A few months after she was elected in 2020, Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh, the first Republican Latina senator in state history, considered joining the California Latino Legislative Caucus.
It seemed only natural, she said.
Ochoa Bogh had spent half her youth in Mexico. Her first language was Spanish. And she was raised by parents who immigrated to the United States to achieve the “American Dream.”
But Ochoa Bogh soon learned that Republican legislators, regardless of Latino ethnicity, are barred from joining the caucus.
“It came with an irony because traditionally Democrats speak of equality and opportunity and they’re not allowing all Latinos,” she said.
Democratic lawmakers created the caucus 50 years ago and excluded Republicans from the beginning. It is one of two ethnic caucuses in the California Legislature that prevent GOP members from joining, and the policy has been a point of contention from time to time when multiple Hispanic Republicans win state office.
The one-party dynamic works, Democratic members say. The caucus, now at a record 35 members, is influential in the Legislature and has racked up a series of major wins over the last decade, including building a social safety net for the state’s roughly 2.3 million undocumented immigrants.
“For 50 years, the California Latino Legislative Caucus has advocated for the nearly 16 million Latinos in California,” said Assemblywoman Sabrina Cervantes, chair of the caucus, in an email statement. “The CLLC will continue as our founding memberships’ precedent set forth.”
But critics denounce the membership policy as a relic of past time, arguing it fails to reflect the diversity of opinions among California Latinos.
“It’s problematic because the Democratic Party is no more the home for Latinos than the Republican Party is the home for Christians…It’s damaging to democracy while creating some very narrow policy focus,” said Mike Madrid, a Republican Latino voting trends expert.
Ochoa Bogh renewed the debate just as the state’s Republican party made inroads with conservative Hispanic leaders. GOP Assembly members Juan Alanis of Modesto, Kate Sanchez of Orange County and Josh Hoover of Folsom secured wins in the midterm election, growing the number of Latino Republicans in the Legislature to four.
The three new Assembly members expressed interest in learning more about the Latino Caucus, but stopped short of saying they would join if welcomed. They mark the largest bloc of Hispanic Republicans in the Legislature in nearly 20 years.
“Unfortunately, Latino voices have been excluded from the conversation and left out of the Latino Caucus because of party registration,” said Alanis in an email statement.
Caucus has rejected Republicans before
Ochoa Bogh was not the first Republican to inquire about the Latino Caucus.
In 1996, Rod Pacheco became the first Latino Republican elected in more than a century. Two years later, three more Republican lawmakers joined him: Bob Pacheco, Abel Maldonaldo and Charlene Zettel.
All four legislators were turned away from the caucus.
Bob Pacheco recalled feeling disappointed, given that as Latino lawmakers they “shared common bonds.”
“I was naive enough at that time as a new legislator to believe that we could all do things together,” he said.
The four lawmakers formed a Hispanic Republican Caucus which received some funding from the Latino Caucus. The group was short-lived, eventually dispersing in the mid-2000s from a lack of members.
In 2014, the caucus’ policy made headlines again when former Assemblyman Republican Rocky Chavez shared that a request to join was met with silence. A fellow Republican, former Sen. Joel Anderson, later asked the state attorney general to investigate the group’s membership policies.
A response, signed by then-Attorney General Kamala Harris, said “we have reviewed the matter but found no legal prohibition against the practice.” The investigation also found no legal requirement that the caucus include the word “Democratic” in the name.
Ochoa Bogh contends the name of the caucus is misleading.
“It creates a false pretense as to what it symbolizes because it’s really the Democrat California, Latino Legislative Caucus,” Ochoa Bogh said.
The official state website for the caucus says it seeks to “promote legislation and policies that have a direct and meaningful impact on Latinos from all walks of life.”
Of the 13 non-party caucuses, the Latino and Asian American & Pacific Islander caucuses are the only two that explicitly block Republicans. Other caucuses are not currently bi-partisan, but they do not have bylaws limiting members.
Anti-immigrant initiatives motivated Democrats
Madrid called Republican exclusion a “relic of the post-187 era.”
He’s referring to a set of anti-immigrant laws and initiatives that California Republicans put forward in the 1990s, alienating Latino voters.
In 1994, voters approved Proposition 187, which sought to ban immigrants from receiving social services, health care and education. Legal challenges prevented the law from taking effect, but more measures followed, including Proposition 209, prohibiting affirmative action, and Proposition 227, an effort to end bilingual education.
The measures inspired a wave of young Latino Democrats to get involved in politics. Many current and past members of the Latino Caucus have stated Prop. 187 marked the start of their political activism.
“There was a whole generation that came up whose identity was anti-Republican, and for very good reason,” Madrid said. “But that generation is no longer though.”
Madrid cited recent trends that show Republicans have a new, higher level of support from Latinos. He also said the caucus would benefit from a diversity of opinions and pointed to the lack of a true Latino agenda in the state.
Madrid argues that progressive Latino lawmakers have been focused on outdated policy, such as farmworker bills, for decades.
“They can’t build a vision bigger than that because they view the world through a partisan lens,” Madrid said.
Is it time for a new membership policy?
The Latino Caucus has occasionally expanded beyond only Democratic members.
In 2009, former Assemblyman Juan Arambula of Fresno broke the caucus precedent and became an independent. Arambula had spent five years as a Democrat, but left while the Legislature was fighting over how to close a multi-billion-dollar budget gap. He had voted with Democrats on many, but not all, of the budget bills that ended the crisis. Arambula also felt a non-partisan affiliation would better represent his moderate Central Valley constituents.
The caucus allowed Arambula to continue being a member until his term ended in 2010. That’s despite then-Assembly Speaker Karen Bass stripping him of chairmanship on the Public Safety Committee in retaliation for changing parties.
Arambula could not recall if the caucus discussed his membership, saying the topic was hardly breached during those times. But Arambula said a renewed discussion might be warranted given increased interest and newly elected Republican Latinos.
“If it was me, I would be open,” Arambula said. “But I would be concerned about Republican members trying to inject partisan politics into ethnic issues…Will these new Republican Latino members be willing to look at Latino community issues? I don’t know.”