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Cinco on the Brink

5 first-time Latino legislative candidates

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Losing the “I Care” Debate

In 2010, Tea Party politics dumped a fierce dose of ideology on an already-conservative Legislature, with constituents pushing for tougher policies on transparency, fiscal penny-pinching and, of course, immigration reform.

“Reform” in the 2011 Legislature meant a flood of round-’em-up-style bills aimed at making life difficult for Utah’s undocumented population, which estimates have put at over 100,000 Utahns.

Bills ranged from yet another effort to revoke in-state tuition at public universities for children of undocumented immigrants to Orem Rep. Stephen Sandstrom’s infamous Arizona-lite bill requiring police officers to check the immigration status of individuals arrested on serious misdemeanors and felonies.

These get-tough measures were sought, activists say, because it’s a political slam-dunk to demonize the “otherness” of undocumented immigrants, who, by virtue of living in the shadows, aren’t voters or politically active.

The collateral damage, however, has been the Republican Party’s alienation of the Latino base. While Salt Lake County Dems are running eight Latinos for the Legislature, the county GOP can claim only one candidate, Andres Paredes, running for the House in Poplar Grove’s District 26. Even Utah Gov. Gary Herbert conceded in a recent press conference that his party’s hard line on immigration means “sometimes Republicans lose the ‘I care’ debate.”

But not every Republican is uncaring. The 2011 Legislature also saw lawmakers like Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden, seek to pass a guest-worker bill to allow undocumented workers the opportunity to work for limited time periods. Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff also tried to facilitate a work-visa program between Utah employers and legal immigrants from the state of Nuevo Leon in Mexico. Shurtleff was profiled by The New York Times for advocating for a more compassionate approach to immigration and undocumented immigrants, telling a Times reporter that his conservative colleagues “need to realize [immigrants are] not the enemy.”

Paredes says the GOP’s strong support of family values, self reliance and traditional marriage resonates with Latinos—but he usually first has to explain to them why the party’s not out to get them.

“As far as why Hispanics are not more involved in the Republican Party is basically a lack of information,” especially on the party’s stance on immigration, Paredes says. “I’m trying to re-inform my constituents; that way they can make better decisions.”

But beyond Utah politicos setting up their own political fences on the immigration issue, Democrats say the party is not “big tent” when it comes to valuing diversity.

Josie Valdez, who now, thanks to support from PACE, is running for Senate District 8, has long been informally active in politics, helping to organize the Hispanic Caucus. She recalls a time when she invited a Latino legislator, whom she would not identify by name, to join the caucus.

“He didn’t want to join because he said he was ‘American,’ ” Valdez recalls. “Well, we [Democrats] acknowledge that we are definitely Americans, but we have a heritage and a culture that we’re proud of. It doesn’t take anything away from our patriotism and our Americanism. But here in the state of Utah, you have to put your culture second to the party.”

The diversity blinders hurt Republican outreach in a number of ways, according to Mark Alvarez, an immigration attorney and co-host of the Spanish-language radio show Pulso Latino on Exitos 1550 AM. Alvarez says Republicans fail to grasp the diversity even among Latinos and tend to want to believe all Latinos are conservative because of the conservative, family-centered themes that run among Catholic and LDS Latino communities.

“The Latino community is not a monolithic community in of itself. Speak to any Latino or Latina, and they usually would not label themselves as ‘Latino,’ ” Alvarez says of the term that’s thrown loosely over everyone from Chicanos born in the United States to Spanish speakers from Spain or immigrants from Central or South America. “Even if they were an immigrant from Mexico, they wouldn’t label themselves as Mexicans; they would more likely label themselves as from a specific village or state in Mexico that they’re from.”

While conservative elements run strong in Latin American politics, Alvarez says, too, that many Latinos could be more accurately described as libertarian, citing the fact that countries like Argentina have passed marriage-equality laws and that Mexico City, for example, recognizes same-sex civil unions.

“They respect other people’s liberties,” Alvarez says. “Republicans try to define libertarians as conservative, but on LGBT issues, [Latinos worldwide] are actually more progressive than most Americans in general.”

Game Changer

Gonzalez reflects on the man who encouraged him in politics, who told him a Latino candidate can be effective while pushing past Utah’s perennial scrimmages over draconian immigration laws. That man was Pete Suazo, Utah’s first Latino state senator, who died in August 2001.

Suazo, a youth-boxing mentor, had political punch, Gonzalez says, because his legislation was practical to many Utahns. While Suazo was known for supporting hate-crime legislation in the late ’90s, he also worked on sporting issues, RDA-development legislation and a wide variety of other topics, largely unrelated to ethnicity.

“Working with Pete, politics was a sporting event,” Gonzalez says. “You play for that team and you carry that team’s banner, because it was such a good brand. You get stuff done, and you want to win.”

Whiling away the hours at Suazo’s office balcony at City Hall, back when Suazo worked for Salt Lake City Mayor Palmer DePaulis, Suazo imparted to his protégé the reality that while politics is a sport, you don’t win by playing by other players’ rules. Gonzalez says that means he’s learned how to be part of all the rule-writing of the electoral process. As for the unwritten rules, Gonzalez says those are best rewritten by the candidates themselves, who continually knock down conventional barriers.

There was a time, he says, when openly gay legislators were viewed even by the Democrats as the kiss of death to the party, while today, the LGBT caucus is a powerhouse in state progressive politics. Gonzalez says current PACE candidates are ready to break down even more barriers—as with Valdez, a Latino woman in her mid-60s; or with Robles, a naturalized citizen elected to serve among the gray hairs of the senate when she was only 28; or with two of the PACE Latina candidates, Romero and Milner, running as single mothers.

Even if the current contingent of PACE candidates flops, Gonzalez sees the rules of candidacy being rewritten in a way that could, within the next few election cycles, spread rapidly from Salt Lake County to other counties in the state, such as Tooele, Weber, Davis and even Summit.

“Those rules of conventionality are fading fast,” he says.