The weakening of Latino political power in Colorado

Ruben Valdez believes there’s a tsunami coming to Colorado – a tsunami of Hispanic lawmakers who’ll be part of the changing face of state government in the next generation.

The former Speaker of the House, a Denver Democrat, has watched the progress of Latino representation at Colorado’s Capitol for more than 40 years, since his first election in 1970. He has seen years when the number of Hispanic lawmakers has mirrored the percentage of Hispanics in the state, and years when it has fallen woefully short.

Today, there are five Hispanics, including four Democrats and one Republican, out of the pack of 35 state senators. And the 65-member House has six Hispanics, including five Democrats and one Republican. In total, that’s 11 percent of the legislature — far less than Colorado’s Hispanic population, which at last count was at least 21.3 percent.

The percentage is markedly down from Colorado’s high point during the two-year period from 1991 to 1993, when there were 12 Latino state lawmakers out of the pack of 100. At 12 percent, that number closely matched the state’s Hispanic population at that time, which was 12.8 percent.

While Colorado’s Hispanic population has nearly doubled over the last few decades, Latinos have lost significant ground in their representation in the General Assembly.

“We have a lot of work to do,” says House Majority Leader Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat.

The proportional decrease of Latino lawmakers is high among the concerns that black and brown lawmakers, voting rights groups and civil rights activists have about a redistricting ballot measure being proposed by a group of former elected officials.

The first draft of that measure, known as Initiative 55, seeks the creation of a bipartisan commission that would draw the congressional and legislative maps for Colorado, beginning after the 2020 census. The proposal — which supporters hope will make the November ballot — lists six factors that would be considered when drawing maps, such as adherence to the federal Voting Rights Act and keeping districts as compact as possible. Dead last in the list of factors: keeping communities of color intact.

Historically, those communities have been under-represented in state legislatures and in Congress. Many redistricting maps have over the years been thrown out by courts around the nation when judges determined that lines were drawn in such a way to dilute the voting strength of racial and ethnic minorities.

Valdez sees Initiative 55 as a major threat to his community, saying Hispanics will make progress in legislative representation “only if 55 doesn’t pass.”

Sources have told The Colorado Independent that a new version of the initiative is close to being made public, although how much input from critics has been included is yet unknown. Some of those critics, including state lawmakers, have said they fear the initiative would destroy the power of the Latino vote in Colorado.

Hispanic representation at the state Capitol began to grow right around the time Valdez was elected in 1971 — the height of the Chicano rights movement in Colorado and elsewhere in the West. Valdez says more Latinos were voted into office because of a late 1960s Supreme Court decision that set up the one-person, one-vote system. Before that, Denver had an allocation of seats in the House, but those seats were all at-large, making it virtually impossible for a Hispanic to be elected.

Once one-person, one-vote became the law of the land, Colorado had to draw district maps for every seat, and that’s when Hispanics started winning elections to the Statehouse. Valdez said Democrats began teaching Latinos to “raid” caucuses, where they would have an opportunity to be selected for legislative races. The first group of Hispanic lawmakers — which included some of the most prominent Latinos in the state, such as Denver Democrats Richard Castro, Paul Sandoval and Polly Baca — rose to power with heavy grassroots support in those early 70s caucuses.

Between 1970 and 1980, the number of Hispanics in the legislature grew from two to eight, mostly representing districts in west Denver and Pueblo. The figure remained steady during the 1980s until 1989, when it jumped to 10, and then to 12 in 1991. That was the only time Hispanic representation was truly proportional to the state’s Hispanic population.

In the quarter-decade since, Latino representation at the Capitol has remained fairly constant — between nine and 11 lawmakers — while Colorado’s Hispanic population as a whole has nearly doubled.

Why hasn’t the representation kept up?

Latino lawmakers say part of the reason stems from Hispanic migration from rural parts of the state to the metro areas.

Colorado had a significant Hispanic population dating back to long before the state was a state or the United States was even the United States. That population was centered largely in the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado. That strong Latino stronghold sent politicians like the Salazar brothers (John and Ken, who both went on to Washington, D.C.) and Rep. Ed Vigil, D-Fort Garland, to the state Capitol.

Concerns among San Luis Valley Latinos about fair representation put Colorado under a Voting Rights Act watch in 1996. In that legal case, Sanchez v. Colorado, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled a legislative district drawn in 1990 in southern Colorado illegally diluted the voting strength of Hispanic voters. The case no longer mandates the drawing of a Hispanic-influenced district, but those who redraw maps every decade refer to it nonetheless.

Vigil is Colorado’s representative to the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators. He told The Colorado Independent recently that the Hispanic population in southern Colorado has migrated to where the best jobs and education are, which means metro areas like Colorado Springs and Denver.

At last count, 12 state House districts have Hispanic populations of 30 percent of more, with five that have more than 50 percent. Eight are in the Denver metropolitan area, including Adams and Arapahoe counties. Three of the other four are in metro areas, too: Colorado Springs and Pueblo.

Of those 12 House districts, just half are represented by Hispanic lawmakers.

Eight of the Senate’s 35 seats are in districts with more than 30 percent Hispanic populations.  And four of those seats are up for election in 2016. Three are open seats held by Democrats. But not one Hispanic is currently running for any of those. Of the 33 candidates for state Senate seats in 2016, only one — incumbent Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, a Democrat from Westminster — is Hispanic.

The bench is deeper for the House. Not including incumbents, three Hispanic Republicans are running in 2016 along with five Democrats. But three of the five Democrats are vying for the same seat.

As Polly Baca sees it, that’s not a good sign. The former state senator and one of the first Hispanic women ever elected to the General Assembly has worked on recruiting qualified Hispanics to run for the legislature. She notes that in every presidential election year since 2004, Coloradans have favored sending Democrats to the Statehouse. The party, she says, needs to widen its bench of Latino contenders this election cycle.

“Obviously we need to recruit more qualified candidates who can win. There’s no reason we can’t find them,” she says.

Vigil says Hispanics are making progress getting elected to school boards, county commissions, city councils and other elected positions, like mayor. There’s growing Latino representation at the local level, he says, at least for now.

Vigil notes that Hispanics are entrepreneurs who often have jobs owning or managing businesses that make it tough for them to break away each year for the 120-days legislative session. That may make serving in the legislature — and the relatively low pay that comes with the job — daunting, if not financially impossible.

Both Vigil and Valdez are proud of their work mentoring and having set examples for those who might follow their footsteps. Vigil is pleased to point out that three Hispanic Democrats are vying for his House District 62 seat in the June primary.

Raising a new generation of Hispanic lawmakers also is a prime goal of House Majority Leader Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat. Two years ago, Duran, who was then 33, was named one of the “40 under 40” rising stars in national politics by The Washington Post. When she was elected in 2010, she was the youngest Latina lawmaker in state history.

But when Duran came to the Capitol for the 2011 session, there weren’t many Hispanics among her colleagues. Latino representation that session had dipped to just seven out of 100 lawmakers. Of those, several are now leaders both in the state Capitol and in their communities. Among them — aside from Duran herself — are Senate Minority Leader Lucia Guzman, Speaker Pro Tem Dan Pabon and Sen. Irene Aguilar, all Denver Democrats. Duran also recruited her first-year legislative aide, Dominick Moreno, to consider service in the General Assembly. He’s now finishing his second two-year term in the House.

“There’s a great amount of talent out there,” Duran says. “It’s important we support and encourage each other and ‘build the bench’.”

For more Latinos to be elected, Duran notes, the current crop of lawmakers has to deliver on the promises they make back in their districts. She points to some of the successes of the last couple of years that have been important to the Hispanic community. Among them are passing, after seven tries, Colorado Asset, which allows undocumented students to go to public college at resident tuition rates. Another success is the law that gives undocumented residents the chance to obtain state driver’s licenses. That program has hit a bump in the road, partly due to the reduction in the number of motor vehicle offices that can process those applications. The long lines for appointments that are required for the application process have led to abuses that Duran hopes Republicans will be open to working on with Democrats.  

But for Duran, Latino representation at the Capitol is more than just about immigrants’ and urban needs, and her family’s story is an example. She’s a sixth-generation Coloradan whose parents grew up in southern Colorado, but moved to the Denver area for jobs and opportunity. As a result, Duran is attuned to the rural economic development problems that plague much of rural Colorado, and she believes a focus on those issues also will help bring along the next generation of Latino lawmakers.

As for Valdez’s tsunami? It’s about youth.

Valdez points out that the Hispanic population in Colorado is young. The median age is just 26, compared to the overall median age of 33.7, according to the Pew Research Center. In those demographics he sees a chance to promote public service among members of the next generation and help them learn to take on leadership roles in their communities.

Although most of the Hispanics at the state Capitol are Democrats, opportunities for Latinos aren’t limited just to that party.

Two Hispanics in the 2015-16 legislative class are Republican women: Rep. Clarice Navarro-Ratzlaff, from Pueblo County, and Sen. Beth Martinez Humenik, from Thornton.

Navarro-Ratzlaff has been touted as a rising star in the Republican Party, which is aggressively seeking to expand its appeal to Latinos. She was a featured speaker at the 2013 national Conservative Political Action Committee conference and last September was featured by the Republican National Committee during a celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month.

“I am a proud, Hispanic, conservative woman,” she told the CPAC audience in 2013. And like her fellow Hispanic lawmakers, she relied on education and hard work to get ahead. That helped propel her to the state Capitol in 2012 – where she won a seat in a traditionally “blue” district and kept it two years later.

“You can make a difference by stepping outside of the box,” Navarro told the CPAC audience. “It’s our job to get as many Hispanics to come to our party – the conservative party.”

It hasn’t always been an easy sell. Although Navarro-Ratzlaff most often reminds constituents of her strong conservative values, she also was among a handful of Republicans who voted for Colorado Asset in 2013.

Martinez Humenik was elected in 2014 from a district that’s evenly divided among Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters, and where Hispanics make up 23 percent of constituents. Like Duran, she has deep roots in Colorado, as a fourth-generation resident of the Centennial State.

In her first year at the Capitol, Martinez Humenik was one of the more moderate members of a conservative Republican caucus in the Senate. Three of the bills from her first session were signed into law by the governor. And, in an unusual distinction for a first-year lawmaker, she was a favorite among House Democrats for carrying their bills in the Senate. Eleven of them were signed into law last year.

In addition to its 11 Hispanic lawmakers, the General Assembly includes four African Americans, and seven members who are gay or lesbian.

Duran — a vocal opponent of Initiative 55, as currently drafted — cites Colorado’s record of overall diversity as reason for her optimism that fellow Latinos will make up for lost ground in Statehouse representation.

“It’s exciting to be a part of it.”

Correction 2/3/16: story corrected to note there are seven GLBT lawmakers and four African-Americans.

has been a political journalist since 1998. She covered the state capitol for the Silver & Gold Record from 1998 to 2009 and for The Colorado Statesman in 2010-11 and 2013-14. Since 2010 she also has covered the General Assembly for newspapers in northeastern Colorado. She was recognized with awards from the Colorado Press Association for feature writing and informational graphics for her work with the Statesman in 2012.