Vida En El Valle: Latinos rising in political power but still lag in political representation

February 02, 2016

-- That status of Latino political power remains a big question mark today despite the elevation of Latinos as heads of the two legislative bodies, and having 23 Latinos (all but two of them Democrats) in the state Senate and Assembly.

California, which has a Latino plurality at 39 percent of the population, has yet to have a Latino elected as governor or to the U.S. Senate. Whether Rep. Loretta Sánchez, a Democrat, or Assemblymember Rocky Chávez, a Republican, can survive the primary was a subject of conversation at the Latino Journal’s 17th annual Latino Leaders Reception.

“Having Kevin De León and Anthony Rendón at the helm of the state; I think first and foremost being Californians, they are going to be fair to everybody in the state. As legislators, we bring our experiences to the table so both of them embodying the Latino experience will help elevate the Latino voice in the State of California,” said Assemblywoman Cristina García, D-Bell Gardens.

Los Ángeles’ De León, as state Senate pro Tem, is the leader of the 40-seat state Senate. Rendón, D-Paramount, will take over as Assembly Speaker next month, putting him in charge of the 80-seat Assembly.

State Sen. Benjamín Hueso, D-San Diego, said De León and Rendón are “extremely qualified” for their posts, but he remains troubled by what he doesn’t see. While having Latinos leading the Legislative bodies is good, that political muscle hasn’t been replicated throughout the state.

“If you look at local government and in cities that have a majority of Latinos in them, you won’t find a single elected Latino running those governments or not a representative amount of Latinos running those governments,” said Senator Benjamin Hueso, D-San Diego.

The state Supreme Court, for example, did not have a single Latino until two years ago when Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar was nominated by Gov. Jerry Brown in July 2014 and confirmed by the Commission on Judicial Appointments in August. According to Hueso, the make-up of the Supreme Court, judicial councils, coastal and other commissions, and corporate boards, are defunct of Latino representation.

“Latinos still have a long way to go even though we are making progress. The amount of Latinos in key decision-making bodies is extremely low not only in our state, but across the country. But, I believe that will slowly begin to change,” said Hueso.

Last year, Brown signed Senate Bill 415, a bill Hueso introduced in an effort to increase voter turnout in local elections. Local governments usually experience a voter turnout rate of about 25 percent less than the average turnout in that city, and will be required to consolidate their elections with state elections. Hueso believes this bill will begin to level the playing field in getting more Latino representation in local governments.

“Latinos don’t go to the polls in numbers that are representative of our population so that translates to less political power in a state where they have enormous potential to level the playing field through their participation in government. We now have more influence to change that through different laws and budget decisions and it’s a responsibility that will fall on us,” said Hueso.

De León and Rendon’s rise to key positions of political power will give visibility to the state’s largest growing demographic, and more light will be shown on their growing needs.

“The State of the Latino is also the State of California, whether we are talking about the economy, the workforce or about education. The more Latinos do better, the state of California will equally do that much better,” said Assemblymember Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield.

Having more Latino political representation means issues that are important to the Latino community will have a more viable chance of being addressed. In the past, pressing issues like the California DREAM Act, for example, were initially addressed by a former lawmaker-turned-Los Ángeles City Councilmember Gil Cedillo because it affected Latino families the most.

“Here you have California residents who lack documentation that are going to our public schools but could not access resources to achieve higher education. By having more Latino representatives, you see issues like the DREAM Act come to the forefront. I think the opportunity we now have in controlling leadership in both the California Assembly and the State Senate is that we can bring those issues to the forefront and show how Latinos are an intricate part of California,” said Salas.

What about the Latino experience? Democratic Congresswoman Loretta Sánchez, who represents California’s 46th District, talked about her candidacy for U.S. Senate at the Latino Journal’s first annual Voters Forum at the Masonic Temple in downtown Sacramento.

From the beginning, she stressed the importance of having, not a Latino, but a Latina in the U.S. Senate.

“I am very proud of my Mexican-American roots; of my ability to speak Spanish; of my ability to move between. I am one of those, if you think of an immigrant kid, you go into the house and it’s kind of all Spanish…and you walk out and it’s America, right? Those are the experiences of so many people up and down the state of California. It’s not just Latino. It’s the immigrant experience. And, I have experienced it,” said Sánchez.

Chávez believes his Latino experience holds an equal amount of weight as Sánchez’s despite the stark differences in political experience and vision they have for the future.

“I was born and raised in Los Ángeles; picked grapes with my uncle in Fresno. At 15, I started working in a kitchen as a dishwasher all through high school. Back then, Latinos were dishwashers, not busboys like everyone else. I eventually became manager of all the busboy’s which taught me an extraordinary work ethic. From there, I went to Chico State, graduated in 1973 and joined the Marine Corps where I was a Colonel overseeing over 22,000 marines. I retired 23 years later, opened up a charter school and was appointed Secretary of Veteran’s Affairs and successfully ran for Assembly and now I am serving my second term,” said Chávez.

Both candidates have similar Latino experiences and similar views on issues they intend to bring to the forefront as potential U.S. Senators, especially on issues pertaining to education. Yet, their only difference appears to be their party affiliation. Yet, both candidates are using their Latino experience to gain favor with Latino voters. Whether or not one should hold more weight than the other is a question voters will have to decide.

“For the U.S. Senate seat, if you want something to resonate with Latinos, I know in my neck of the woods in the Central Valley, it’s going to be about the issues. How are you standing up for Latino families? How are you going to help people that work two jobs? How are you making sure that Latino kids are being educated? Making sure that they have the same resources and opportunities as everyone else?” said Salas.

“I think that is where the difference is going to be. So when you talk about two Latino candidates for the U.S. Senate seat, what they should do is focus on those issues that Latino families care about in general. We all have an immigrant story, so I don’t want them to compare the past, but what they are doing now and going to do in the future for Latino families,” added Salas.

For other lawmakers, the Latino experience is only one of the many factors voters should look at when voting for a candidate.

“The focus should always be on getting a Latino elected into any office. The focus should be getting representation at all levels that reflect what the state looks like. The Latino experience is very diverse so we shouldn’t use it as a tool to separate ourselves, but rather as a tool to unite,” said García.

If Latinos want to see more Latino representation in all levels of government and if they hope to realize the dream of having the opportunity to elect the first Latino governor in the forthcoming years, they must first focus on how to get them there: voting.

“California is ready for a Latino governor. There is no doubt. But, we need Latinos to go out and express their vote and their opinions. Latinos do not vote in the same propensity as other voters; and we need Latinos to understand that their voice does matter and if they don’t vote, somebody else is taking their voice for them,” said Salas.

And he continued, “This is the message we need to convey and the more we convey it, the more likely it will be that they will support candidates who support their values, whether it is a Latino candidate or just one that supports their values.”

How will they legislate? Will they bring Latino issues to the forefront? Is the state achieving more political equality? But most importantly, do Latinos in the states most powerful political posts govern differently in the sense that they are more sensitive and understanding of Latino issues and, do their life experiences matter?

Last year, a panel hosted by the Latino Legislative Caucus and the Leadership California Institute looked at the growing Latino population and it’s lack of political representation.

While Latinos have surpassed the 39 percent of the state’s population, voter turnout rate continues to tumble. As a result, underrepresentation of Latino elected officials in all levels of government is apparent, particularly in local government where Latinos comprise around 10 percent of county supervisors and almost 15 percent of city council members. In the Legislature, 12.5 percent of the state Senate and 23.8 percent of the Assembly are Latino.

There are 21 Latino Democrats at the State Capitol including 13 chairs/vice chairs of legislative standing committees and 5 leadership appointments in both houses.


Contact the Reporter: Cynthia Moreno /