Political power of women and Latinos on the rise

Legislative breakfast highlights progress
The Colorado Statesman

The rise of Latino political power is a seismic change that took centuries to build, according to former Rep. Gloria Leyba, who spoke at Tuesday’s 24th Annual Colorado Women’s Legislative Breakfast.

The annual breakfast is sponsored by a host of groups that focus on women’s issues. Close to 300 attended the Tuesday morning gathering, which also featured a legislative panel that discussed how they got where they are.

“I’m no [Rep.] Rhonda Fields,” quipped Sen. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins. Kefalas replaced the Aurora legislator on the panel, which took place one day after news broke that she had received death threats from a Colorado Springs man. Legislators were asked how they got into politics and what bills they carry this year that affect women.

Some of the legislators in attendance at the 24th annual Colorado Women’s Legislative Breakfast. Left to right: Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen; Rep. Tracy Kraft-Tharp, D-Arvada; Sen. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins and Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango.
Photo by Marianne Goodland/The Colorado Statesman

Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, joked she was at the “wrong place at the wrong time” when she decided to run for elected office. The third-term legislator said she didn’t have a burning issue when she decided to run. “I’m more of a generalist.” It fits with Gerou’s role on the Joint Budget Committee, where as a fiscal conservative she helps form the annual state budget bill. “The recession is tough. We haven’t recovered yet,” she said. Gerou cited House Bill 13-1001, the Advanced Industries Technology Act, which she co-sponsors with Rep. Dave Young, D-Greeley, as a bill that will help be an economic driver in bioscience and clean technologies.

Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, standing, discusses her legislative priorities during the 24th annual Colorado Women’s Legislative Breakfast. Also on the panel: Sen.Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, left and Sen. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, right.
Photo by Marianne Goodland/The Colorado Statesman

Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, said her decision to run was based on an evolution in how she viewed the law. As a law student, she’d read statutes but not understood them. After a few years of law practice, she’d read the statutes and say, “this doesn’t make sense.” After 20 years she graduated to, “I need to help make this better.” Roberts said her driving issues are health care and health care reform. It’s in women’s genes to be involved, Roberts added. “If you don’t show up, you can’t help.” Roberts noted her bill to create uniformity in the collection of evidence in rape cases will help create a statewide centralized database. “But I see women’s issues as broader than that,” she said, adding that bills on online education and Medicaid fraud are also important this year.

Gabriela Lemus, senior advisor and director of the Office of Public Engagement, US Department of Labor, brings greetings from the Obama administration.
Photo by Marianne Goodland/The Colorado Statesman

Kefalas, who called himself the “token male” on the panel, said he has been a public servant his entire adult life, going back to his service in the Peace Corps and in El Salvador during its civil war.” It was a “transformative experience” that has led him to teach, work in human services and in community development. His driving issues include job creation, economic opportunity and addressing poverty, especially child poverty. Kefalas is a sponsor of Senate Bill 13-001, the “Colorado Working Families Economic Opportunity Act of 2013,” and said this bill would provide refundable tax credits, addressing his interests in fighting poverty. He also reminded the audience that despite the media coverage and attention to contentious issues at the capitol, most of the bills pass with bi-partisan support.

Keynote speaker and former Rep. Gloria Leyba discusses the changing political landscape and the rise of Latino political power.
Photo by Marianne Goodland/The Colorado Statesman

Legislators also responded to a question on facing discrimination based on gender, which came from Annie Oldenbrooke, a student at Jefferson County Open School. Kefalas joked he was the “white, privileged male” among the panel, but that he has faced teasing based on his stature.

Even with the large number of women serving as state legislators, the capitol tends to be a chauvinistic environment, according to Gerou. But any discrimination she’s faced is “not as important as what’s in my heart,” she said. “It’s tough, but you look beyond it” and focus on your values and goals.

Roberts shared a story about working as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park for several seasons in her younger days. She wanted to be on a trail crew, but was told she couldn’t because she couldn’t operate a chainsaw. So she learned, but was still told she couldn’t be on the trail crew because she was a woman. “It’s what’s inside you [that will help you] overcome it,” and she cited it as part of the reason she went to law school. “Barriers? Get over it. [Discrimination] may take you to a better place.”

Both Roberts and Gerou addressed the recent election losses in Colorado for the GOP. Losing “causes introspection,” Roberts told the audience. There aren’t enough women at the higher levels of the GOP, and more women need to be elected to the General Assembly. “Don’t give up on us in terms of having the conversation,” she asked.

Even though the Colorado General Assembly currently includes 42 women (28 in the House and 14 in the Senate), making it the legislature with the high-est percentage of women (42 percent) in the country, Kefalas also agrees that there are not enough women currently serving. He said that public policy is a reflection of the values of those who participate. “It gets down to relationships,” said Kefalas. “Run for office!”

Women need to take responsibility, added Gerou. “It’s not all on the guys. There are times when women take the easy way out... If you want to excel, you have to be better than the guys. That’s reality… There are things we can do as a gender to empower [each other].”

Gerou also asked the audience to learn more about the issues. “When you get an email on an issue, dig deeper,” she said. “Don’t believe everything you see on the Internet.”

The audience also got a welcome from the Obama administration from Gabriella Lemas of the Department of Labor Federal Office of Public Engagement.

Leyba, the event’s keynote speaker, addressed the changing political landscape, especially for Latinos. Since leaving office in 2000, Leyba has split time between Denver and Guatemala, where she works on economic development issues with indigenous women.

“There is a global recognition of Latino political influence,” Leyba said. It goes all the way back to 1535, when Spain established a colonial government in Mexico. At that time, Mexico held much of what is now the western United States, including Colorado. The next major step was in 1810, when Mexico declared independence from Spain, and in its first constitution outlawed slavery. Once the 10 western states were ceded to the United States, after the Mexican-American war, Leyba said “we didn’t cross the border. The border crossed us.”

That citizenship doesn’t mean “leaving our many cultures behind,” Leyba said, explaining that politicians are fond of lumping all Latinos into a monolithic group. She cited the 1998 voting rights action affecting the San Luis Valley, when a group of 10 white men sat around the table and said “these people don’t know what they want.” Politicians want to hear the Hispanic voice but it is many voices, she added.

Leyba said Latinos will be 30 percent of the nation’s population by 2050, but populations don’t change political power — voting does — and 15 million Latino citizens under age 18 will soon have the right to vote. The Latino electorate will double in the next 20 years, Leyba predicted. “We are the key” to the White House, the legislature, school boards and the governor’s office.

Issues for Latinos include economics and jobs, education and healthcare, but it’s immigration that “arouses our passion to vote.” The “ugly rhetoric” of some of the candidates from the Republican Party ignited voters in the last election, she said. “It’s personal. It’s about my mom,” whom Leyba said immigrated from Mexico.

Politicians tend to “discover” Latinos about every four years, she said, but it’s actions, not words, that matter, and the Latino vote is not guaranteed to any political party. Leyba cautioned Republicans on their messaging to Latinos, noting that the vice chair of the national Republican Party recently said, “I would talk to a head of lettuce” if it would vote Republican. “That’s the new and improved outreach” from the Republican Party? Leyba said, astonished.

Latinos are the quintessential independent voters, “and our seismic forces will be strong for generations to come.”