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Rep. Tony Cárdenas to run for House leadership post

Rep. Tony Cardenas
Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-Los Angeles) attends a House Energy and Commerce Committee meeting on May 17, 2018.
(Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call)

San Fernando Valley Rep. Tony Cárdenas says he will run for a House leadership position in 2021, becoming the first lawmaker to announce interest in replacing Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.), currently the only Latino in leadership, who is giving up his seat to run for the U.S. Senate in November.

Cárdenas, a four-term congressman, told The Times that he will seek the assistant speaker post — the fourth-highest ranking spot in House leadership.

“I feel I could do some amazing work there,” Cárdenas, 57, said. “Being at the leadership table, you have a bigger say-so and you carry the weight of your colleagues’ opinions and priorities on your shoulders and I’m willing to do that.”

Lujan’s post is the only one known to be opening in 2021, but Cárdenas said he would consider other vacancies, should they occur.

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It’s likely other lawmakers will make a bid for the high-ranking position. But given the rising number of Latino members in Congress, and in the country, it is widely expected that House members will want to continue having Latino representation in House leadership.

Cárdenas will make that direct appeal to colleagues in a letter Friday to announce his bid.

“With Congressman Ben Ray Lujan moving on to the United States Senate, there will be no Latino members at the leadership table. Our diversity is our strength. If we truly want to have success as a caucus fighting for the American people and ensure that no one gets left behind, we must have diversity at every level of the House,” he says in the letter.

Lujan said Cárdenas’ perspective as a child of immigrants, and as an advocate for Latino issues, would be valuable in leadership, especially if Democrats win the White House and move to address immigration.

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“I would be proud to support Tony. I think it’s critically important that we have strong leaders at the table,” Lujan said. “Tony has never forgotten his roots, never forgotten the sacrifices made by his family. That’s important to have that perspective at the leadership table.”

Having a Latino member of leadership is important because often decisions are made at that level before issues are brought to the full House caucus, said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), the vice chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

“For many of us in the Latino caucus, we want to make sure we have a voice in leadership,” Gallego said. “We know him and we trust him.”

Long seen as a rising member of the Democratic Party, Cárdenas saw his future thrown into turmoil in 2018 when the daughter of a former employee alleged that he had touched her inappropriately when she was a teenager.

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Pelosi and House Democrats stood by Cárdenas as he weathered allegations. Cárdenas flatly denied the woman’s story. His attorney described the accuser, Angela Villela Chavez, as the daughter of a disgruntled ex-employee. Chavez, who publicly identified herself, was represented by attorney Lisa Bloom, who dropped out of the case for unspecified reasons.

The Times was unable to corroborate Chavez’s allegations. No one else stepped forward to made similar allegations against Cárdenas. The woman dropped her lawsuit in July. Cárdenas and his attorney claimed total vindication.

Cárdenas said he’s already working to build support among Democratic colleagues, who will vote as a caucus on who replaces Lujan. “I’m telling them I’m a ‘we’ person, not a ‘me’ person,” Cárdenas said.

He said he tells a story of what his father, a self-employed gardener, would say to him when he, as a child, complained after long hours working summers with his father: “The work is not done.”

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“It has served me well because now I’m in Congress where the work is never done,” Cárdenas said. “I’m welcoming more work on my plate.”

He pointed to the fundraising gains made while leading the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ Bold PAC, which works to elect Latinos and candidates focused on Latino issues nationwide, as a sign of his leadership skills. He is not running to lead the PAC again, to focus on a House leadership bid.

The third-highest ranking Democrat in House leadership, Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), called Cárdenas a friend, but stopped short of endorsing him.

“He is among several talented caucus members who possess significant leadership qualities,” Clyburn said in a statement. “His 20 years of public service have been dedicated to lifting up the needs of our youth and immigrant communities.”

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Cárdenas, who previously held a lower-level position in House leadership, served three terms in the state Assembly and was on the Los Angeles City Council before being elected to Congress in 2012.

Cárdenas is the first Latino to serve the heavily Latino San Fernando Valley in Congress. Located in the eastern San Fernando Valley, the 29th District includes Pacoima, Panorama City and San Fernando.


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