Latino politicians shattering assumptions, and finding assumptions shattered, left and right

LatinaLista — According to the 2011 Directory of Latino Elected Officials published by the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO) there are currently 5,850 Latinos serving in elected offices nationwide, in all levels of government and 9 serving in statewide offices, including the office of governor.

Hispanic American members of the 112th Congress

In the past, when a lone Latino or Latina ran in a race, it was expected he/she would speak Spanish and could rely on a healthy amount of support from fellow Latinos. Latino influence would had been virtually non-existent then and the general consensus, for better or worse, was that it was more important to start building up representation at that level of government versus agreeing with the candidate on every issue.

Not anymore.

Fortunately, more and more Latinos and Latinas are running for public office and assumptions are being shattered left and right (pun intended).

For example, the notion that all Latino candidates should speak Spanish is not true. For many Latinos, especially second, third-generation-and-up and bicultural (mix of both Latino and Anglo, black, Asian, etc), Spanish may not flow as easily as English. To assume candidates will have mastered the so-called “mother tongue” is a fallacy that puts Latino candidates on the defensive.

Just look at Houston lawyer Ted Cruz who is in a runoff race with Texas’ Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst for the senate seat being vacated by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Cruz, a Cuban American, challenged Dewhurst to a series of debates. Dewhurst, not known as a strong debater, challenged Cruz to a debate in Spanish. It seems Dewhurst spent time in Bolivia in his younger days and, while rusty, still has command of the language — something that Cruz admits he doesn’t have and which explains his reluctance to use it in debate.

Latest reports show that while both candidates have agreed to a debate in Spanish nothing is set in stone.

Nor were Latino votes set in stone in another race involving a Texas Latino politician.

Longtime Dallas politician Domingo Garcia is in a runoff for the newly created 33rd Congressional District, a minority-majority district with approximately 40 percent of voters Hispanic and 25 percent black. Garcia is counting on the support of Latino voters to help him achieve his longterm goal of serving in Congress. Unfortunately for him, he’s stepped on a few toes over the years which has not endeared him to some in the Latino community.

That became apparent when seven “Hispanic leaders” endorsed Garcia’s black opponent. Adding salt to the wound for Garcia was that all these Latinos supporting his opponent are from the Dallas area, Garcia’s own backyard. Two of the seven are representatives in the state house in Austin.

One supporter of Garcia, upon hearing that the seven had pledged their support for Garcia’s opponent said, “They have a responsibility to the Hispanic community. We need representation in Congress from North Texas. They let our community down.”

That statement alone has been ricocheting around the North Texas Latino community for two days and highlights a real predicament and challenge to any political party thinking that Latino voters could be an effective voting bloc.

The older voters believe, like Garcia’s supporter, that the faults of a Latino candidate should be overlooked in the quest to get more Latino politicians elected. The younger voters refuse to compromise on their ideals to elect someone simply because he/she shares their heritage.

The difference between the two generations is that one generation fought to have Latinos in the White House and at high levels of government and the other generation has grown up seeing these achievements realized.

As more Latino politicians get involved in the electoral process, they will find it will take a lot more work to get votes from the very people they thought were always in their back pocket.

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