Latino candidates set to play most prominent role ever in presidential race
The presidential race has never had a candidate running explicitly on Latino issues, but that is almost certain to change in the next cycle.
Former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti are both eyeing White House runs in 2020, and Illinois Rep. Luis Gutiérrez is seen as another possible candidate.
If any of the three ran for office, their candidacies would put immigration and other issues central to the Latino experience in the United States at the heart of the Democratic primary.
It would almost certainly force other candidates in the race to address issues important to Latinos by elevating issues such as immigration in the race. And it comes as Latinos in the House are contesting leadership positions, seeking to ensure their communities are represented at the heights of Congress.Past candidates are salivating over the potential.
“I think we need a candidate as a community to rally around and also to be a player in the presidential race,” said former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the only Latino to ever mount a credible run on the Democratic nomination.
“The reason I say we need to be a player is because I know how politicians, pollsters and pundits are already writing and observing that we are still as a community not turning out to vote,” added Richardson.
While more than 27 million Hispanics were eligible to vote in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center, only about 13 million actually voted.
The Hispanic community’s well-earned reputation as a low-participation demographic group has hounded political participation for decades.
Mickey Ibarra, a veteran Latino lobbyist who served as director of The White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs under President Clinton, said that’s kept Hispanic politicians away from the two traditional springboards to the presidency: governorships and Senate seats.
Hispanic representation in Congress has grown consistently over the past few election cycles, but at 8.5 percent of Congress, it’s still far from parity with the 17 percent of the U.S. population that is Latino.
Only four senators, two Republicans and two Democrats, and two governors, both Republicans, are Latinos.
Democratic strategist Maria Cardona said having a Latino candidate would galvanize the Hispanic community, particularly given controversies centering on immigration in the Trump presidency.
“The candidates might be able to speak about immigration from a personal perspective even if they themselves are not immigrants because what has happened is the massive insults and repeated attacks on immigrants has made all of the community feel attacked,” she said.
Luis Miranda, a Democratic strategist who worked in the Obama White House, said Democrats shouldn’t run Latino candidates just for the sake of doing so, however.
“If we’re looking for a Latino candidate to be a Latino candidate, they won’t get as far as they need to,” he said. “They need a candidate that can boil it down to hope and change instead of the 25 things you can do for 25 groups of people. Obama was good at speaking for all of the people.”
Ibarra said it’s nearly impossible for one candidate to carry the torch given the Hispanic community’s diversity, and that people shouldn’t expect a Latino Jesse Jackson to emerge.
“Our community is much more diverse and much more complicated, and much newer to the political battles,” he added. “I don’t expect that we’ll have a single Latino that perhaps galvanizes the community in the same way as Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson or Reverend [Al] Sharpton.”
Gutiérrez, who is retiring at the end of this term, said he doesn’t expect to see a Hispanic Democratic nominee in 2020.
He also voiced confidence that white presidential candidates will carry the torch on issues he cares about, such as Puerto Rico.
Gutiérrez said he does expect to see a Hispanic president in his lifetime.
“I’m really gonna take care of myself during the next 20 years. Number one, because I want to live a long life, but because I want to see the first Latina or Latino president of the United States,” he said. “You may not see her, you may not see him, but they’re walking around.”
Ibarra said that the increased relevance of Latino issues at a national level and the growth in Latino representation will help clear the path for a presidential run.
“I ran at a time when you had to be in the first primaries that literally had no Latino voters, and that was Iowa and New Hampshire. The sensitivity to Latino issues just didn’t exist,” said Richardson.
California’s 2020 primary will be held in March as part of Super Tuesday. That could allow a candidate to pursue a Western strategy where Latino voters would play a greater role.
“The calendar will be better for a Latino. If I were advising Garcetti, Luis or Castro, I would say concentrate on a Western Latino strategy,” Richardson said.
Garcetti seems the best-positioned potential Latino candidate to make a credible run given California’s sizeable number of electoral votes.
Castro accrued cabinet experience as secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Obama administration, but Democrats haven’t won his home state of Texas since 1976.
“If the upset occurs in the Senate race … that may change the dynamics considerably and put Julián Castro in a very strong position to seek the Democratic nomination, said Ibarra.
Still, a Hispanic hopeful could have to contend with other big names, such as Sanders, Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Kamala Harris (Calif.) and Cory Booker (N.J.).
Richardson, who ran in 2008 against Biden, Obama and then-Sens. Hillary Clinton (N.Y.) and John Edwards (N.C.), understands the challenges.
“It was not a good year to run when Obama and Clinton ran,” he deadpanned.
Hispanic Democrats, however, have a young and growing bench, reflective of the relative youth of the Latino community.
“Members of the [Congressional Hispanic Caucus] CHC, they are younger, they are of the new generation, and that new generation in the House and in general is pounding on the door,” said Ibarra.
“I suggest that’s long overdue.”