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Addressing Latina Underrepresentation in Elective Office

Cristian Eduardo Martínez Medina, NHCSL Policy Intern

Despite comprising 8.1% of the United States population, Hispanic women currently hold only 10 of the 535 seats in the 115th Congress (1.9%): one of the one hundred seats in the Senate, and 9 of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives (2.1%). In addition, one Hispanic woman serves as a non-voting Resident Commissioner representing Puerto Rico in Congress. Latinas made only tiny gains in the 2016 elections, adding mere fractions of one percent (0.2% in state legislatures and 0.3% in Congress) to their shares of those bodies.

Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics compiled the numbers at the state level, and the situation isn’t any better. Just 110 of the 7,383 state legislative seats (1.5%) are held by Latinas. Susana Martínez, of New Mexico, is the only Latina governor; while Mary Casillas Salas of Chula Vista, California, and Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto of San Juan, Puerto Rico, are the only Latina mayors among those of the 100 largest cities in the United States. Amidst all the non-governor statewide elective executive offices, only three are held by Latinas: the Lieutenant Governor and the Comptroller of Illinois, Susanna Mendoza and Evelyn Sanguinetti, and the Secretary of State of Rhode Island, Nellie Gorbea.

“I am very disillusioned when I hear these numbers, because I happen to know a large network of very talented Latinas all over the country who could do this work so well and so easily,” Senator Patricia Torres Ray (MN) said. “They are so well prepared, and yet they are not running for office.”

One of the reasons for this underrepresentation could reflect internalized discrimination. According to research done by the New American Leaders Project, Hispanic Americans, along with Asian Americans, regardless of gender, are less likely than other groups to independently entertain the idea of running for office, usually doing so only if another person suggests it to them.

But the challenges for Latinas go beyond those faced by minorities in general. Hispanic women are the most likely demographic to be actively discouraged from running by their own political party. This could be one of the reasons that Latina candidates report facing more fundraising hurdles than men or members of other minorities.

“These are the challenges that NHCSL’s Latinas Lead Initiative will tackle starting this year,” said Senator Torres Ray, who serves as its Chair. The goal is simple: to increase the numbers of Hispanic women in public service and elected office. Torres Ray said she hopes to eventually create a self-sustaining pipeline of strong Latina leaders who mentor and support each other, from local office all the way to the White House.

The group will hold its first conference and workshop in 2018, inviting Latinas already in office to teach them how to improve their fundraising skills, open pathways in their local, state and national party structures, and most critically, have them receive and show them how to provide mentorship to others, so that the numbers start to grow organically. Key components of the program will address qualifications, networking, how to leverage their personal story, and how to create and improve a leadership brand through the lens of public service.

“America has always gained from the innovative ideas and viewpoints that diversity brings an open society. While it may be obvious that having more Latinas in public office will be a boon to all Hispanic women, the benefits are not exclusive to us. This will be good for all Americans because it

will strengthen our bonds of understanding and brotherhood, our national cohesiveness, in a time of great division. It will also hopefully restore some of the trust the people have lost in our institutions. We must internalize that we do this not only for ourselves but for all of America,” concluded Torres Rey.