The 2012 election has been a historic one for Latino voters, but it’s also proven to be a crucial moment for Latino elected officials as well. According to a new report by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund, the number of Latinos serving in state legislatures is on the rise. After the election, Latinos are slated to serve in the legislatures of 36 states across the country.
Seventy Latinos were elected to serve as State Senators in states ranging from Minnesota to Colorado. For the first time, Connecticut will have two Latino legislators in the State Senate. Delaware’s Ernesto Lopez (R) also emerged victorious in his race, becoming the second Latino ever to serve in the State Senate. The amount of Latinos serving in Florida’s state legislature doubled from 2 to 4, with State Representative Darren Soto (D) winning his race for district seat.
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While the number of Latinos elected to state offices is high, NALEO Executive Director Arturo Vargas says that the real significance is where these Latinos are getting elected. Many of these state legislators are not just coming from districts with Latino majorities. He says that it’s proving that Latinos can have a broad appeal to the general electorate.
“Latinos are no longer just limited to the Southwest, New York, Florida, now they’re elected virtually across the country,” Vargas says, citing the case of Jessica Vega who was elected to the Oregon state house. “They’re having opportunities like that all across the country.”
The state senates weren’t the only legislative body to make history in the 2012 election. State lower houses also saw significant increases in the number of Latinos elected as well. Arizona and Florida saw increases in the number of Latinos serving in the House of Representatives and Assembly respectively. Maine, a state with a Hispanic population of just 1.4 percent, elected their first Latino ever to the state house of representatives-community leader and Democrat Lisa Villa.
According to Vargas, the increase in Latino elected officials at the state level is a result of a combination of factors, but most importantly the strength of the person running for office.
“We have candidates that are able to run and not just receive Latinos support,” Vargas says. “It’s the quality of the candidate that’s making a difference. It’s a candidate that was viable and that the community as a whole was able to support.”
Vargas also attributed the growth in state legislators to the ever-increasing Latino community. Half of the total population growth was due to Hispanics, meaning that more Latinos are not only voting, but also running for office. He also said that recent redistricting has resulted in some communities that made districts more friendly to Latino candidates and an overall general energized electorate.
“This is the first election after the 2010 Census and the 2011 redistricting process. There was more of an opportunity to draw districts where Latino candidates could have the opportunity to run and get elected and I think we’re seeing the results of that,” Vargas says.
Still, Vargas believes there is room for improvement. He argues that the redistricting process could have been fairer in certain places.
“Some of the redistricting lines were declared in violation of the Voting Rights Act and had to be redrawn, so it’s a political process that didn’t always end up giving Latinos a fair shake,” Vargas says.
Vargas hopes that the trend of Latinos elected to state office will increase. However, he says this will only happen if there are more crossover candidates that can compete in diverse communities.
“If Latinos are only able to win in Latino majority districts, then we will reach a ceiling at one point. But what we’re seeing is the opposite, they can run in competitive races,” Vargas says.
I think it’s more evidence of the political maturation and sophistication of communities.”