Where are the Latino leaders?
With more than 13 million Latinos expected to cast ballots this year, the question of who they will be electing comes up again and again for both Republicans and Democrats.
The issue is not just a presidential one. While more Latinos hold elected office now compared to any other time in history, they are underrepresented at both the state and national levels.
“There is a perception we only care about immigration,” says former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.
Despite making up 17 percent of the total population in the United States, only 6,200 Latinos are in positions of leadership, according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO). This lack of representation might account for Latinos’ disinterest in the upcoming election. For example, only 3 percent of eligible Latinos are registered to vote in Pennsylvania, according to NALEO.
Part of NALEO’s mission is not only to energize the Spanish-speaking electorate, but also to promote and elevate Latino leadership. Sure, there are the big names people already know: Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. Marco Rubio and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, whose brother, Joaquin, is the state representative for Texas’ 20th congressional district. But what about smaller, more local races?
Latinos have entered contests in Southern and Central California, Texas, Florida, New York and Nevada. In Pennsylvania, a largely rural state with two disparate city centers, Anglo candidates still overwhelmingly beat out any other ethnic candidate despite an uptick in Spanish-speaking residents throughout the state.
“We’re not a blanket community for one party,” Richardson says.
Latinos frequently sit in the center of the political divide, and are as concerned about education, wage equality and healthcare as any other citizen in the United States. Yet Latino leaders are frequently elevated to positions dealing with immigration or poverty.
“The fact that we have three cabinet members right now who are Latino, to me that is a benchmark,” Vargas says. “We’re looking for policymakers, people who can move forward this country.”
At least two of those cabinet members were said to be on Clinton’s short list for a running mate. They included Labor Secretary Tom Perez and Julian Castro. Garcetti and House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra were also among those up for the title of second in command. In the end, Clinton picked “honorary Latino” Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat who speaks Spanish:
“We’re front and center in this election – for better or worse – forcing candidates to take stances on issues most important to our community,” says California State Secretary Alex Padilla. “We have to inspire [our voters] in some way shape or form.”
Padilla recalls his parents rarely talking about politics while he was growing up in Panorama City, Calif. They weren’t citizens and couldn’t vote until they were naturalized when Padilla was well into his 20s. Like other immigrants, Padilla’s parents felt both powerless and disenfranchised. Their citizenship status acted as a kind of civic gag that prevented their participation.
Giving a voice to the powerless is something the Bernie Sanders campaign got right. Even on the second day of the Democratic National Convention, Bernie or Bust supporters are occupying parts of Center City. It’s that kind of energy currently missing from the political landscape that is negatively impacting both Latinos and their representatives.
“Parties don’t do enough to support leadership in our community,” Vargas says. “We need more crossover candidates. The mayor of Los Angeles is a good example.”
But Garcetti insists the question is not how Latinos can win elections, but instead how current leadership can inspire new generations.
“How we govern in between is what counts,” he says.
Latinos are rarely appointed to economic, trade, defense or foreign policy positions at the highest level of leadership. At the state and local levels, Latinos have a better shot at gaining seats, but most of those seats remain in jurisdictions with high Latino populations – California, Texas and Nevada.
“Latinos don’t have big names, so it becomes a challenge,” says Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who is the city’s second consecutive Latino mayor.
“We still have candidates that are getting comfortable with the Latino community. We’re not seeing leaders who can take cabinet positions more than one or two at a time.”