Top Democrat who leads Hispanic conference under fire
The Washington Post February 11, 2023
Rep. Nanette Barragán, D-Calif., is under fire for failing to retain staff after barely a month leading the Congressional Hispanic Caucus as their newly elected chairwoman.
On Thursday, Barragán fired the group's executive director, Jacky Usyk, a widely respected Capitol Hill veteran who had only been in the role for one month. The CHC now has no staffers on its typical five-person payroll after all staff quit or found new jobs, leaving Barragán unable to recruit new talent. She has a reputation as a difficult boss who has long faced accusations about how poorly she treats employees, according to numerous lawmakers and staffers.
"Jacky is no longer with the CHC. We wish her well in her future endeavors. We do not comment on internal confidential personnel matters," Barragán said in a statement. Usyk did not respond to a request for comment.
The firing comes amid concerns among many Hispanic Democratic members about Barragán's leadership ability. The lack of staffing can severely hamper the CHC's growing influence within the Democratic caucus, especially as more Hispanic Democrats have entered the ranks and previous leaders had worked to legitimize the group as a core decision-making bloc on Capitol Hill.
Roughly a dozen lawmakers and senior aides familiar with the CHC's operations spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the group's inner workings and how it plans to rebound.
Multiple people familiar with the CHC's operations said staffers who worked for the group under the previous chair, Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., quit at the end of last term once Barragán was elected. Former executive director Stephanie Palencia was so alarmed by the possibility of Barragán becoming chair that she looked for other jobs, according to two senior aides. Minority Leader Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., hired Palencia as his outreach director.
"She lost two ED's in one month," one senior Democratic aide said.
Christie Stephenson, Jeffries's communications director, said the office recruited Palencia in late 2022 to join his new leadership office because "of our close working relationship with her in her capacity as CHC ED."
News of Usyk's firing first broke on "Dear White Staffers," an Instagram account that gained traction last year for broadcasting anonymous posts submitted by Capitol Hill staffers regarding workplace abuses.
Usyk's ouster was over a mundane email she sent about the House and Senate floor schedule that Barragán was not happy about, according to a person familiar with the dynamics of the CHC.
According to Legistorm, which collects workplace data on each House and Senate office, including ideological and cultural conferences, Barragán was ranked as the third "worst boss" in the House last year, which is defines as a member who gets "a reputation for being hard to work for, whether due to anger management, shady ethics, poor pay, demanding too much or creating a toxic work environment."
Her reputation led the Congressional Hispanic Staff Association, which works to recruit and mentor Latino staffers, to warn prospective employees that working for Barragán is exceedingly difficult, according to two aides familiar with the situation. Usyk was unable to fill key positions such as communications director or policy director during her short tenure in part because of Barragán's reputation, according to two others.
CHC leaders had previously skipped over her in order of succession to elect Ruiz to lead the caucus during the 117th Congress. The CHC decided to overlook her reputation this term to avoid passing over a Latina twice, according to four people familiar. Barragán used that argument to make her case to lead the caucus, too, according to people familiar with the situation.
Conversations are ongoing among CHC members and staff on next steps. While undecided, options include the possibility of removing Barragán as chair by either convincing her to step down or changing the bylaws to weaken the power of the chair, including by spreading out hiring and firing decisions to multiple people. Another option is keeping her as a figurehead and having a shadow staff that runs the CHC under the leadership of another office.
Members are expected to discuss the possibilities in a virtual meeting sometime soon, given that the House will not convene in Washington until the end of the month, according to two people familiar with the plans. If Barragán is removed, Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.) is next in line to assume the position.
As of Thursday, Barragán's press secretary from her personal office was sending out news releases and was listed as the "CHC Press Contact."
The CHC has worked to gain more prominence within the Democratic caucus and become an influential bloc, like the Congressional Black Caucus, as its ranks continue to expand. The group welcomed nine new lawmakers this year, bringing it to a record 42 members. The Republican Congressional Hispanic Conference now boasts 18 lawmakers, seven of whom are new.
Lack of staffing is a grave impediment for any conference, as they are often responsible for even the most basic tasks, such as organizing meetings for members and passing motions that become a platform for the group.
More importantly, it could impede coordination with the Biden administration. Last Congress, members met often with President Biden and other Cabinet officials to craft responses on numerous issues.
The CHC has been unable to release its main goals for this year given the distractions that have plagued the office so far, according to several aides familiar with the situation. It has delayed crucial conversations lawmakers would like to have as the Biden administration weighs how to mitigate the crisis at the border while the House Republican majority tries to propose its own solutions, aides said.
Members felt more confident that the CHC could survive Barragán's unpredictable leadership when Usyk, a highly sought-after Hill veteran, was convinced to take the executive director role, according to three people familiar with the situation. Having previously run the leadership team for Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., members and aides believed she would be great for growing the caucus even though Democrats are now in the minority.
Immediately after starting in January, Usyk realized the challenges of the job under Barragán, but Usyk was determined to stay until she was fired on Thursday, according to one of those people. Isabel Sanchez, the CHC's policy director, left the office on Wednesday.