A record number of Latinos to join the state legislature, but under-representation remains

Latinos make up about 21 percent of the Colorado population, and come January, at least 14 percent of the state legislature

Rochelle Galindo will represent House District 50. (Photo courtesy Galindo)

On Wednesday afternoon, about 24 hours after the polls closed, Rochelle Galindo was at her mother’s house in Greeley watching the votes trickle in on her computer. The 28-year-old whose family has both Mexican and Native American heritage was locked in a dead heat race for a state House seat in Greeley. The next day, her advantage swelled, and her victory made Colorado history.

Nine Latinos were elected to the state legislature this year, helping to chip away at longstanding ethnic under-representation at the state Capitol in Denver. 

When the 2019 legislative session gavels in on Jan. 4, Galindo and at least eight others will join five incumbents to total at least 14 Latino lawmakers in all. Incumbent Dave Williams of Colorado Springs will be the only Republican among them. 

A close race between Democrat Bri Buentello, a special ed teacher from Pueblo, and Republican Don Bendell, an author from Florence, for House District 47 is yet to be decided. If Buentello wins, the number of Latino lawmakers next year would be 15. 

Galindo will represent a Weld County district where nearly half the population is Latino. As a former member of the Greeley City Council, she worked to publish a monthly newsletter in both English and Spanish. One reason Latino representation matters, she says, is that it helps break down barriers to participate in politics.

“I think it’s important that people have access to their local city government and access to their city council members,” Galindo told The Colorado Independent.

All of the new Latino lawmakers will represent communities along Colorado’s Front Range. But their families’ heritages span from Costa Rica to Mexico to Colorado’s San Luis Valley. Several have included Spanish translations on their websites.

On Tuesday, Democrats swept all constitutional offices and flipped the state Senate blue, a monumental party takeover not seen since 1936. Two Latinos will join a new Democratic majority in the state Senate, Julie Gonzales and Robert Rodriguez, both of Denver. 

Julie Gonzales at the Democrats’ Election Day party at the Westin on Nov. 6, 2018. (Photo by John Herrick)

Gonzales, who was born in the San Carlos Apache reservation in Arizona, will represent Senate District 34 in Denver. The former policy director at a Denver-based immigration and criminal law firm says Latinos care about the same policies as everyone else — education, health care, wages and criminal justice reform. The difference, she notes, is that the Latino community has mostly been left out of the policy-making process. 

“For so many of us, these policies feel like they happen to us,” Gonzales said Friday while participating in a legislative orientation.

Sonya Jaquez Lewis, a pharmacist and organic farmer from unincorporated Boulder County whose family has Hispano roots in the San Luis Valley, won a state House district stretching from Louisville to Longmont on Tuesday by nearly 50 percentage points. As she tells it, issues like health care affect Latinos disproportionately.

“Latino and Latina families have more difficulties accessing health care. … We don’t have as much access because of working situations” in which medical benefits aren’t provided by an employer, she said.

She supports Governor-elect Jared Polis’ health care plan based on a “Medicare for All” model that would expand coverage to more Coloradans.

Jaquez Lewis added that because Latinos use public transportation more than the general population, she wants to expand access to buses, trains and other forms of public transportation.

Robert Rodriguez, a business manager at a Denver halfway house who won a state Senate seat south of Denver, says that even though the majority of Latino candidates this year were Democrats, their message was not monolithic.

Non-Latinos “always think that the only thing Latinos care about is immigration. We care about education. We care about wages and jobs. Our communities work in the oil fields. They work on the farms. We’re very diverse because we’re very spread out,” said Rodriguez, who recently resigned as a member of the Colorado Democratic Party Latino Initiative to run for office. 

Galindo, the head custodian at Lafayette Elementary School, will be the first openly gay Latina to represent her district in Weld County. She bested her GOP rival, Michael Thuener, an Army veteran from Evans, by about six points to represent the blue-leaning seat in what is otherwise deep-red county with a history of racism against Latinos.

Galindo’s victory will up the record total of Latinos to 14 in a 100-member General Assembly. That 14 percent pales compared to the 21 percent of Colorado’s population that is Latino. The percentage of eligible Latino voters is likely lower, however; about 15 percent of Colorado eligible voters are Hispanic. Still, despite a two-seat gain this January, under-representation remains.

Jaquez Lewis figures that the high cost of running a campaign may be one reason why so few Latinos run for office.

“I would be a huge fan of campaign finance reform,” she says. “When you think about how much money it takes to run for office, that is a barrier for everyone, but especially Latinos-Latinas.”

Rodriguez said Latinos have made some great strides at increasing their presence in the state legislature, but he added, “There is always a lot more work to do.”

Sonya Jaquez Lewis won House District 12. (Photo courtesy Jaquez Lewis)

Getting out the vote

Rodriguez’s father, Mannie Rodriguez, is a member of the Democratic National Committee who helped elect Ken Salazar to the U.S. Senate in 2004 and his brother John Salazar to the U.S. House the same year.

In the 1970s, prior to working on campaigns, he remembers going door to door to register Latinos to vote. He said many were children of parents who came to the U.S. through the Bracero Program, a bilateral agreement between the U.S. and Mexico that invited millions of workers from Mexico to fill jobs during World War II. It was only a decade later when federal agencies started deporting these workers. The American citizens that were born here following the program, he says, remember immigration enforcement, now referred to as “La Migra,” or ICE.

“We used to have a hard time getting people to open their doors,” Rodriguez said.

Still, he laments, it’s a challenge getting Latinos out to vote. It helps, he says, when a candidate has a Latino community to support him or her like Ken Salazar had in his native San Luis Valley, one of the oldest Latino regions of the state. Things are tougher now, Rodriguez adds, because some of these communities are split up along legislative district boundaries.

Rodriguez said some legislative districts have been drawn in such a way that helps the Democratic Party more than the voting power of Latino communities. Others say factors like county boundaries take priority over so-called “communities of interests,” like Latino neighborhoods, under current redistricting guidelines. This can lead to districts like Congressional District One, which includes all of Denver and parts of Jefferson and Arapahoe counties, where Latinos make up just 28 percent of the population. 

Voters amended the Colorado Constitution this year to set up a non-partisan panel to draw state legislative and congressional districts. The amendments set up a new priority system for redistricting that supporters say is less likely to divide up Latino communities.

In May, during a bill signing ceremony for amendments Y and Z, which the legislature referred to the ballot unanimously, term-limited Democratic House Speaker Crisanta Duran, the state’s first Latina speaker of the House, said in the future, political maps “may not be drawn to dilute the electoral influence of racial and language minority groups.” 

Still, there are four state legislative districts in Colorado where Latinos make up a majority of the population.

House District 62, for example, was drawn intentionally to be a majority Latino district, awkwardly stretching southwest around the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the South Slope.

This is one of three districts, however, that dissects the city of Pueblo, a region with a relatively large Latino population. 

Buentello, a Latina Democrat, is running against Republican Bendell for one of the three districts here with the least number of Latinos, House District 47. The competitive seat is being vacated by former Rep. Judy Reyher, a Republican from Swink who lost her re-election bid in the primary.

Buentello was ahead by just 54 votes on Friday. But there were about 1,000 votes not counted in this race, according to Gilbert Ortiz, the Pueblo County Clerk and Recorder, due to factors like a missing signature.

He said voters will have until Wednesday to “cure” their ballot.

If Buentello wins, 15 Latinos will occupy seats in the state legislature.

From left to right: Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, Senate President Pro Tem Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, Minority Leader Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, and Sen. Angela Williams, D-Denver, consider amendments on a bill dealing with rural Internet subsidies on the Senate floor on Jan. 7, 2018. (Photo by John Herrick)

‘The stalwarts’

State Senate Democrats on Thursday named two Latino senators to leadership positions. Leroy Garcia, a Pueblo Democrat and former Marine, will serve as Senate president and Dominick Moreno, a Democrat from Commerce City, was appointed to the powerful Joint Budget Committee. And on Friday, Polly Baca, one of Colorado’s first Latina senators, was appointed to Polis’ transition team.

“An inclusive government that works for all hard-working Coloradans begins with a transition rooted in the mission to boldly create a government by the people, for the people,” Baca said in a statement.

Sen. Lucia Guzman, a term-limited Democrat from Denver, was the state’s first openly gay Senate minority leader. The former Latina senator says the leaders of her generation can be mentors for up-and-comers.

“They’ve had us there. They see us as the stalwarts,” Guzman said. “We vote and we change the system and it opens the door for many more of those who have been outside to get in.”

Still, she says there is a lot of catching up to do. Guzman said representation has been slow to grow in Colorado, in part due to socio-economic factors.

“I’m the only one in my family of nine children to have gone to college,” she said. “There are many people in my age group that were the first.”

Update: This story was updated on Nov. 10 to include mention of amendments Y and Z. 

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