Pete Aguilar bets on the House

“I’m happy to just be someone who’s committed to the House and wants to be here. I want to make a difference. I want to help the caucus deliver for the country,” he said in a recent interview.

Of course, that team-player energy is itself strategically valuable. Aguilar is widely viewed as likely to move up from the No. 6 spot when leadership vacancies arise, and his easygoing approach is advantageous in a caucus where it’s risky to openly discuss potential leadership races before any of the current leaders entertain their own future retirements.

Part of Aguilar’s appeal is that he’s a genuinely nice guy, fellow Democrats say. He pitched in the Congressional Baseball Game, brought soup to Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) during a battle with Covid and showed newer arrivals like Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) the ropes on the complex Appropriations panel.

But he’s also clear-eyed about the natural limits of his own path, identifying squarely as a House guy while other political animals try to hop to the Senate, gubernatorial or executive-branch species.

“I think that there’s benefit to being a relatively junior House member from California,” he said. “From where I’m from, in the shadows of Los Angeles … nobody from my neck of the woods runs for statewide office, so that door has been closed.”

The former mayor who flipped a Republican-held seat in 2014 has since used his opportunities to quiet but undeniable effect. Aguilar sits on key panels that manage the House’s inner workings, appropriate funds, and investigate the Capitol riot. His central role in a bipartisan immigration reform push in 2018 won plaudits from other Democrats, even though the underlying talks never bore fruit.

Those immigration negotiations illustrate that Aguilar’s charm isn’t limited to other Democrats. He worked alongside then-Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas) on a comprehensive immigration measure, and the now-retired Texan recalled Aguilar’s style and tactics endearing him to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

“He’s an unbelievable vote counter, too,” Hurd said in an interview. “I was pretty shocked at his level of understanding of a whip count not just on the Democratic side, but on the Republican side, too.”

The two got so close it became a running joke in the House that year that Aguilar’s first name was Hurd, “because people always said like, ‘you got to sign on to Hurd-Aguilar,’” remembered Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.). “They worked so well together, people thought his first name was Hurd.”

He’s kept up the immigration advocacy since then even as legislative avenues for any major agreement remain elusive. House-passed immigration bills have stalled out in the Senate throughout this Congress, and efforts to include immigration legislation in a filibuster-proof party-line vehicle have faltered.

Still, Aguilar helped orchestrate a discussion session on immigration at the Democratic retreat in Philadelphia in an effort to bring together different ideological camps of the caucus on a policy important to his own community. He’s the highest-ranking Latino member in a chamber that’s seen plenty of other rising Latino leaders leave to pursue higher-profile offices — like New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.).

And when Aguilar commits, he goes all-in. He views himself as a bridge across different factions of the caucus, an attitude that Porter described as a contrast to the “‘it’s my turn’ mentality that can sometimes be present in institutions like Congress.”

“He really earns his turn,” she added of her caucus ally, who’s also close to their fellow Californian, Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), a Congressional Baseball teammate of Aguilar’s who’s leaving the House to run for Senate, agreed with that assessment as he subtly alluded to his friend’s continued rise: “He’s given me money for my race for Senate and didn’t really have to. I’m not going to be able to vote for him in any future leadership position, one way or another,” Ryan said. “But he believes in the cause.”

Aguilar’s cross-caucus diplomacy skills are now on full display as he uses his leadership role to help House Democrats more effectively message the goals of the Jan. 6 select panel. He frequently uses his time at press conferences and bigger meetings to communicate what the House’s insurrection investigators are up to.

But even a lawmaker prepared to stay put, minority or majority, finds himself disheartened every now and again. Aguilar admitted that, as much as he tries to stay progress-minded on immigration, he’s sometimes rattled by the slow pace of change there.

“I’m an eternal optimist. But of course, there’s frustration at times,” he said.

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