Eight years in a row, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., tried and failed to get a commemorative resolution passed for the legendary labor leader Cesar Chavez.
Among the 427 resolutions that Congress has passed so far this session is one congratulating Sporting Kansas City for winning the Major League Soccer Cup in 2013. Others honor the life and legacy of Czech President Vaclav Havel, South Africa President Nelson Mandela and the Mayo Clinic. Another designates Feb. 28 as “Rare Disease Day” and yet another says March 11 is “World Plumbing Day.”
One might reasonably conclude that senators will support a feel-good resolution honoring just about anyone or anything.
Perhaps that is what Menendez thought the first time he tried to get the Senate to support a commemorative resolution honoring the Central Valley’s legendary labor leader on the anniversary of his birth, March 31. Or even the second time.
But by this year – the eighth time Menendez failed to get support from any Republican senators for his resolution – it must have been crystal clear that some people and topics are just too touchy for today’s hyper-partisan political landscape.
Monday, Menendez decided not to let another year pass without a fight, according to his staff – especially given the release of the Chavez biopic a few days earlier. He called out the opponents of this resolution publicly on the Senate floor. The result was a few minutes of absurdist political theater in which Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama tried to insert politically charged language into the otherwise innocuous symbolic document and Menendez protested.
“This is not about Cesar Chavez,” Menendez said of the amended language in an impromptu floor debate Monday, which is available for viewing at Youtube.com. “This is about immigration.”
Indeed, it was. Sessions, on behalf of Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, asked for an amendment of the largely biographical text stating that Chavez “strongly believed in enforcing immigration law” and that he supported a secure southern border with Mexico and encouraged members of the United Farm Workers to report instances of undocumented laborers.
These things are not untrue, but certainly taken out of the historical context in which they occurred. More importantly, it’s not at all relevant to today’s debate over immigration reform.
But it seems Sessions and Vitter weren’t concerned about historical accuracy so much as scoring points early into what is expected to be a nasty mid-term election cycle that could put Republicans in control of the Senate. Sessions is running for re-election and Vitter is running for governor in his home state.
The treatment of a legitimate American hero illustrates why the GOP continues to repel Latino voters. Why pick a fight over an essentially meaningless commemoration for a revered Mexican-American? If they had just let this resolution go, like the one for Nelson Mandela or World Plumbing Day, no one would have paid much attention.
As it is, this spat has not gone unnoticed. The story was carried by Los Angeles-based La Opinion, the largest Spanish-language daily newspaper in the country, as well as Fox News Latino and Politico.
Vitter and Sessions’ petty politics might have played well with their base, but the incident has only deepened the mistrust of the Republican Party from the country’s growing Latino population.