Latinos make up only 1% of all local and federal elected officials, and that’s a big problem

Dianna M. Náñez, USA TODAY

The USA TODAY Network launched a series on the Latino community in the U.S. called Hecho en USA, or made in America. Roughly 80% of all Latinos living in the U.S. are American citizens. But media coverage of Hispanics tends to focus on immigration and crime, instead of how Latino families live, work and learn in their hometowns. Hecho en USA tells the stories of the nation’s 59.9 million Latinos – a growing economic and cultural force, many of whom are increasingly born in the United States.

PHOENIX – Inside a banquet hall at the Corona Ranch and Rodeo Grounds, tired couples and little girls with long braids dance to the easy sway of ranchera music.

Election Day has turned into a sweaty-hot May night in Phoenix, and Carlos Garcia, the candidate everyone is here for, is waiting for the votes to be tallied. Standing under a puffy mulberry tree, he’s listening to campaign supporters swap stories and nursing his beer. 

The historic race is still too close to call. 

If elected, Garcia, a longtime human-rights activist, will become the first Mexican immigrant to serve on the Phoenix City Council. He’ll represent the fifth-largest and fastest-growing city in the nation. He’ll lead a Latino-majority district once known as the segregated part of town where Latinos and black families in Phoenix could own businesses and homes. 

As if to ease nerves, Garcia directs the people crowded around him to a woman whose coal-black hair whispers against her shiny hoop earrings. She’s holding a piggy bank the size of a mango. It's stamped: “Carlos for Phoenix Council District 8.” 

“Tell them about the piggy bank,” Garcia says, nodding at Jacinta Gonzalez. 

In 2016, Garcia, Gonzalez and other protesters set out to block a road leading to a Donald Trump campaign rally outside Phoenix. Gonzalez was arrested – by deputies of then-Sheriff Joe Arpaio, famous for being known as “America’s toughest sheriff” and for being held in criminal contempt of court for ignoring a federal judge’s order to stop racially profiling Latinos. 

After deputies questioned Gonzalez about her citizenship, she sued and won a settlement. And she turned that money into something Garcia desperately needed, the thing many rising Latino candidates lack: campaign funding. 

“We don’t have access to big donors, we don’t have access to corporations that are going to invest in his type of leadership, so we have to find other ways to support,” she says. “And so sometimes that’s litigation, sometimes that’s fundraisers, sometimes that’s car washes. We do whatever we’re able to do, because we need hope and we need the belief that we can actually do things differently. And we can change the culture of how people get to office and what people do when they’re there.”

Despite the nation’s ballooning Hispanic population, Latinos running and winning political offices across the U.S. are too often an anomaly. Even in Hispanic-majority districts, Latinos don’t run or win elections at the rates of their white counterparts, various studies show. Now, candidates such as Garcia – and his supporters – are looking to change that. 

Nationally, there are an estimated 58.9 million Latinos, making up about 18.1% of the U.S. population and accounting for the nation’s second-largest ethnic group, after whites. Yet only about 6,700 elected officials are Latino, according to a 2018 analysis by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, or NALEO. That amounts to a political representation rate of 1.2% in local, state and federal elected offices.

When Garcia made his campaign public, most people didn’t expect him to win, and not just because of his anti-establishment background. Statistics are stacked against outsider Latino candidates as much as they are traditional ones.

But ahead of the 2020 presidential elections, Latinos across the U.S. have rallied against policies and rhetoric they feel target their community and are working to build momentum. Political activists are recruiting Latinx candidates to run in local and federal contests and aiming to win.

Latinos will need more than passion to reach political equity, said Angela Ocampo, a University of Michigan political science professor. Indeed, if Latinos continue to be elected at the same rate as they have in recent years, it will likely be more than 50 years before parity is reached, she said.

“It’s going to take a very long time,” Ocampo said. “It’s even worse when we look at gender, at Latina representation.”

More Latinos running for political office

In recent months, Latinos have been courted to run for congressional seats in Texas, Colorado and New Mexico. At the local level, Regina Romero was elected in early November as the first female mayor of Tucson, Arizona’s second-largest city, making her the only Latina mayor in the 50 largest cities in the U.S. In 2018, Democrat Michelle Luján Grisham, a 12th-generation New Mexican, was elected as the first Latina Democratic governor of New Mexico. She replaced Susana Martinez, a Latina Republican.

Some political analysts are calling it the Trump effect, a backlash against political rhetoric and measures they believe harm Latinos, migrants and people of color. Ahead of 2020 White House and congressional races, that phenomenon could favor Democrats, who historically garner more support from Latino voters.

But for decades, Latino candidates like Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York or Garcia have received sparse support from mainstream political machines.  

Like Garcia, Ocasio-Cortez, a self-identified democratic socialist, built her campaign around community support that few establishment politicos saw coming. The 29-year-old, born in the Bronx, was working in a bar to support her family before she was elected in 2018, becoming the youngest woman in Congress.

Ocasio-Cortez’s ethnicity stands out. There were only four Latino U.S. senators and 34 U.S. representatives as of January 2018, according to NALEO. That number increased slightly after the 2018 election when voters sent four additional Latino members to the House and made the 116th Congress the most representative of Latinos in history. Still, that’s just a fraction of the nation’s 100 senators and 435 representatives. 

Analysts point to varied reasons for the disparity, including policies that suppress the Latino vote and political funding systems that benefit candidates perceived as viable winners, which in many cases are white people picked by top Republican and Democratic party leaders.

“These parties and their donors, they’re very influential, but in many cases, Latinos are receiving limited support from the important actors as they’re trying to launch their campaign,” Ocampo said.

Ocampo analyzed congressional races in Latino-majority districts. She found that even with the majority-minority advantage, electoral success falters. For example, Latinos are the largest ethnic group in California (40%) but make up only 24% of the California Legislature, according to a 2018 Ocampo study. 

And in New York, where Latinos make up about 19% of the population, there are only 20 Latino state legislators, accounting for about 9% of all New York state lawmakers.

The outlook for Latina lawmakers is especially bleak, Ocampo said. Of the 6,749 elected Latino office-holders across local, state and federal levels, only 2,485 were women.

The highest rate of parity by Latino political representation is in Florida and New Mexico. New Mexico has the nation’s highest percentage of the Latino population at 48.8%. In Florida, the state with the sixth-largest Latino population, Latinos represent 26.1% of the population, according to 2018 U.S. Census data. But the state’s estimated 4.8 million Latinos in Florida have benefited from decades of political activism in Cuban, Puerto Rican, Venezuelan and other Hispanic communities largely in Miami that has resulted in an unusual number of Hispanic lawmakers holding local and statewide offices.

Data shows that when candidates of color run, their races draw more voters of color to elections, and those voters are more likely to vote for a candidate from their own racial or ethnic background, said Matt Barreto, a University of California, Los Angeles, professor of political science and Chicana/o studies and co-founder of Latino Decisions, a political research firm.

U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX) (L) and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) face off in a debate at the KENS 5 studios on Oct. 16, 2018 in San Antonio, Texas.

“The research suggests that they aren’t being recruited, they are not being sought out by the Democratic Party or the Republican Party,” he said.

The Latino vote isn’t monolithic, but the growing demographic can wield power in competitive races won by the margins. 

Mark Lopez, a Pew demographer, noted that while Latinos tend to vote at a higher rate for Democratic candidates, there’s a significant conservative Latino voting bloc. He points to the 2004 election when former President George Bush captured an estimated 45% of the Latino vote. Roughly 29% of Latinos voted for Trump in 2016 after he launched his campaign by calling Mexicans “rapists.”

In the closely watched Texas Senate race in 2018, Ted Cruz won over Beto O’Rourke. Cruz, the incumbent, repeatedly pointed out to voters that he was the son of a Cuban immigrant and that O’Rourke was not Hispanic. Cruz ultimately captured 50.9% of the vote in the tightest U.S. Senate race in Texas since 1978. O’Rourke, who also targeted his campaign to appeal to Latinos, captured 64% of the Hispanic vote.

Two years before the Senate showdown, Cruz ran for president against Trump and another Latino candidate, Marco Rubio, whose father also came to the United States from Cuba. A robocall during the 2016 election on behalf of Trump and targeting Rubio suggested even Latino candidates with conservative credentials can face rhetoric and challenges winning over voters unsure about supporting non-white candidates. 

"The white race is dying out in America and Europe because we are afraid to be called 'racist.’ Donald Trump is not a racist, but Donald Trump is not afraid. Don't vote for a Cuban. Vote for Donald Trump," the robocall said.

Congressional Hispanic Caucus chairman Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-TX, arrives for a news conference to discuss the Supreme Court case involving Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals on Nov. 12, 2019.

Latinos inspired by civil rights fight 

For Democratic Texas U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, who chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, it’s simple: Either you have a voice on issues that affect you, your family and your community, or others make those decisions for you.

By next year, Hispanics are expected to become the largest ethnic minority voting group to be eligible to vote in a presidential election, according to a study of the 2020 electorate released earlier this year by the Pew Research Center. In all, 32 million Latinos will be eligible to vote compared with 30 million voters who are black. It would mark the first federal election where Hispanic voters outnumber black voters.

Castro said Latinos have made great strides since the civil rights era in the 1960s, when Latinos battling discrimination formed the Chicano movement to fight for the rights of Mexican Americans.

“It was a community that was marginalized, and in some places, repressed,” he said. “When my grandmother came to Texas, there were signs that said, “No dogs, Mexicans or Negroes allowed.”

​Former Democratic presidential candidate and former HUD Secretary Julián Castro speaks at the Liberty and Justice Celebration at the Wells Fargo Arena on Nov. 01, 2019, in Des Moines, Iowa.

Castro and his brother, former presidential candidate Julián Castro, grew up in San Antonio, a city where Latino politicians run and win. Their mother, Rosie Castro, was a Chicana activist who in the 1970s joined La Raza Unida, a third-political party seeking to engage Latinos in politics. 

Castro said he and his brother entered politics because they grew up watching Latinos raise their voices as activists and successfully run for office. In 1992, San Antonio-born Henry Bonilla was the first Hispanic Republican from Texas elected to Congress. And in 1981, Henry Cisneros became one of the first Latino mayors in the U.S. when he was elected by San Antonio voters. San Antonio had not had a Latino mayor since the 1800s, before Texas became a state. Later, Cisneros was appointed by former President Bill Clinton as U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development. 

“Henry Cisneros inspired a lot of young people, I think you see that often times, when there’s a first in the community who runs for something,” Castro said. “The turnout rate for the Hispanic community was astronomical” during Cisneros’ election.

Castro’s brother, Julián Castro, was the only Latino in the 2020 presidential race before he dropped out last week. 

“I think for a community that for many years had been marginalized and left out of politics, to now see someone from the community running for the highest office in the nation is important,” Joaquin Castro said in an interview before his brother exited the campaign.

Julián Castro has always embraced his Mexican immigrant roots. He followed in Cisneros' footsteps to become mayor of San Antonio in 2009. But a recent poll by Telemundo Noticias showed he lagged in Latino voter support compared with other Democratic presidential hopefuls. The November poll showed Castro in a three-way tie for fourth place among Latino voters, with only 2% support, while Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are leading the candidates among those voters, with 26% and 18%, respectively.

Latino voters carry signs that read "Unite the Vote" as they are serenaded by mariachis on their way to their polling station to cast their ballots in the 2018 midterm general election in Los Angeles, California, Nov. 6, 2018.

More Latinos are voting in local and federal elections

The White House isn’t the only political arena where Latinos are demanding a voice. 

In 2006, when the nation considered a seminal immigration reform bill, there were only two Latinos in the Senate and 28 in the House.

“That was a critical bill that needed more Latino voices,” said Barreto, of UCLA. “That issue was so consequential at the time. It was a bill that was going to affect the lives of more than 10 million undocumented immigrants, many of them Latino.”

Some political analysts say the lingering effects of failed action helped spur today’s hardline immigration policies and public divide over nationalism and migrant’s rights.

But Barreto said lagging representation goes deeper than immigration issues.

“Every bill matters,” he said. “There’s a Latino angle to education reform, economic policies, health care.”

“These aren’t white issues, these are everyone’s issues,” he added. “Black, Latino, Asian communities, we should all be equally represented. That’s what we should expect in a healthy democracy.”

And the Latino vote is only poised to become more influential. Latinos represent the greatest number of Americans under 18, at 18.3 million, according to a 2018 Pew report.

Grassroots groups and larger ones like the Latino Vote Project have launched massive voter-registration drives in recent election cycles. Latino voter turnout in 2018, at 40%, reached a record high, increasing from 6.8 million in 2014 to 11.7 million. That’s the second-largest turnout among Latinos of any election year, presidential or midterm.

Lopez, the Pew researcher, said Latinos may be motivated to protect their rights and place in the U.S. About half of Latinos surveyed said their standing in the nation had worsened in 2018, compared with 32% who said the same in the weeks after Trump won the 2016 presidential election, according to a Pew report.

An estimated 55% of Latinos said they were worried that a family member or friend could be deported, and two-thirds said the Trump administration’s policies had been harmful to Latinos. That’s up from similar feelings about Barack Obama, at 15% in 2010, and George W. Bush, at 41% in 2007.

“Many experienced some kind of discrimination event, like being told not to speak Spanish,” Lopez said. “Their lives have changed in a somewhat negative way in the last few years, primarily, since the election of Donald Trump.”

From protesting the government to running for elected office 

In many ways, Garcia had already taken his place in history long before election night in Arizona.

Years before his Election Day party, while attorneys for Arizona and civil rights groups were battling over Senate Bill 1070 – the state’s notorious “show me your papers” law – Garcia and other protesters stood outside the Phoenix courthouse under the brutal July sun blocking the intersection. When police officers moved in to make arrests, Garcia was in the middle, wearing a white T-shirt with the words “We will not comply.” 

After Trump was elected, he traveled to Arizona in 2017 for a speech in downtown Phoenix. Garcia joined hundreds of people protesting the president’s visit in the wake of a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that turned deadly when a white nationalist drove his car into a crowd of demonstrators. The mostly peaceful protest outside the Phoenix Convention Center turned chaotic when police used tear gas and stun grenades on the crowd. 

Hundreds of people later attended a Phoenix City Council meeting demanding officials hold police accountable. By then, Trump had pardoned Arpaio for the contempt conviction, further roiling many in the crowd.

The Phoenix Law Enforcement Association wrote a Facebook post on candidate Carlos Garcia.

Garcia stood before officials in a blue T-shirt that read “Not one more deportation.” He told council members the community would hold them accountable.

“To think that we spent three-quarters of a million dollars for this person, this president, to come spew hatred and bigotry, to come spit in our face and pardon the sheriff who was convicted," Garcia said. “The city paid for a campaign rally. We have an opportunity to ... do this and to stand up for not only Phoenix but cities across the country.”

Two years later, the Mexican immigrant’s face was plastered on campaign ads across south Phoenix where Garcia lives in a community with deep Latino roots. In the photo, Garcia wore a familiar cornflower blue traditional Mexican guayabera shirt, his baby girl on his shoulders and his wife, a teacher, and his son standing in front of him.

Latinos making political history at the voting booth 

At the Election Day party, Garcia and his supporters continue to wait for voting results in the shadows of a saguaro-studded mountain. 

Gonzalez and her piggy bank the size of a mango still have the floor. Earlier in the evening, Garcia called her onstage, named her the campaign’s No. 1 donor and gave her the memento.

“Carlos has been on the front lines – organizing, fighting against SB 1070, fighting against Joe Arpaio,” she says, her eyes filling with tears. “It’s actually been a great joy of mine to be able to use the same money that came from Arpaio, the same money that came from the state’s incarceration system, to actually support his run for City Council.”

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As the desert night fades, Danny Ortega, a Phoenix attorney who has fought for civil rights since the Chicano movement, leans against a wood-carved bar watching Garcia mingle with campaign supporters. Ortega says young and old Latinos backed Garcia because they saw a candidate who looked like them, cared about them and sacrificed for them.

“For too long, we lost our way,” Ortega says, standing with his longtime friend Alfredo Gutierrez,  who served for 14 years in the Arizona Legislature and has protested with Garcia. “Too many Latinos thought they had to act white to win. Now, they’re seeing the power in our own identity.”

Garcia moves closer to a grove of old trees, where it’s quiet. He says it's justice that money won from a lawman who targeted his family and community, would help him overcome the campaign financing barrier most Latinos face when they run for office.

“I’ve had six people in my family that have been deported, I grew up undocumented. And I hold that truth,” he says, shaking his head. “I grew up working class. I’m a single child of a single parent. And with my mom’s strength, that she was able to raise me, that she was able to succeed in this country and make sure that I got through school, went to college, I’ve been able to help my community for the last 16 years.”

By the night’s final vote tally, Garcia holds a slim two-point margin. As his supporters leave the plaza, no one knows if Garcia’s lead will hold.

In the morning, the final election results are in. Garcia is at home with his family. With six words on his Facebook page, he says what everyone who supported the outsider Latino candidate – despite the odds – is waiting to hear: “We got it! Thank you all!”

He wins the race with 51.47% of the vote. By 384 votes, Garcia, and the community who voted for him, has made history.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: AOC, Julian Castro: Underrepresented Hispanics aim to change politics