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'Our community members hold a lot of power': Latino Utahns strive for political representation

From the Latinos in Utah County series
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Nichelle Jensen knows her life doesn’t look like a typical politician’s, with her “gritty background,” gender, younger age and Latino heritage.

Prior to deciding to run for Orem City Council, she had a subconscious inner dialogue saying, “People like me aren’t wanted in politics,” and “I don’t see anything that looks like me in those positions.”

“It’s kind of a similar issue with beauty magazines, where growing up, if you don’t see bodies that look like yours, you assume yours is other and ugly and not beautiful, and I think (Latinos running for political office) is a similar mind trick,” she said. “I didn’t think that I thought those things until recently.”

She might not come across as a typical politician, Jensen said, but city government doesn’t need typical politicians or career politicians — they need public servants who can represent and relate to all different groups of the population.

Importance of Latino elected officials

Keith Kuder, whose mother is a Columbian immigrant and who is currently running for Vineyard City Council, pointed out the discrepancy of the proportion of Latinos in the population versus the proportion of Latinos serving as elected officials.

“We are underrepresented in top government positions, including in political appointments at all levels,” Kuder said.

Jensen, who is of Mexican descent, also addressed the lack of political representation of the Latino community in the county.

“It’s a huge chunk of the population, and there will only be more here,” she said. “This is a really family-centered place, and (Latinos) are a really family-friendly. ... For that reason alone, I think the demographic will continue to grow really fast here.”

Jensen added that even if Latinos didn’t represent a sizable proportion of the population in Utah Valley, it would still be vital to have Latinos present in local government.

“I think it’s still important to have minority voices represented in local government, in all levels of government, especially in local government, because these are the changes that affect them (Latinos) most,” she said.

Latinos bring unique perspectives to the table because of their experiences, according to Carolina Herrin, a Brazilian immigrant who moved to the U.S. at 13 years old. Herrin has served Utah County and the state in several positions, including as the recent Utah County Republican Party vice chair, the current president of the Women Legislative Council in Utah County, the legislative district chair for district 65, a board member of Utah Latino Republicans, among other positions. Currently, Herrin is working on Jeff Burningham’s governor campaign.

Herrin brought up how Latinos in general strongly identify with a principle that aligns with Utah Valley: family values. Latinos also contribute a lot to the community, especially when it comes to entrepreneurship and business, she said.

“Latinos are voices we need to listen to … That makes it better for the community,” Herrin said. “Same voices constantly lead to the same things. Just having that change and diversity and different set of eyes and different opinions gives you different outcomes.”

Few local Latino government leaders

“I can’t speak for everybody else,” Jensen said. “But what I can imagine is, there are a lot of people in my position that haven’t been primed their whole lives ... and come from this pedigree background to be able to position themselves exactly where they want to at the right age to run for a political office. I think people have aspirations of being in politics and they and their elders and their family know what it takes to do that, and they set out that path for them.”

That sort of background just isn’t as common among the Latino population, especially as many of them immigrants and are focusing on just making rent and bettering their personal situations, Jensen said.

Kuder said he believes the reason for the lack of Latinos currently running for office in Utah County elections this year, and the small number of local Latinos already in office, comes down to education and support.

Herrin added that for Latinos, it might be an immigration issue holding them back, or it might be that they don’t understand that they can, or what the process is — something she’s trying to reverse through Utah Latino Republicans.

“We are educating Latinos in what the general political process is, how you get involved, and what you can do,” she said. “We have several Latino members in our group that are working towards either running or helping different campaigns, which in the past, they didn’t even know was something they could do.”

Herrin added that in order to further politically educate Latinos in the area, the communication needs to be in their language — Spanish, Portuguese and so on — along with being done in a cultural way that they can understand and identify with.

How Latino heritage influences politicians

When asked whether she thinks her Latino heritage would influence her as a city councilwoman, Jensen said, “I think it would for sure. I see them (Latinos) as an equally vital part of our community and not just a blight or the consequence of poverty.”

This outlook, along with her own childhood experience growing up in poverty, influences Jensen’s stance on one of the hottest issue in Utah Valley politics: high density housing.

“I don’t see a higher density apartment complex or a neighborhood in deterioration that I don’t want to have to address. I see people that are important and vital to our community, no matter how different their lives are from ours,” she said.

Within her years engaged in local politics, Herrin said her Latino heritage has influenced her greatly.

“It definitely gives me a different perspective, especially in a place like Utah, where we hear all the time that diversity’s not a big thing here,” she said, adding that her personal experiences with immigration and more, on top of being a Latino and a woman in general, allows her to bring a “different culture, different set of eyes, different view on things,” to the political table.

Herrin said being an immigrant and a Republican can sometimes make immigration a tough issue for her.

“It’s unfortunate the immigration system is broken; it definitely needs to be revamped and revisited, and things need to be changed,” she said. “But at the end of the day, having lived through a socialist regime and a different set of politics — that’s why it’s so important for me to be involved.”

Kuder said part of his Latino upbringing that would influence him while serving as an elected official revolves around spending money.

“I grew up in poverty and I was taught the math to become a fiscal conservative — to do more with less. My family manages a budget at home, we live within our means, and always plan for the future,” he said, adding that he would bring that style of money handling to Vineyard City Council if elected.

Local Latinos and voting

Latinos in Utah, as well as elsewhere in the country, participate in elections at a lower rate than whites.

According to United States Census Bureau voting and registration data for the 2016 election, 38.5% of Hispanics in Utah reported being registered to vote and 35% reported having voted. Comparatively, 72.8% of whites were registered to vote that year and and 64.2% voted, meaning whites in Utah voted at nearly double the rate of Latinos.

The 2018 midterm elections tell a similar story. A third of Latinos reported registering to vote while 28.3% ended up voting. Almost 72% of whites were registered in 2018 and over 60% voted.

Due to a small sampling size, U.S. Census data for Latinos in Utah has a 10.5% margin of error for 2016 and margins of error of 9.5% and 9.1% for registration and voting in 2018, respectively.

Latinos in Utah also vote at lower rates than Latinos in other parts of the country, according to census data. In 2016, 47.6% of Latinos in the U.S. voted, a roughly one-tenth higher rate than in Utah. There was a parallel discrepancy in the midterms with 40.4% of Latinos having voted.

Whites, meanwhile, voted at approximately the same rate nationally as in Utah: 65.3% in 2016 and 57.5% in 2018.

Additionally, census data shows that nearly a quarter of Latinos reported to not being registered to vote in 2016, which is double the percentage of whites who said they weren’t registered.

There is also an age gap when it comes to Latino voting. Only 27.7% percent of Latinos aged 18-24 in the country voted in 2018 compared to 57.3% percent of Latinos 65-74 years old.

Latinos are projected to be the largest racial or ethnic minority group in the electorate by 2020, according to the Pew Research Center. Pew predicts that there will be 32 million voting-eligible Latinos in 2020, 13.3% of the electorate, compared to 30 million eligible blacks and 11 million eligible Asians, making up a respective 12.5% and 4.7% of the electorate.

But this doesn’t mean more Latinos will cast ballots than other ethnic minorities, according to Pew, which says that “the number of Hispanic eligible voters who didn’t vote has exceeded the number of those who did vote in every presidential election since 1996.”

As Jensen has campaigned in Orem, she’s been direct in asking the local Latinos she meets if they are a citizen and if they are able to vote.

“I’ve only run into a handful out of a hundred primarily Spanish-speaking folks that weren’t able to vote,” Jensen said. “All of the others are able to vote, are registered citizens who can vote, but choose not to.”

Jensen said she’s discovered most Latinos’ reasons for neglecting the voter booth is either that they have a general lack of information about the local election and candidates, or that they think their voice doesn’t matter.

“(There’s) just a general lack of information and apathy. I do think there’s almost a sense of surrender: ‘I don’t know if I can do anything, my vote doesn’t matter, what good will that do?’” Jensen said.

Voting for two

Low voting rates can be explained by a variety of factors. One is the time, effort and scheduling it takes to cast a ballot in person. About 30% of Latinos at the national level reported that they didn’t vote because of scheduling conflicts, census data shows.

But transitioning to by-mail voting or mobile voting is not necessarily the answer, said Luis Garza, executive director of the West Valley City-based Comunidades Unidas.

“I think, in general, there needs to be more accessibility for people to participate in the elections,” Garza said, adding that many in immigrant communities “are just not familiar with (the vote-by-mail) process.”

Garza said his organization, which focuses on immigrant rights and community organizing in predominantly Latino areas, has met with people who didn’t know that it was safe or secure to cast a ballot by mail.

One solution, according to Garza, is for counties and local governments to educate constituents on the voting process, either through instructional videos or providing election materials in multiple languages.

“All these new technologies or ways to participate in democracy are great,” Garza said, “but I think they need to be accompanied with more education and more outreach.”

Every election year, Comunidades Unidas operates grassroots “neighborhood-by-neighborhood” voter engagement campaigns encouraging Latino participation in local elections, said Maria Montes, the group’s community engagement and advocacy coordinator.

The campaign consists of helping Latinos and low-income community residents understand the registration process, how to fill out a ballot and what voting methods are available.

According to Montes, Comunidades Unidas has reached over 4,000 people, primarily Latinos, over the past eight years.

The name of the campaign is “Votar por dos,” or “Vote for 2.” The reason? Because “when people in the immigrant community are casting a vote, they are not only voting for them(selves),” Garza said, “but they are voting for people who might not have their right to vote yet,” such as green card holders, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients and legal permanent residents.”

‘We’re here’

Rhetoric and policies at the federal level surrounding immigration have had an effect on Hispanic communities in the state. Since President Donald Trump’s 2016 victory, Comunidades Unidad has seen “a lot more momentum in our registration and campaign efforts,” Garza said.

“Especially with everything going on related to immigration enforcement,” he said, referring to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids across the county.

Latinos and immigrants in Utah should not be discouraged by national politics trends, Montes said, or think that change can only occur at the federal level.

“We believe that even though, historically, our community has not had the opportunity to change things at the national level, when it comes to the state and local level, within our cities, our counties and our state government, our community members hold a lot of power,” she said.

Abraham Hernandez, health promotion coordinator with Provo’s Centro Hispano, believes Latino engagement in elections is important in helping the state’s Hispanic population be better represented.

“We’re here,” Hernandez said. “And we need services just like everyone else.”

Something county and city officials can do to make Latinos feel more included in the political process, Hernandez said, is to make policy information more readily available and easy to access.

When researching a political issue, “you really have to dig and you have to know exactly where you want to go before you even get there,” he said.

Centro Hispano is a community resource group that serves as a “bridge” between Utah County’s Hispanic community its greater population. Hernandez said that Latinos in Utah should not feel invisible or unrepresented.

“People need to know that we care about being here and that we want to make a positive change in our communities,” said Hernandez. “And what better way than to voice our opinion through voting?”

Connor Richards covers government, the environment and south Utah County for the Daily Herald. He can be reached at crichards@heraldextra.com and 801-344-2599.

McKenna Park covers nights and weekends at the Daily Herald, along with special projects and visual editing. She can be reached at mpark@heralextra.com.

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