Of the 213 Democrats in the House of Representatives, no state fills out the conference more than California, settling 40 Dems in their ranks. And of those 40 Democrats, no Californian sits higher than Rep. Pete Aguilar, who is now the highest-ranking Californian in either party in the House.
“He's the highest-ranking Latino, but he's also the highest-ranking Californian in Congress today. And he's got a big responsibility of representing the interests of the biggest state in the union,” said Rep. Lou Correa, D-Calif. of his fellow Golden State legislator. “I think Petey has really grown into the position of leadership.”
When Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. was ousted as House Speaker last month, Aguilar settled in as the top Californian in current Congressional leadership. But the door swung open early in the 118th Congress, when former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. decided not to run again for leadership, creating space for a new generation to call the shots.
Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., Whip Katherine Clark, D-Mass., and Democratic Conference Chair Aguilar, have kept the caucus unified as Republicans in the House have struggled to rally behind a leader.
As the number three House Democrat, Aguilar has made his presence felt over the last year with a series of high-profile floor speeches sharply criticizing Republican candidates for speaker as too extreme.
“Has this been about a focus of House Republicans to find the person who can pass their extreme litmus test to oppose marriage equality, enact a nationwide abortion ban without exceptions, gut Social Security and Medicare, and support overturning a fair and free election?” Aguilar asked in October as House Republicans nominated Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., to be speaker. “It’s a fair question,” he said to Republican boos.
Aguilar, who became a household name last year after Pelosi tapped him to serve on the House January 6th Committee, has continued to call out what he sees as extremism. When Republicans nominated Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, to be speaker, Aguilar called him a “Donald Trump-endorsed MAGA darling.”
Does he see a difference between Jordan and Johnson?
“Well, Donald Trump doesn’t, and I think that's very informative. I mean, he calls Speaker Johnson ‘MAGA Mike,’ and it seems like he's proud of that term,” said Aguilar. “This is somebody who believes in banning abortion without exceptions. This is somebody who's taken extreme positions, including being the architect of the legal strategy here in the house, that would set aside our democracy during a critical time on January 6. And so those are the things that are very scary to a lot of us.”
Clark, who worked alongside Aguilar on the House Appropriations committee before they became a part of the leadership team, praised Aguilar’s “amazing and critical work,” on the January 6th committee, calling him a “skilled leader” who helps keep the caucus together.
“He's hard working, he's committed. And he brings a real warmth and sense of humor to everything he does. And that's what makes him a leader that stands out. And it's the exact type of leader we need in these times where we have divisions, and we have politicians and the Republican Party who have fallen into extremism,” said Clark.
“To have Pete, who's this force of being centered in his work for the people being really smart about how he approaches policy and doing it all with a warmth and a sense of humor that keeps everyone spirits lifted, is really a unique and special gift that he brings to his leadership role.”
Last month, Aguilar’s sense of humor was on full display, when McCarthy called out Aguilar’s legislative record in response to Aguilar’s criticism of Rep. Jordan’s legislative accomplishments. “Mr. Aguilar has a whopping one whole bill signed into law, a post office in San Bernardino. I guess that’s good enough to be caucus chair!” said McCarthy to cheers, with Aguilar laughing at the former speaker’s remarks.
Aguilar, who has been a member of Congress since 2015, has four bills signed into law, including the renaming of the post office. His latest piece of legislation, the Wounded Warrior Access Act, was signed into law by President Biden earlier this week.
“I think Kevin McCarthy was feeling a little bested by Pete,” Clark said of McCarthy’s speech. “He is one of these leaders that we need for this time, always open for a bipartisan solution, but never willing to compromise on the core values that he has.”
Crossing the aisle
For Aguilar, the former mayor of Redlands, California, the first year on the job as conference chair has brought its own share of surprises — including nominating Minority Leader Jeffries for speaker multiple times this year.
“The truth is, I didn't know that that came with the job at all,” Aguilar said with a laugh. “With the Republican chaos and confusion, I've fortunately had an opportunity to highlight and to lift up who Hakeem Jeffries is, and also shine a bright light on the differences between the parties.”
“We should have a substantive discussion about ideas and the differences that we have,” added Aguilar. “That doesn't mean that my Republican colleagues come from a bad place — we're friends behind the scenes. But we have very big differences in how we want to guide the operations of the house and where we want to take this country.”
One of his colleagues across the aisle, fellow appropriations committee member Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., told Spectrum News in a statement that Aguilar is “a great friend and a person I can work with across the aisle.”
“We can have our differences with respect and dignity, the way it used to be in Congress,” Womack added. “I value my working relationship with him because I know it’s genuine.”
Aguilar has his sights focused on working to keep the conference united, and promoting the work of Democrats as the 2024 election approaches. “We are so proud of the Biden-Harris administration, and the partners that they have been in passing the CHIPS and Science Act, a bipartisan infrastructure bill, all of these landmark pieces of legislation that Joe Biden had his fingerprints on.”
As for those polls that say Biden is losing support with Latino voters, the highest ranking Latino in Congress doesn’t buy it.
“I think the Latino dream is the American dream, and it's a better quality of life for our kids. It's clean air and clean water, safe communities, safe streets, good schools — those are things that the Latino community wants — and those are things that thankfully, the Biden-Harris administration wants to invest in,” he said.
“I do think that there's always an opportunity to get in front of our voters to get in front of our constituents, and the Latino community and to share exactly what we've done,” he added. “So rather than treating people as just ‘of course, they're going to be with us,’ we need to convince them and we need to talk with them. And we need to engage with them about what we've done.”
“He doesn't hesitate to tell it the way it is, and that's what I like about the guy. He's many times unfiltered, he'll tell you what he thinks, but that's good, you want some transparency when you're negotiating with somebody, you want them to tell you exactly where they're coming from, so you can better get to the point where you want to get faster,” said Correa.
“He's got a good head on his shoulders, and I think Petey’s not done. Petey’s going places,” added Correa.