News Column

Growing Hispanic Numbers Not Reflected in North Bay Politics

Dec. 3, 2012

Tony Burchyns, Times-Herald, Vallejo, Calif.

Hispanic vote

In the presidential election, talk of the growing Latino voter strength dominated mainstream America.

Record numbers of Latinos cast ballots for president, and a record 31 Latinos were elected to Congress. Latinos also made historic gains in state legislatures, including in California.

At the local level, however, the growing Latino population remains politically invisible in Vallejo and other cities, political observers say.

Even though Hispanics or Latinos of any race account for more than 22 percent of the city's population, none serves on the seven-member City Council. Blacks, Filipinos and gays have made political inroads at City Hall, but only two Latinos have served on the council -- including one who was appointed -- in the past 45 years.

The current seven-member council includes two Filipinos, one African American and four whites.

The void is not only in Vallejo. In some cities, activists and civil rights groups have backed lawsuits and initiatives under the California Voting Rights Act to change how councils are elected.

But the idea of switching from at-large to district elections has not gained traction in Vallejo; and while voting districts would result in more neighborhoods being represented, it's unclear if and how Latino participation would be affected.

"It's not only here in the city, I think it's throughout the Bay Area," Vallejo Planning Commissioner Roberto Cortez said of Latino underrepresentation. "Even though we have a

fairly good presence on the business side, on the political side it's very scarce."

Absent from poitics

Over the past two decades, Vallejo's swelling Latino population has been reflected in Mexican grocery stores, restaurants, bridal shops and other businesses. However, as the number of Latinos has surged, political representation has not kept pace, whether due to the citizenship status of some immigrants, a lack of candidates or apathy toward local government.

"I'm surprised that there isn't more enthusiasm or people looking to at least be part of commissions," Cortez said. He and his wife, Marisela Barbosa, both are past presidents of the Solano County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. They are principles in a San Rafael-based engineering firm.

Cortez said Osby Davis, the city's first black mayor, encouraged him to seek the appointment this year to bring more diversity to the commission. Davis, who also was Solano County's first African American member supervisor, said he thinks it's important for all segments of the community to be represented.

"I've been encouraging him and others to get involved," Davis said. "Latinos are the obvious ones who are missing from the table."

Will Cortez be one who surfaces?

"What I was thinking is that by being part of the planning commission it would prime the pump for people to say, 'OK, he did it, I can be involved like him,' " Cortez said. He added, however, that while running for a political office is in his plans, it's not imminent. "I'm far too busy with my own business at this point," he said.

Cultural, language barriers

Some say the political underrepresentation of Hispanics is partly due to cultural factors. There's also a language barrier for some immigrants.

"We are coming from countries where the government is so corrupt that the trust is very, very low," said Jaime Guzman, a Colombian immigrant who serves on the board at Mare Island Technology Academy, a Vallejo charter school.

Guzman is among those working to promote Vallejo's participatory budgeting process in the Latino community. But so far he said it's been a "hard sell." At a recent workshop to discuss potential uses for city funds in the community, he said fewer than 20 Latinos showed up.

"Many are first-generation," added Cortez, who immigrated from El Salvador as a teenager. "Some of them will have language issues that will prevent them from being involved. Then you have the second- and third-generation. Some of it is just apathy -- they just don't want to get involved."

Linda Engelman, a Latina who ran for council and lost in 1997, 2001 and 2003, said the Hispanic community has lacked a voice at City Hall.

"The squeaky wheel gets the grease," said Engelman, a second-generation Mexican American who has also served on two city commissions and chaired the Solano County Democratic Central Committee. "And (Latinos) have not been a squeaky wheel."

Solano County Supervisor John Vasquez said he's surprised more Latinos aren't involved in local government.

"We had Matt Garcia (a 22-year-old Fairfield city councilman who was fatally shot outside a friend's house on Sept. 1, 2008). He was a shining star. He was on his way.

"I hope there are more people who look at their community and seek that opportunity," said Vasquez, a Republican who in 1980 became the first Latino on Vacaville's city council.

Widespread underrepresentation

The underrepresentation of Latinos is widespread. Even though California's Latino population is 14.4 million, 38.2 percent of the state's 37.7 million residents, just 12.2 percent of the state's city council members and mayors are Latino, according to political consulting group GrassrootsLab.

In Solano County, just one newly elected council member, Jerry Castanan Sr. in Dixon, is Hispanic. Latinos account for more than 101,000, or nearly 25 percent, of the county's 416,471 residents.

"It's not just Solano County, it's everywhere," said Mike Madrid of GrassrootsLab, an expert in Latino voting trends and local government. "You've got a lot of new Latino voters coming onto the voter rolls every month, but they are not going to become candidates for quite some time. It's not because they're Latino; it's because they're young."

The median age of Latinos in California is 27, compared to 44 for whites. Latinos also account for more than half the children in California, and 50,000 Latino U.S. citizens nationwide turn 18 every month.

"We certainly know that the Latino voter has become the decisive voter in presidential and congressional elections," said Max Sevillia, director of policy and legislative affairs for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. "But having said that, the Latino population is not engaged to its full potential."

While record numbers of Latinos this year cast ballots for president, only about half of eligible Latino voters nationwide voted, Sevillia said. However, Latino voter participation is steadily rising.

Orlando Fuentes, president of the Latino Democratic Club of Sacramento, said he thinks Latino political representation will rise as more second- and third-generation Hispanics enter the middle class.

Grooming candidates

"If someone is coming out of a low-income family or lifestyle we are generally not going to see participation," Fuentes said. "But as they move into the middle class what usually follows is greater participation."

"It's also generational," Fuentes added. "The parents may not be registered voters, but the kids may be."

Fuentes said one purpose of the club is to groom future Democratic Party candidates who are Latino by encouraging them to run for school boards and city councils, such as Tony Perez in the Elk Grove Unified School District.

"It takes self motivation and commitment" to run, Fuentes said. "But we give them encouragement."

In Vallejo, efforts to organize the Latino community are taking root. City Councilwoman Erin Hannigan worked with Guzman this year to convene a group of Hispanic business owners to discuss shared interests, from permit streamlining to public safety. Davis also has participated in the meetings.

"Vallejo is a very diverse community, including African Americans, Filipinos, Caucasians and of course Latinos," said Hannigan, who recently was elected to the board of supervisors. "But when you look at the council and even the commissions, very few Latinos are involved in city government. What are the barriers that are preventing their engagement?

"For me, the goal is to at the very least bring the government to the Latino community," Hannigan said, "and see if we can get folks engaged or interested in getting on boards and commissions and running for office. Then we are truly representing our diverse community. We're just not there yet."

Lacking experience

Frank Castillo, who was appointed to the council in 1981 following the death of councilman John Cunningham, said many Latino immigrants may lack experience in civic life.

"Most of the new Latinos in Vallejo are from the old country," said Castillo, whose Mexican American roots in California stretch to 1850. "The up-and-coming ones have to be educated."

Omar Martinez, who owns Pupseria Y Taqueria Mercy on Tennessee Street, thinks it's just a matter of time before the Latino community becomes more politically engaged.

"It's just a question of when that wave will crash," said Martinez, who was born in El Salvador but raised in San Francisco.

"Who's out there looking out for me and saying, "I'm the same as this guy, I also own a business, I'm also Hispanic?' " said Martinez, a former Army combat medic who also founded the Bay Area Street Safety Patrol, a volunteer crime prevention group.

"I feel if we did have representative diversity, people would feel a little bit better, a little bit safer to a certain degree."

Contact staff writer Tony Burchyns at tburchyns@timesheraldonline.com or (707) 553-6831. Follow him on Twitter @tburchyns.

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(c)2012 Times-Herald (Vallejo, Calif.)

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