Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-California) was elected mayor of Redlands, his hometown in San Bernardino County, at age 31. He came to Congress at age 36. Now, at 43, he is the third largest House Democrat.
And as his party tries to claw back a majority next year, he is embracing a new role: mentor, guide and, he hopes, eventually leader of the next generation of California Democrats emerging and arriving in Washington.
Aguilar creates a new fundraising arm, the California House Majority Fund, to protect Democratic-held seats in the state and unseat the five California districts represented by Republicans who also voted for President Joe Biden in 2020. Aguilar will pool donor money and then release the money next year after it becomes clear who the Democratic flag bearer is in each seat.
Beyond the financial aid, he wants to act as a sherpa for the candidates, helping them navigate politics and politics throughout the general election. “They’ll know how to find me, I’ll go to these neighborhoods,” Aguilar told me, joking that he was looking forward to playing the role of Congressional rabbi even though he was “raised a Catholic.”
With Democrats only needing five seats to retake the House, a majority could effectively be determined when the votes are all counted in California, raising the stakes for Aguilar’s intervention.
His step forward, however, goes far beyond simply maximizing his party’s collections in California.
After a generation of outsized influence in Washington, the California Democrats are in decline. Their powerful senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, are no more, with Boxer retired and Feinstein suffering a painful public decline on his way to his own retirement after next year. Home luminaries like Henry Waxman, George Miller and Jane Harman headed for the exits a long time ago. And many of their contemporaries in the 70-plus category — lawmakers like Maxine Waters, Zoe Lofgren and Mike Thompson — find themselves in the minority and without the committee hammers they naturally need at this point in their careers.
Additionally, the Democratic leaders in both houses of Congress are New Yorkers and the Democrat in the White House is also from the Northeast and does not have the affinity for California (or the wider Pacific) of other recent party presidents.
Most significant for California, of course, was Nancy Pelosi’s decision last year to step down from the leadership after the Democrats lost a majority. It’s impossible to overstate the role she’s played in her home state over her two decades as a leader or speaker, whether with fundraising, mentorship or perhaps her favorite role. , appropriating money for California projects. There was no discussion of who led the delegation from the largest US state.
That could soon change, and especially if Pelosi is joined by her longtime lieutenants, lawmakers like Lofgren, Thompson and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.).
While remaining in Congress, at least during this term, Pelosi’s rise to emeritus status has raised the question of who will take her place when she retires, not as Gentlelady of San Francisco, but as Patroness of California in Washington.
Aguilar’s decision to take command of home racing next year makes it clear that he would like the position. Affable and respectful of his elders and his seniority, he nevertheless takes care to be cautious.
“I enjoyed learning from her, spending time with her, watching her build relationships,” Aguilar said of Pelosi, adding, “Nobody’s going to recreate that in four months.”
Working in his favor is that Pelosi is delighted with Aguilar’s rise, claiming pride in his political parentage in his career.
The Distinguished Speaker, as she now goes, was eager to discuss her rise.
Pelosi reminded me that she made sure Aguilar “got exposure to some of our Southern California folks” when he first ran and lost for a seat at the House in 2012.
She nurtured his ambitions soon after he was elected to the House on his second attempt in 2014, helping him secure a seat on the appropriations committee in his second term only, then in 2021 appointing him to the committee of inquiry. on January 6.e attack on the Capitol, a nomination she called “a real recognition of the value we place on his leadership.”
Pelosi doesn’t respond directly when asked if she’s handing over the California baton to Aguilar, but she gives him the praise.
“He’s got all the talent, he’s articulate and eloquent, he’s values-based, he knows the subject,” she said.
There is more, however.
Pelosi has a special affinity for Aguilar because, like her brother and father, he once served as mayor and because, like her and her father, he is a possessor. He views appropriations with the reverence that is apparently bestowed on all members of a committee traditionally large enough that it is only half-jokingly called one-third of Congress.
“When I was little my dad was in Congress, when I was a baby I remember him saying when I was 2 or 3 years old, ‘I’m a member of the all-powerful appropriations committee,’ recalls she .. “I loved being there myself and I love that Pete understands that this is such an important committee.”
There’s another reason, though, why Pelosi is so enamored with Aguilar — he’s a House guy.
Top talent from both parties is now increasingly leaving the restless House, either out of frustration or ambition, rather than making a career there in the style of, well, Nancy Pelosi, who came to the House in 1987 , acquired seniority and never left.
Look no further than the vaunted Class of 2018 Democrats, the group that returned Pelosi to the presidency: Some of the brightest lights are already vying for the Senate (Colin Allred (D-Texas), Katie Porter (D -Calif.) and Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.)) and others are considering governorships (Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) and Mikie Sherrill (DN.J.)).
House members, Pelosi said, “either they come to pledge to stay or they come to use it as a springboard for something else.”
The problem literally, literally gets to her, which is why she’s excited about Aguilar, who is of Mexican descent.
Pelosi recalled California Democrats like Hilda Solis and Janice Hahn who left the House — they are both now on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, itself an influential perch — despite his pleadings.
“I’ve had instances of me saying, ‘Oh please don’t go,’ whether it’s female or minority or something because we’re working hard to increase our diversity” , she said.
Aguilar sees his future in the Chamber. “That’s where I want to be,” he said.
He’s not denying designs one day following Pelosi’s path to the presidency – “you never know what the future holds” – but for now dutifully says he wants “a front row seat for Hakeem to be the speaker,” alluding to House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries.
The road to a Jeffries presidency goes through California and New York. Eleven of Biden’s 18 House Republicans have hauled hail from those two states, making the two coastal population centers a crucial battleground for control of the chamber (And Jeffries, too, is intimately involved in efforts to his home state to overturn the seats).
For the moment, Aguilar is positioned as well in Washington as in California.
He recalled a recent dinner with some inner circle members of Pelosi Calif., Thompson, Eshoo and Doris Matsui (D-Calif.), who represents the Sacramento area.
“They’re extremely intimidating when you get to Congress,” he said of the group, but he’s now said they’re an invaluable resource for institutional knowledge about California and Washington (not to mention stories about John Burton, the legendary former State Party Speaker and lawmaker whose penchant for profanity surfaced during dinner).
Aguilar also bonded with his own generation of 40-somethings in the California delegation. “He’s able to manage everyone’s competing priorities, holding us together through often turbulent times,” said Rep. Mike Levin (D-California), a member of the Class of 2018 who isn’t looking to leave the House.
Anything but salivating over the seats currently held by California Republicans John Duarte, David Valadao, Mike Garcia, Young Kim and Michelle Steel, whose districts were all carried by Biden, Aguilar recalled his own initial victory and the mindset that Democrats will need to win the districts. “I flipped a seat held by Republicans, I know what they’re going through,” he said.
Aguilar used a speech at last month’s California Democratic convention, where he also featured a video of Pelosi, to proclaim that “the road to House majority begins and ends in California.”
Pelosi is more cautious about California’s role in overthrowing the House, only allowing the state alone “could come very close” to making a difference. She worries about losing seats held by Democrats in other states, recounting her own first rise to power as a lawmaker. It was 2000 and she helped engineer a string of victories in California (including that of another protege, Adam Schiff) to see House Democrats lose ground in other states and stay out of power. for another six years.
Pelosi has already introduced Aguilar, Jeffries and Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), the second House Democrat, to many big California donors and there are plans for another stint across the state.
“I take personal responsibility for having what we need for California” for the election, Pelosi told me.
But she will soon have company, a lawmaker who said he noted some of Pelosi’s maxims and witticisms.