Latino Factor: Changing the Face of Politics

September 29, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Much is being made these days of the potential power of the Latino vote, both here in California and on the national stage.

Political strategists point to the role Latinos played 8 years ago in tipping the presidential race in Barack Obama’s favor, and continue to say that if Latinos register and show up to vote they could again have sway in the 2016 Presidential Election pitting GOP candidate Donald Trump against Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Click here to read Part 2 of Latino Factor: Changing the Face of Politics

At more than 57 million strong, or nearly 18% of the total U.S. population, and with the largest growth in recent years taking place in areas that according to the Pew Research Center previously had very few Latinos, like North Dakota, there’s good reason to see political opportunity.

But it wasn’t too long ago that the influence of Latinos was more dream than reality. Latino elected officials were rare and for many Latino political and civil rights activists the most important credentials for a candidate was that they have a Spanish surname and be a Democrat, and you always supported the Latino in the race. And for more than a decade, immigration has been the top issue in nearly every campaign to reach Latinos.

For this two-part story on the influence of Latinos in politics today, EGP reached out to a number of Latino elected officials from California to get their views. What we repeatedly heard is that there has been progress, but there’s still a long way to go. We also heard that immigration will continue to be an important issue to Latinos, but these days “every issue is a Latino issue.” And while being Latino is important, in the political arena it alone may no longer be cause for endorsement.

 

To Understand the Present, You Have to Know the Past

Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard, the first Mexican-American woman elected to Congress, is excited to see the new batch of Hispanic leaders on both sides of the aisle in Congress.

She just hopes these new lawmakers understand the discrimination their predecessors faced, the struggles to get Latinos elected in the first place, and the significance of having one of their own sitting at the table where the country’s most important decisions and policies are made.

“We must not forget the past, we must not take for granted the struggles of those before us and revisit our history,” she told EGP. “Don’t forget there were once signs that read ‘no dogs, no Negros, no Mexicans.”

Roybal-Allard witnessed first hand the discrimination against Latinos brave enough to run for office, and determined to pave the way for future leaders despite their poor treatment. Her father, Edward R. Roybal, the first Latino elected to the Los Angeles City Council and one of the first Latinos to represent California in Congress, was one of them.

U.S. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, with her late father Rep. Roybal R. Roybal during a committee hearing. (Courtesy of Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard)

U.S. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, with her late father Rep. Edward R. Roybal during a committee hearing. (Courtesy of Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard)

Getting elected at a time when many people would just vote against a candidate because they were Hispanic was difficult, and it took a strong grassroots effort in the Latino community and help from labor unions to win Roybal a seat on the LA City Council. Even then, he was not treated as an equal because of his Mexican heritage. The discrimination continued when he was elected to the Congress, and invitations were not extended his way.

“We would go to places and people would spit on us and tell us to go back where we came from,” she recalled, noting that his position was no guarantee they would be treated with respect.

But he persevered and during his 30 years in Congress, Roybal co-founded and chaired the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and chaired a powerful Appropriations subcommittee, and always advocated for Latinos.

Roybal-Allard had her own encounters with discrimination as an elected official. She told EGP that during the early 1990s she and the other Latinas in Congress were routinely stopped at the door of the House of Representatives, the assumption being they could not possibly be members of Congress.

“Many of my colleagues didn’t know what it meant to be Hispanic,” Roybal-Allard said, pointing out that African-Americans were the only minority some of her Congressional colleagues had ever met.

“Absolutely we have made some progress, but we still have a long way to go,” she added.

As a female, minority and often the youngest person in the room, Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis says she faced similar obstacles on her way to the White House.

Her high school counselor advised her to skip college and to go work as a secretary, ironically, years later she would became the first Latina to serve as Secretary of Labor, appointed by President Barack Obama. In another first, Solis was the first Latina elected to the California Senate.

“People underestimate you,” she told EGP, referring to those who doubted her capabilities. “I was fortunate, to always resist that.”

Congressman Xavier Becerra is the first Latino to serve on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and is today the highest-ranking Latino in Congress. He told EGP there were only a handful of Latinos in Congress when he was first elected in 1992. Latino leaders used to feel like outsiders, he recalled. “To have a Latino in a high office was a very proud moment.”

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, the first Latino and youngest person elected president of the Los Angeles City Council, told EGP that the rhetoric in this year’s presidential campaign reminds him of the political climate that existed in 1994 when Proposition 187 – which proposed to prohibit undocumented immigrants from receiving public benefits ¬– was on the ballot.

It was then, years before he ran for office, that he says he realized it wasn’t easy for Latinos in government.

Although both sides of the aisle are now courting Latinos, for too long Latinos were often on the outside, says Becerra.

“A lot of us worked within the system with the perspective of being outsiders,” he said. “It’s changing and now we are seeing what it feels like to be included.”

 

Wider Influence Today

Republican and Democratic political pundits and strategist across the country have repeatedly said that winning the 2016 Presidential Election will require winning a majority of Latino votes.

Yet one need only look at the number of “political firsts” in recent years – Sonia Sotomayor’s becoming the first Latina on the U.S. Supreme Court, Antonio Villaraigosa’s election as Los Angeles’ first Latino mayor in over a hundred years, and for the first time in modern history, Latinos now hold the top two leadership roles in the California Legislature – to understand the relative newness of Latino political influence at the ballot box.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis pictured with President Barrack Obama and other White House officials during her time as Secretary of Labor. Solis was the first Latina to serve on a President’s Cabinet. (Courtesy of Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis )

Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis pictured with President Barrack Obama and other White House officials during her time as Secretary of Labor. Solis was the first Latina to serve on a President’s Cabinet. (Courtesy of Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis )

All the Latino leaders we interviewed, however, said you have to celebrate these milestones, not just look at the deficits.

As an example, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro, Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez and Congressman Becerra were all touted as possible running mates for Hillary Clinton.

More Latinos now serve on the most powerful congressional committees that decide which bills move forward and get funding, and in the case of Roybal-Allard, the ranking member on the House Homeland Security Appropriations Committee, how we will pay for our national security.

Only 37 of the 535 members of Congress are Latino, but according to Roybal-Allard, many of them are better prepared for the rigors of the office then their predecessors.

“The more Latinos get elected the more input and influence we have on policy,” she stresses, adding that the hope is more Latinos will be elected in November.

In California, where about 15 million Latinos call home and make up 39 percent of the population, many leaders still see Latinos as “underrepresented.” Of the 120 members in the Assembly and Senate, only 22 are Latino. However, the leaders of both bodies are Latino: Senate Pro Tem Kevin de Leon and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon.

But the small number does make it harder for “for us to be a voice for Latinos,” says Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, who represents a number of Latino majority cities in southeastern Los Angeles County, including Bell Garden and Commerce. “We need to be at the table,” she said, explaining her desire to see more Latinos and Latinas elected to office.

“It’s helpful to our community when we have people that have personal experience with the needs of our areas,” agrees Roybal-Allard.

Which leads back to the belief that every issue is a Latino issue.

“Latinos are not just interested in immigration,” emphasizes Roybal-Allard. “Latinos care about all issues.”

There is no difference between what a Latino wants and what their non-Latino counterparts demand from the government, says Becerra.

“They want a good job, good education and a safe place to live,” he told EGP.

Roybal-Allard believes that in some states where the Latino population is growing, fear and misunderstanding are contributing to the mistaken belief that Latinos will only fight for their interests, and somehow those interests are different.

Solis acknowledges she acts as voice and advocate for the Latino community in Los Angeles County. She points out, however, that the issues and policies she has fought for, including increasing the minimum wage, enforcement of wage theft laws and for environmental justice, do not only help Latinos, but everyone.

“Every issue is a Latino issue,” says Rep. Loretta Sanchez. “I don’t think our agenda is any different or should be defined by immigration.”

 

 

In part 2 of this two-part series, EGP will delve deeper into the November election and the potential of the Latino vote.

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