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Utah Legislature's Hispanic delegation grows by one

Published November 7, 2012 8:11 pm

Politics • Four of five Hispanic candidates lose elections but build base for the future.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Almost the entire Hispanic delegation on Utah's Capitol Hill this upcoming legislative session will be made up of women and they will all be Democrats — a demographic trend that mirrored national results on Election Day.

First-timer Angela Romero will join incumbent Sen. Luz Robles and Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, both D-Salt Lake City, in the Utah Legislature. The only Hispanic male will be returning Rep. Mark Wheatley, D-Murray.

But the Democratic dream of loading up the Legislature with eight Hispanics fell short as Liz Muniz, Celina Milner, Cimarron Chacon and Josie Valdez all failed in their bids for House and Senate seats. The Republicans sole hope for Latino representation was Andres Paredes, who was defeated handily by Romero in Salt Lake City's House District 26.

Utah Democratic State Party Chairman Jim Dabakis said the effort and outreach his group put into drafting Hispanic candidates and pushing a get-out-to-vote effort in Latino communities paid off and helped offset a Mitt Romney-effect down the ballot.

He said that Romney factor was evident in some of the close vote totals where Hispanic candidates lost — namely in House District 33, where Democrat Liz Muniz lost to Republican Craig Hall by 280 votes out of 7,146 votes cast.

And in House District 34, Democrat Celina Milner lost to Rep. Johnny Anderson, R-Taylorsville, by 469 votes out of 10,375 votes cast.

"With the seats that were won and the two that were within a competitive range showed we did well in spite of the Romney trauma," Dabakis said. "I think we were very successful."

Nationally, Democrats have been reaping the rewards among Latinos and exit polling done by Latino Decisions showed President Barack Obama picking up 75 percent of that vote compared to Romney's anemic 23 percent total.

With Utah's growing Latino population — especially in Salt Lake County, where Spanish-language ballots were available for the first time, Democrats in the state were hoping to expand their ranks in the Legislature.

Chavez-Houck said she thought the record-number of Hispanic candidates likely set a foundation for elections in 2014.

"I'm not happy that they all didn't win, but I think they did what works, which is run a strong ground game," she said. "They connected with constituents and we can build on that."

Utah Republican State Party Chairman Thomas Wright was blunt in his assessment of where his party was.

"We're just not doing a good job of reaching out," he said. "A lot of those Latinos would vote Republican if we reached out to them and we haven't done it, so we can't expect that community to be supporting us. That's our failure."

Wright said in the coming months, he will be building a strategy to reach out to Latinos before the 2014 elections.

Dabakis said the Republican Party needs to change, though he's not sure it can.

"The party nationally and in the state of Utah has shown an inability to adapt," he said. "They simply want yesterday's ideas to continue and they feel threatened. I don't think they'll be able make that jump until they're forced to."

But some in the GOP were signaling the alarm before the election.

Outgoing Attorney General Mark Shurtleff has said the party was losing Latino support with hard-line rhetoric on immigration and Gov. Gary Herbert recently said his party "loses the 'I care'" debate too often.

Robles said the upcoming legislative session could draw contrasts depending on what types of bills are proposed and who proposes them. She said that while Democrats aren't off the hook, Republicans still have a lot more to prove to Latinos.

"I think the Democrats had better appreciate Latinos for that support and Republicans may want to reconsider their strategy," she said. "It's setting a pattern that is becoming clearer and I believe it will change the conversation in both parties — but one has more of an urgency to do something."

dmontero@sltrib.com

Twitter: @davemontero