By Ernest Luning
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
After spending decades securing a seat at the table, America’s Latino community is turning its attention to deciding what’s for dinner.
“The emphasis has been on getting elected,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, in an interview with The Colorado Statesman. “Now, what are we going to do with that power?”
That question will get some answers in Denver soon as roughly 1,000 elected and appointed Latino officials from around the country convene for NALEO’s annual conference. The gathering runs June 23-26 at the downtown Sheraton Denver Hotel and includes excursions to Red Rocks, City Park Golf Course and Civic Center Park for a community run.
In addition to sponsoring sessions on hot-button issues such as immigration reform and health care, the NALEO conference will play host to national luminaries, including Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and former Denver Mayor Federico Peña, who headed the departments of Energy and Transportation in the Clinton Administration.
Two other Cabinet members — Secretary of Homeland Security Kathleen Sebelius and Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar — are possible speakers at the conference but hadn’t confirmed by press time.
The organization also plans to release results of a poll conducted last week examining the Latino community’s attitudes toward a range of issues and political candidates in four states, including Colorado.
An academic researcher at the University of Southern California polled 400 Latino households each in Florida, Texas, California and Colorado, Vargas said. The survey asked about preferences in some statewide races — including Colorado’s Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate between incumbent Michael Bennet and challenger Andrew Romanoff, who are both scheduled to speak at the NALEO conference — and national political questions.
“We’ll poll attitudes toward voting, the impact of immigration reform, job approval for Obama, the Arizona law,” Vargas said before the poll was conducted.
Spurred by the recent passage of a tough immigration law in Arizona — strongly opposed by NALEO — the organization intends to press for comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level.
“It’s the wrong law, it’s the wrong way to do it, and I believe it’s unconstitutional,” said Denver City Councilman Paul Lopez, one of two NALEO board members from Colorado. “Immigration enforcement is the responsibility of the federal government — that’s why I’m joining my colleagues supporting comprehensive immigration reform that has a path to citizenship, that gives folks an opportunity to come out of the shadows of society.”
“We plan to take advantage of what’s happening in Arizona,” Vargas said. Not only is the divisive law a wake-up call for Congress, it’s a reminder of the consequences of voting, he said, noting that in Arizona “participation of Hispanic citizens is pretty low.”
Unlike other organizations opposed to the Arizona law, he said NALEO wouldn’t be boycotting the state. “Our members in Arizona are, like, ‘Don’t boycott us!’”
Representing 5,500 Latino officials nationwide — from school board members and county sheriffs to governors and Cabinet members — the nonpartisan group’s gathering is a chance to discuss issues across levels of government, organizers said.
“It’s a great opportunity to engage in dialogue, but also to engage on issues that are important to the Latino community — education, healthy communities, the economy and how it relates to energy and green energy,” Lopez said.
“We’re also going to have a discussion on civic participation in the Latino community, from citizenship to public service,” he continued. “We’re a nonpartisan organization, so our goal is to increase the level of civic participation by Latinos all across the country — whether it be the Census, voter registration or public service.”
Although most of the counting has been completed, Latino leaders will have plenty to discuss about the Census.
“We expect the story of the Census to be the rise of the Latino South,” Vargas said, pointing to increasing populations over the last decade in states that aren’t usually considered home to Latinos.
Even before Census results are known, NALEO has drawn some lessons from this year’s count.
“We found very good participation by foreign-born Latinos,” Vargas said, adding that a survey showed they were more likely than native-born Latinos to understand details about the Census. “The immigrant community gets it. They know they have to have a voice. Our challenge is the ones who are born here.”
At the same time, the organization is grappling with the Latino community’s recent turn in the spotlight as the key swing vote in national and state elections.
A study released early this year by America’s Voice, a political group aiming to enact “workable and humane” comprehensive immigration reform, affirmed what politicians in Colorado already knew: the Latino vote helped swing the election in 2008. Latino voter registration and participation surged over the last decade in battleground states such as Florida, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, tilting results toward Democratic winners from President Barack Obama to key House and Senate races, the study concluded.
“Our challenge is,” Vargas said, “even though 9.7 million Hispanic citizens voted in November 2008, the truth is, the population that can vote is growing faster than the population that does vote. Every month, 30,000 Hispanic citizens reach voting age.”
Lopez agreed that NALEO’s efforts to boost involvement by Latinos nationwide is key to addressing common concerns.
“There’s an opportunity to continue our tradition of public service in the community but also to build more leadership,” he said. “It’s important — one is to increase the level of civic participation in the Latino community. And two is to train and improve the skills of Latino leaders in the community on the issues that are important to us, such as the economy, building healthy communities, immigration, education.”
Lopez said his work with NALEO, including attendance at previous conferences, has helped him serve his West Denver constituents better.
“I tend to focus on the ‘building healthy communities’ sessions,” he said. “It’s important people know that building healthy communities is not just a Latino issue, but an issue that affects everybody.”
In his district, for instance, Lopez said NALEO resources have helped foster plans to construct a new neighborhood park.
“We are going to be building the first new park in District 3 in nearly three decades,” he said. “Part of why that’s important to building healthy communities is because studies have shown the more park acreage per thousand people, the healthier the community, the fewer cases of violence, even diabetes.”
Similar concerns guide his efforts to bring a grocery store to an area that doesn’t have any.
“It would help the community to have access to fresh food, fresh vegetables, as opposed to just soda and chips at your local corner store,” Lopez said. Other plans, including making neighborhoods more suitable for pedestrians, relate to the healthy communities initiatives hashed out at NALEO conferences.
In addition to Lopez, the other NALEO board member from Colorado is Ray Martinez, former Fort Collins mayor and current chairman of the Governor’s Minority Business Advisory Council of Colorado. Stephanie Garcia, president of the Pueblo City School District board, sits on the board of the NALEO Education Fund, a companion political action organization.
Colorado counts more than 100 Latino officials, according to NALEO. About half the organization’s membership resides in just two states, Texas and California.