By Graham Witherall
If the Democrats are to retain their hold on the White House in November, Al Gore will need a major boost from his party's national convention in August. The person charged with making that event a success is Lydia Camarillo, a 42-year-old political organizer from El Paso, Texas.
Ms. Camarillo was named chief executive officer of the Democratic National Convention Committee in September, becoming the first Hispanic woman to hold such a post for either major party. The significance of the appointment is not lost on Ms. Camarillo, who has climbed the ranks of several major Hispanic political organizations.
"This shows that Latinos are helping shape the face of politics in America," says Ms. Camarillo from her office in downtown Los Angeles, the site of this year's convention. "My being named chief executive officer shows that we're at the table."
Although Ms. Camarillo clearly has a place at the table, there's no guarantee that it's set for a victory celebration. She and the Democrats face plenty of challenges in making their event a winner.
Mr. Gore, often criticized as wooden and awkward in public appearances, wrapped up the nomination early in the political season, killing any sense of suspense leading up to the convention. Most polls have him locked in a tight battle with Texas Gov. George W. Bush. And while the largest city in the nation's most populous state seems like a solid choice to host the convention, a variety of problems could plague the event, such as Los Angeles' notorious traffic woes.
If Ms. Camarillo is worried about any of the potential pitfalls, she's not letting on. She maintains that Mr. Gore is actually warmer and more compelling than he is given credit for, and she expects that to come through during the convention. His early victory provides more time to craft a message, and his choice of a running mate gives the convention an element of suspense, she says. Los Angeles, meanwhile, provides the perfect illustration of what the Democrats hope to convey during their event, she asserts.
"Los Angeles was chosen because it reflects the diversity and inclusion that our party stands for," Ms. Camarillo says. "By choosing cities like Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, we demonstrate inclusiveness."
Ms. Camarillo is working hard to build on that diversity. Minorities constitute more than half of her 102-person staff. She has reached out to minority publications to offer unprecedented access during the convention. And she has ordered outreach efforts to ensure that minority businesses get a sizable slice of the $132 million in economic benefits Los Angeles stands to gain from the event.
If Ms. Camarillo's discussion of such concepts as diversity and inclusion seems more pertinent than that of the typical political operative, it's probably because she's made a career of those issues.
Born and raised in El Paso and the eldest of eight children, Ms. Camarillo left Texas to attend the University of California at Santa Cruz, where she earned a sociology degree before attending Hastings College of Law. She went on to become program director for the Latino Issues Forum, a California organization that advocates for better health and auto insurance for the poor.
Later she worked for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund before moving on to the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project. There she founded the Latino Academy, a national Hispanic leadership program. Ms. Camarillo's efforts have focused largely on enfranchising Hispanic voters to compel both parties to pay greater attention to Hispanic issues.
While Ms. Camarillo has spent much of her career working at the grassroots level on issues such as poverty, she says that sliding into the big-money, corporate nature of national politics does not trouble her. She attended the May Democratic fundraiser in Washington that raised $26 million, much of it from big corporate donors. Atlantic Richfield Corp. donated her office space leading up to the convention.
"We don't apologize for our fund-raising," Ms. Camarillo says. "You can have all the passion in the world about something, but without money, it's not going to happen. Everything costs money."
Whether Ms. Camarillo's efforts pay off remains to be seen. She will consider the convention a success, she says, if Mr. Gore gets a boost that carries him through November. But whether Mr. Gore wins or loses, Ms. Camarillo's rise is something of a victory in itself. "As the first Latina in this position, I hope to leave a positive legacy," she says. "I hope others will have more opportunity because of me."
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