Latinos Make Progress, But Still Underrepresented In State And Local Government
When the Iowa legislature convenes in January, it will include a Latino member for the first time. But Latinos remain underrepresented in state and local elected offices.
Republican Mark Cisneros of Muscatine was elected to an open seat in the Iowa House last week, defeating Democratic candidate Kelcey Brackett by about 2000 votes. Latinos are among the fastest-growing ethnic groups in Iowa, but they are still underrepresented in state and local government.
Cisneros, a small business owner and the son of Mexican immigrants, did not focus on his heritage for his campaign, according to his spokesperson Jon Zahm.
“He doesn’t usually emphasize the history making part, you know, because he just believes that the candidates are selected on their merits, not for their backgrounds," Zahm said.
But there are some people who feel a candidate's background is important to some extent. Rob Barron founded Latino Political Network (LPN), which aims to diversify Iowa’s government. He said his group's work is not just about building up Latinos, it is about making the state a better place.
“It's about the state and it's about getting a number of people in positions of authority that can speak with some experience about what it means to be in Iowa right now, and what it will mean to be in Iowa 20 years from now," Barron explained.
Right now, Latinos make up a little more than 6 percent of the state’s population. There is no official data on how many Latinos hold elected office in Iowa, and one of LPN’s initiatives is to try to figure that out. But they estimate Latinos hold fewer than 30 of the more than 7000 state and local elected positions in Iowa. That makes up less than 0.4 percent. Barron theorized there are a couple of possible reasons for this.
“One is the majority of our population is in their first, second or third generation in the state. So they haven't put down a ton of roots. I'm the exception to the rule there," Barron said.
Barron is currently the first elected Latino on the Des Moines Public School board. His grandparents and parents were born in the United States.
“So, you know, the deeper the roots you have, the easier it is to run and win office because you know more people. So that's part of it," Barron said. "Another part of it is: we haven't made it a priority.”
In Storm Lake, 16-year-old high school student Zoeline Lopez said that is not a good thing for her or for people her age. She said one of her role models is U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York because, she said, "AOC" isn’t afraid to speak her mind and make people mad. It’s something she said Iowa politics needs too, especially for the state’s role in immigration reform.
“I feel like if we had a Latino perspective on that, it would kind of help other people understand what we see and how we feel and why people are so mad right now," Lopez said.
Lopez's parents came from Guatemala. Hispanic and Latino students make up more than 50 percent of the Storm Lake school district. Lopez said it’s sad, but she can’t think of anyone she knows who wants to have a career in politics. She herself wants to be a teacher.
Lopez said maybe if more adult Latinos run for office, it could inspire more young Latinos to get involved in leadership.
“Since we're the younger generation, eventually we'll be there. And we need to have some sort of person to be there in that spot," Lopez said.
Barron said getting people in that spot is an uphill battle. The number of Latinos running for office is growing every year, but they face a number of obstacles, including literally getting doors slammed in their face while campaigning. Barron said this may be more likely to happen if the candidate has an accent or a Spanish-sounding name.
“There are certain folks who are not going to want to hear from you and that’s just reality right now," Barron said while shrugging his shoulders over a Zoom call.
Barron hopes more Latinos willing to run for office combined with more people willing to vote for them, will eventually lead to an Iowa government that better reflects the state’s diversity.