The Limits of Latino Political Power in the US

Sen. Marco Rubio addresses the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials conference, Friday, June 22, 20
Sen. Marco Rubio addresses the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials conference, Friday, June 22, 2012, at the Contemporary Resort at Walt Disney World, in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/MCT via Getty Images)

Some experts say that power is built from its base, and this, it would seem, is what the US Latinos are doing. According to Naleo (National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials), there are currently 5,850 Latinos serving as officials in the country. Most of them are doing so locally. There are many Latinos with important jobs at municipal levels, such as Antonio Villaraigosa, the mayor of Los Angeles, or Julian Castro, the mayor of San Antonio.

Nevertheless, the Hispanic power is not strictly limited to the cities. According to the 2011 Directory of Latino Elected Officials of Naleo, "183 Latinos state representatives and 68 Latino state senators serve in state legislatures across the country." Plus two Latino governors: Brian E. Sandoval, the first Hispanic governor of Nevada and Susana Martinez of New Mexico, the first Hispanic woman to this post in the United States. That's not bad keeping in mind that there exists no State in the country where Hispanics are the majority (New Mexico is the state with the most Hispanic residents while Nevada is in fourth).

At a Federal level, however, the Latino representation is still weak. Although for the first time a female Latino is present in the Justice Supreme Court and there are two Latinos in President Barack Obama's cabinet, there are only two Latino Senators (2 percent of the total) and 27 Representatives (a little over 5 percent of the total). This data -- which doesn't include the Pacific islands delegate and Puerto Rico's resident commissioner in the House -- contrast heavily considering the strength of the growth of the Hispanic population in the country. The Latinos represent to date 16.3 percent of the population of the US, and are not only the biggest minority in the country but also that of greatest growth.

A close look at the statistics related to the Latino representation at a Federal level permit some hypotheses to be drawn to deduce the reason for this. Of the 27 Latino representatives elected in 2010 (of a total of 435 voting members of the House of Representatives) 22 were elected in congressional districts with a Hispanic population of 49 percent or more, which for the year 2010 amounted to 30 (less than 7 percent of the total of the districts), according to the Pew Hispanic Center. In other words, Latinos elect Latinos and Latinos convince Latinos to vote for them.

Three of the remaining five Latino Representatives (whose states did not have a Hispanic population of 49 percent or higher) were elected in states with a high level of Hispanic influence: New York, New Mexico and Texas. Only two were elected in other states: Jaime Herrera Butler of Washington (which in 2010 only had a 6.6 percent Hispanic population) and Raul Labrador of Idaho (with a Hispanic population of 0.1 percent). Both are Republicans and both have had long years of assimilation of cultures different from the Hispanic (Labrador is a Mormon, the same faith as Republican Mitt Romney). And one must not forget that Senator Marco Rubio (despite being from a "Hispanic" State such as Florida) managed to ride on top of the Tea Party wave, something that granted him plenty fame.

This data generates several questions. Are political parties wasting the Latino talent? Or were they discriminating when they chose their candidates? Are Latinos, as stated by Samuel Huntington, creating their own political enclaves without assimilating to the American mainstream? Are Latino politicians only speaking to Latino voters? These are issues that already worry the Latino politicians themselves. When interviewed for the Spanish web page Terra for a special feature about the power of Latinos in United States, Senator Alex Padilla of California said he preferred not to be identified as a Hispanic leader, or at least not only as a Hispanic. "I hope that the Latinos see in me somebody that is Latino but also that has the ability to do the job in the same fashion or better than any other person," he stated.

Even though during the past two years the growth of the Latino population forced the redefinition of several congressional districts, and although the Arizona candidates are yet to be defined, the outlook, it would seem, will not change much in 2012. To date there are, according to my own investigations, 49 Latino candidates for the House of Representatives (in 2010 there were 45). Of this total, 24 are incumbents that are seeking reelection and at least six of them are confronting Latino candidates. Of the other 17, two will be facing each other in the 29th district of California--Tony Cardenas and David Hernandez--, and two in the 21st --John Hernandez and David Valdao--, which will guarantee another two places. And Juan Vargas is the favorite for district 51. Another two or three additional Latinos in a state with high Latino influence.

There is not much more. One possibility in New Mexico, one in Nevada and another one in Florida. In Arizona, things are yet to be defined. And Texas, where more Latino candidates were expected, will not be the exception, stated Henry Jackson in an article published in The Huffington Post; "It was poised to have the most new Hispanic members, with the state adding four new seats in 2012 thanks to large Hispanic growth. But at most two of the new seats will be represented by Hispanic lawmakers. The state is also losing two long-time Hispanic lawmakers, Rep. Charlie Gonzalez, who is retiring, and Rep. Silvestre Reyes, who lost a primary to a non-Hispanic opponent, though Gonzalez is likely to be replaced by Joaquin Castro, a state lawmaker, Harvard Law graduate and second-generation Mexican-American."

For the moment, at a Federal level, the power of Latinos lies more in what they can provide (It's estimated that to win the presidential election the candidate must have at least 33 percent of the Latino votes) than on the elected politicians. The question lies in if it's possible to change this situation without a redefinition of the political party's paradigm regarding their selection of its candidates--where we can still find plenty discrimination--and without engaging in a deep thought in the interior of the Hispanic community concerning the interests that their representatives should defend. Are the political parties forcing the Hispanics into building their own political enclave in which to defend their own interests? Are the interests of Hispanics different from those of the rest of the community? It's an important discussion to have, especially in an election year as this one.