Utah's Latino candidate disparity illustrates parties' race gap
No matter who wins the House District 26 race in November, it will be a Hispanic from that area sworn in on Capitol Hill in January.
But while Democrat Angela Romero is one of nine Hispanics from her party seeking office in the Legislature, Andres Paredes will be the lone Latino Republican on the ballot vying for a statehouse seat.
It is a reflection of the changing demographic of Utah, but also illustrative of the wide disparity between the two political parties and their ability to draw Hispanics into their respective tents.
"The fact that it's9-to-1 tellsyou a lot," said Theresa Martinez, associate professor of sociology at the University of Utah. "It tells me that the Republican Party hasn't been reaching out to the Latino community and is more known for being punitive to the Latino community."
She said that while the trajectory of Latino growth in Utah will likely continue to rise, it's up to the political parties to understand how to react to it.
She said Republicans are behind with both Latino voters and candidates due to some harsh immigration rhetoric.
Some high-ranking state Republicans have sought to sound the alarm, with Gov. Gary Herbert saying last month that the GOP sometimes "loses the 'I care' debate" and that it has "been off-putting to some in the Latino community."
"When I look at the immigration issue and I see some things that the extreme Republicans say or do, it's not a surprise that it's a factor in why Hispanics have trouble reconciling with the Republican Party," Paredes said. "I wouldn't blame them for feeling that way."
Broader perspectives • For the Legislature to reflect Utah's 13.2 percent Latino population it would need 10 Hispanics in the House and four in the Senate.
In the last legislative session, there were a total of five Latinos in both chambers.
Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake City, has been in office since 2008. She said diverse representation will bring broader perspectives to issues on education, health care and immigration reform.
"When you see faces in committee hearings that are reflective of that diversity, I think it guarantees the discussion moves forward," Robles said. "I'm excited about that and I think it will empower the state and be positive for all Utahns."
Romero, a 39-year-old program manager at the Sorenson Unity Center, said she has been working within an ethnically diverse community "behind the scenes" for most of her adult life.
But then Democratic House Minority Leader David Litvack said he wasn't going to seek re-election in House District 26, which runs mostly along 400 South as its northern boundary, from 900 East to almost 7200 West.
Romero spoke with several Democratic lawmakers who encouraged her to run.
She said it's a chance to honor what she learned from her grandmother while growing up in Tooele.
"She raised me with the values of treating people the way you want to be treated. If you see someone being bullied, you don't stand on the sideline and watch you go help them," Romero said. "I see many in House District 26 that, just due to their circumstance, may not feel they have a voice in their corner. I want to be that for them."
Romero, who has been canvassing since July, said education is her top issue.
But sometimes, immigration comes up at the door.
One evening, she met a woman who said stopping illegal immigration was her top issue and backed an enforcement-only approach.
Romero listened, gave her a flier, and moved on.
"It's OK," she said. "Even though we may not agree on everything, my door will always be open."
Paredes, a 35-year-old medical school student at the U., said that as a Republican candidate he wants to help communicate the GOP message to Latinos.
At an Amigos y Libros meeting at the Salt Lake City Library, he introduced himself speaking in Spanish to the small book club reading "Los Santos Inocentes" by Miguel Delibes. They listened as he spoke about his top issue education.
He said afterward that he would oppose any attempt to repeal the law granting in-state tuition for illegal immigrants and that he could be an effective voice within the GOP.
"You have a student who is a 4.0 and the only thing that's missing is a Green Card?" Paredes asked. "Why would we not want them here?"
But Litvack said Paredes' campaign of trying to change his party from within is a well-worn strategy.
"It's the same tired effort made against me in six campaigns," he said, "that they'll make change within the majority party. It doesn't make any difference at all."
Conflicting messages • Thad Hall, associate professor of political science at the University of Utah, said on the issue of immigration, Utah Republicans will point to efforts boasting a more compassionate approach on the issue, such as The Utah Compact.
He said that, coupled with the state's offering of in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants and the Legislature's attempt to pass a comprehensive raft of bills that included a controversial guest worker law set to take effect in July, could make the GOP look more attractive to Latinos in Utah.
But, he said, the national noise of self-deportation, fence-building and enforcement-only approaches can drown out local politics.
"The harsher stands seen nationally tend to push Latinos to the Democrats," he said. "You have conflicting messages at the national and state level and that can be a problem."
The most recent Latino Decisions tracking poll showed, in fact, a growing gap of support between President Barack Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney 72 percent of Latinos for Obama and only 20 percent for Romney.
Those kinds of margins, Hall said, are dangerous and could impact future generations of Latino voters in Utah.
"I don't think it's too late, but it's unclear to me if they (GOP hard-liners) represent the majority view in the party," Hall said. "That's the kicker. The clear-headed ones who see a hard-line tactic as unattractive to Latinos could be the same ones voted out of office. Then, you will see a shift."
Thomas Wright, Utah State Republican chairman, said the party does have work to do.
"I think President Obama did a spectacular job of reaching out to that group and they appreciated it and responded with that support," Wright said. "But over the last four years, that gap continued to narrow. While he is a charismatic and great speaker, his values don't necessarily align to their values. At the same time, we need to do a better job in getting our message out there."