinion in Latino politics and whether taxpayers should be supporting legislative caucuses that have a partisan agenda.
The discussion comes at a time when the 24-member Latino Legislative Caucus has become a major force in the Capitol, racking up a series of victories, including approval of new laws providing driver's licenses and college scholarships for immigrants who are in the country illegally.
Sen. Joel Anderson (R-Alpine) has asked the state attorney general to investigate the group and its membership policies.
"The name Latino Caucus is intentionally misleading, because it implies equal access for all Latino legislators," Anderson said. "Using taxpayer-sourced, public funds to deny them their voice is wrong."
Chavez said his primary concern involves the restrictions on membership when the group is using taxpayer resources, including an office in the Legislative Office Building, two staff members and a spot on the official state Legislature website. "I think it should be inclusive in that case," he said.
Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), the caucus chairman, said there is nothing improper about the caucus' membership policies, which have been in place since the caucus was founded 40 years ago by five Democratic lawmakers.
"It's not that there is no precedence for this," Lara said."You have a Republican Caucus and a Democratic Caucus that have staff."
The official state website says the caucus exists "to identify key issues affecting Latinos and develop avenues to empower the Latino community throughout California."
Lara said he designates two members of his personal staff to help coordinate caucus activities. Political work is paid for by the caucus' political action committee, not taxpayer funds, said Roger Salazar, a caucus spokesman. He said the monthly caucus meetings are at a site away from state offices "because in addition to policy discussions, there are also political discussions."
The caucus has been in the news lately not only for its legislative victories but also because of controversy.
Sen. Ronald Calderon (D-Montebello), vice chairman of the Latino caucus in 2011-12, has been indicted on charges of accepting nearly $100,000 in bribes for official favors.
An FBI affidavit includes an allegation by Calderon, disputed by caucus members, that he agreed not to challenge Lara for the caucus chairmanship in exchange for a $25,000 contribution that was provided to a nonprofit run by Calderon's brother.
Controversy over the caucus' membership policy is not new. Former Republican state Assemblyman Robert Pacheco was turned down when he tried to join in 1999. "I thought it was appropriate that we should be able to join the Latino Caucus," Pacheco said.
He and three other Republican lawmakers formed a Hispanic Republican Caucus and he was the first chairman of the short-lived group, which also received some staff help.
Pacheco said there is room for different views, including dissent, among Latino lawmakers. "We are distinctly different than Democratic Latinos," he said.
About 55% of Latino voters in California are Democrats and 17% are Republicans, according to Paul Mitchell of Political Data Inc.
But within political parties and the Latino community, there is a wide variety of opinion on key issues that should be considered, said Ruben Barrales, president of Grow Elect, which supports electing Latinos to office.
Chavez has called on the GOP to be more engaged in immigration reform. He voted in favor of granting law licenses to qualified immigrants who are in the country illegally and removing from law books portions of Proposition 187, a measure outlawing public services to those immigrants, that were invalidated by the courts. At the same time, he opposed giving driver's licenses to those who are in the country illegally.
"If they allowed someone like Rocky to participate, I think they would be better and stronger for it," Barrales said of the caucus. "It's unfortunate. They are apparently more focused on partisan aspects rather than truly being focused on Latino issues generally."
Lara said that when a Hispanic Republican Caucus existed in the past, his caucus "worked hand-in-hand on issues of mutual concern" with it, and he is open to working with Republican members in the future.
Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez of Lake Elsinore, one of two other current Republican legislators, is nonplussed about the membership issue. She said she never attempted to join the caucus because she disagrees with what it stands for.
"I didn't come up to Sacramento to join elitist insider clubs that are ethically challenged and completely ignore the needs of working Californians," Melendez said.
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