While New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson won't become the first Hispanic vice-presidential candidate for a major party in 2004, by making the short list of VP potentials he leaves a footprint for other Hispanics to follow.
And those future contenders are rapidly rising through a political pipeline that has more talent than ever before.
While presidential and vice-presidential candidates come to the ticket from the posts of governor or senator – and Mr. Richardson currently is the only Hispanic with either title – the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) now counts 4,853 Hispanic elected officials in the United States.
The majority – 2,300 – are on school boards or in municipal government, and 1,300 serve in county positions such as judge or district attorney, or on special boards such as water or transportation, according to NALEO Communications Director Rosalind Gold.
But the NALEO data also show that between 1984 and 2004, the number of Hispanics in state government more than doubled to 231 from 113. And the number of Hispanics in Congress – the output at the very top of the pipeline – has grown in tandem with the increase in state officials. During the same period, Hispanic representation in Congress has increased to 22 from nine (See accompanying charts).
"Most folks want to equate political empowerment with growth of the population," says Larry Gonzalez, director of NALEO's office in Washington, D.C. "As the [Hispanic] population grows, the real political pipeline is continuing to grow. The potential is there; it's in the pipeline."
In terms of party affiliation, Ms. Gold says that because so many Hispanics are serving at local levels, most of them "either don't run in partisan races or don't make their [party] affiliation public." But among the one-third of Hispanic elected officials affiliated with a party, 92 percent are Democrats and 8 percent Republicans, she says.
Massey Villarreal, chairman of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, notes that the NALEO figures don't include government appointees. Mr. Villarreal himself serves on the board of the Texas Department of Economic Development, and he believes appointments offer another entry-point to the political system.
"When you talk about people in the pipeline, it doesn't necessarily start at the party level. We have Latinos who are learning to run major organizations in the state or city, or organizations like Hector Barreto [administrator at the Small Business Administration]. We go into these government positions and learn the ropes. So when people like [Special Counsel] Al Gonzalez comes out of the White House, he could run for any elected office he wanted. Hector Barreto could be president of the United States. The president's appointment of Latinos creates a bigger pipeline than you could imagine."
"When you talk about people in the pipeline, it doesn't necessarily start at the party level. The president's appointment of Latinos creates a bigger pipeline than you could imagine," says Massey Villarreal, chairman of the Republican National Hispanic assembly.
"What we are seeing historically is what we've seen with other immigrant groups – that through the political process advocacy gets accomplished at its highest and best level," says Nelson Reyneri, Hispanic outreach director at the Democratic National Committee. "The fact that 92 percent [of Hispanic elected officials] are Democrats is no accident."
Mr. Reyneri says he has created a program of leadership summits and training seminars to develop candidates. According to Mr. Reyneri, "This year's [Democratic National] Convention has more Latino delegates than ever before, more than 500, and more Latinos appointed to committees than ever before."
NALEO's Mr. Gonzalez sees Hispanic candidates making great progress in mastering two political skills – broadening their message and fund-raising.
"How do you move from being the Hispanic candidate to the representative for the entire constituency?" he asks. "In California, that's not a problem any more. But when you're in Georgia, New Hampshire, or North Carolina, that's important." Mr. Gonzalez believes candidate training has improved Hispanics' ability to "move beyond the ethnic label," allowing them to garner votes even in districts with small Hispanic electorates.
Traditionally, funding campaigns has presented a larger problem for minorities than non-minorities, in part because of the incumbency advantage, Mr. Gonzalez says. Hispanic CEOs tended to support incumbents regardless of ethnicity, making it difficult for Hispanic challengers to collect money. However, maturation on both the business and political sides has improved the outlook.
"It's fair to say there's more willingness on the business side now," says Mr. Gonzalez. "We often heard that the problem with Latino politicians was they only talked about immigration and bilingual education. Where were access to capital and other business issues? In the more traditional areas of Texas and California, that has changed."
On the political side, office holders also now devote more energy to business development. In addition, Hispanic legislators have formed coalitions and caucuses that can tip the vote on certain legislation, attracting the attention of lobbyists and advocacy groups.
In this election, both parties put forward viable candidates in races designed to capture the first Hispanic U.S. Senate seat since one was held by Joseph Montoya of New Mexico in 1977.
This year, Republicans looked to Florida, where former HUD Secretary Mel Martinez faced a tough primary August 31 against former Congressman Bill McCollum. According to a Mason-Dixon poll in July, Mr. McCollum had 29 percent of Republican votes and Mr. Martinez had 24 percent – a difference right at the poll's 5-percent margin of error.
Democrats pinned their Senate hopes on Ken Salazar, attorney general in Colorado. Although the state leans Republican, Mr. Salazar's record of bipartisanship – including cordial relations with Governor Bill Owens and a long-term friendship with retiring Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a former Democrat – worked in his favor. Mr. Salazar has experience as a rancher, entrepreneur, and water attorney. However, he faced stiff competition from Republican brewing heir Peter Coors.
At the congressional level, Democratic Hispanic front-runners include John Salazar (Ken's brother) in Colorado's open Third District, Richard Romero challenging Heather Wilson in New Mexico's First District, and Amy Vasquez trying to unseat Christopher Smith in New Jersey's Fourth District.
Republicans have Tim Escobar seeking to replace Linda Sanchez in California's 39th District. According to Mr. Gonzalez, Ms. Sanchez won in 2002 with only 54 percent of the vote, but "it's Sanchez's [race] to lose as the incumbent."
Mr. Villarreal says 11 Hispanic Republicans will run for Congress this year, many recruited from Hispanic chambers of commerce.
"It's important we have equal representation in both parties," he says. "I don't have any ill will against Hispanics in the Democratic Party, because they have their convictions. But it's important we participate. If we could harness the Latino people and vote, we could win elections all over the map."
Still, while the pipeline continues to expand, Mr. Gonzalez doesn't see Hispanics achieving full representation in the political system for at least a decade or more.
Besides numerous financial and organizational obstacles in running for office, the profession itself presents diminishing opportunities.
"This is not necessarily a banner year for either party supporting viable [Hispanic] candidates," Mr. Gonzalez says. "That's not an indictment against the parties – it's about incumbency. Every year, the number of competitive races dwindles. By now there are usually about 10 districts, if you're lucky, that are competitive."
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