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."
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