Growing Latino Population Looks for Representation in State Government

Oct. 28, 2016, 6:45 a.m. ·

UNO student Guissella Herrera (c) knocks on a door in South Omaha with classmates Bibi Cortez (l) and Carla Mora (r). (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

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The first and last Latino lawmaker in Nebraska left office in 2008. Now Latino leaders are looking for ways to encourage others to run for state office as a new generation of minority voters reaches political maturity.

Latinos now make up more than 10 percent of Nebraska’s population, a number that’s expected to double by 2040.

Cities across the state like Lexington, Schuyler and Columbus now have sizable Latino populations.

But that growth has not translated to more Latino representation in Nebraska’s legislature. It’s been eight years since the first and only Latino lawmaker left office.

As Latino voters gain political clout, they’re hoping the halls of the state capitol will begin to reflect that.

In the busy hallways of Grand Island Senior High School, Ray Aguilar holds a two-way radio, monitoring students as they head home for the day.

Ray Aguilar, from Grand Island was Nebraska's first and only Latino state lawmaker. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

He’s a familiar face to these students and the residents of Grand Island. He was the first Latino state lawmaker in Nebraska and served as a state senator from 1998 until he was term-limited in 2008.

It surprises him that eight years later, he’s still the one and only.

“When I got there I thought, okay, we broke ground. I was the first, I don’t want to be the last. I want to keep this going,” says Aguilar. “I said that on my first day in office and I still feel that way today. I hope more people follow and it needs to happen, it really does.”

But it hasn’t yet. Several Latinos have run for state office since Aguilar left, but have lost.

The latest to try is Tony Vargas, who’s running for the Legislature in District 7, which includes South Omaha. He’s running against former state senator John Synowiecki.

Aguilar, who’s a Republican, says if you’re a Latino candidate in Nebraska, you have to run on issues of broad appeal, not just ones attractive to Latino voters.

“You have to be representative of the entire constituency. Whatever it consists of, you have to represent those people and be in front of them and win their trust,” Aguilar says. “I think that’s been part of the difficulty is people that followed me for a while, maybe they talked too much about representing the Hispanic population.”

Despite the lack of Latinos in the Legislature, Nebraska was ahead of its time when it created the Mexican-American Commission, now the Latino-American Commission, in 1972.

It was meant to be a conduit between lawmakers and Latinos in the state.

Dr. Lazaro Spindola, executive director of the Latino American Commission in Lincoln.

From his 6th floor office at the state capitol, executive director Dr. Lazaro Spindola says in most cases, Latino values align well with those of most Nebraskans, something lawmakers notice.

“They understand that they are dealing with a different cultural group, but which has various strong values that identify with Nebraska values,” Spindola says.

“Latinos are known for having very strong family values, very strong religious values, a very strong work ethic and a very, very strong willingness to do whatever job is available in order to improve the life of their children and their families and that’s something that resonates with basic Nebraska values,” he says.

Although there are close to 200,000 Latinos in Nebraska, only 36 percent of them are eligible to vote.

That number could be changing soon though.

Dr. Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado is the assistant vice-chancellor for student affairs at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He’s also the interim director of the office of Latino-Latin American studies at UNO.

“In the state of Nebraska, a significant portion of the population between the ages of 35 and 15, the largest number is Latinos, larger than any other population group,” Benjamin-Alvarado says.

Dr. Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, interim director of the office of Latino-Latin American studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

“So as they come to political maturity, they become voting age, they’re going to significantly alter the landscape, both in the local elections and in state elections, maybe even in statewide elections for Congress,” he says.

On the front porch of a home in South Omaha, Guissella Herrera and two others are trying to convince a man he should register to vote.

They’re students at UNO and part of a program called “I Vote for My Family” that has increased Latino voter participation in this area.

Sergio Sosa is the executive director of Heartland Workers Center, the organization that heads the effort. He thinks younger Latinos are much more interested in being a part of the political process than his generation.

“We need to understand that Nebraska has been receiving a new generation of newcomers, if you will,” Sosa says. “But now that the second generation, all of our kids you know, they are growing up and they are studying and I think they are more engaged in politics now”

He’s surprised there are still no Latino lawmakers in Nebraska, but is optimistic more Latinos will be elected to office across the state.

Sergio Sosa, executive director of the Heartland Workers Center in Omaha.

“It’s happening, but we have to be patient to keep doing what we are doing,” he says. “I think over the next four years I can see that there will be more Latinos running for offices.”

Despite the perceived progress, apathy among Latino voters is still an issue.

New data from the Pew Research Center shows the share of registered Latino voters who say they “absolutely” plan to cast ballots in this year’s presidential election is down about 8 percent compared to the 2012 election.

Dr. Erika Moreno is an associate professor of political science at Creighton University. She says that’s fixable.

“The patterns across the nation and across the Midwest seem to suggest that apathy can be overcome, when big issues are at stake and when those big issues are both met with resources to mobilize the population and are of extreme salience to that group,” says Moreno.

Latinos are steadily becoming a political force in Nebraska, engaged voters that Latino leaders say could be major players in the years to come.