The Lone Star State’s Latina Congresswoman Deficit

The Lone Star State’s Latina Congresswoman Deficit


In San Antonio, Texas Sylvia Romo’s loss to Democratic Congressman Lloyd Doggett in  a recent primary dashed the hopes that Texas would elect its first ever Latina to Congress. Romo entered the race for the 35th congressional district and was favored to win before Doggett, whose district’s Democratic base was diluted in redistricting, sought the nomination for the San Antonio-based and largely minority district.

Despite its large and historic Latino population, Texas has never had a Latina congresswoman; California currently has four Latinas serving in the House. California, with 14 million Latinos, and Texas, with 9.4 million, both have Latino populations of about 38% of their respective populations. While there are just 24 Latino and Latina congresswomen currently serving, according to 2011 figures from the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed officials (NALEO), only seven are women. Four of them are from California, one from Florida, Washington state, and one from New York.

It’s a given that 24 Latino reps is a gross underrepresentation of the Hispanic population nationally, which constitutes 16% of the nation, but when even an underrepresentation underrepresents women, you have to wonder why.

From conversations with Latinas positioned to advocate for, or run for Congressional office, it appears there are a few core reasons for this. One is economics; Texas does not pay state elected officials a salary, nor is it a full-time legislature like California, leaving few options for those not independently wealthy to serve.

There’s also an educational factor: how do you effectively fundraise for a campaign? It’s a cultural factor that sometimes pushes Latinas to the sidelines and men to the forefront. But, all of these things may be remedied by organizing, we’re told.

“I think like anything else, I’ve always felt like Latina women have to work twice as hard to be equal,” said Gloria Molina, current Los Angeles County Supervisor and former city councilwoman and assembly member, in a telephone interview with Politic365. “If you look at the (Californian Latina) congressional members, it didn’t just happen. It was a lot of assertiveness.”

Molina recalled that she and a group of Latina politicians decided after the 1980 Census that more Latinas should be elected to office. She said the group went to their male counterparts and said they wanted at least one Latina to fill one of the three new Latino congressional seats and “of course we got laughed out of the room.” But the effort helped Molina and others push for more Latinas in the state government and in Congress.

Brazen, bold, courageous, and assertive is how Molina characterized California’s Latina politicians. When asked why this phenomenon hadn’t been seen in Texas, Molina said there were several factors.

“The issue in Texas – I am not saying that women are not bold, but they need to challenge the men as well,” Molina said, alluding to Latino political dynasties in Texas that have passed exclusively between men, unlike the Roybal in California, which passed from Ed Roybal to his daughter, Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard.

Texas State Senator from San Antonio Leticia Van De Putte has been active in the state legislature since the 1990s and said dynasties passing between men, as well as economics, were factors in the lack of Latina comgresswomen from her state.

“As far as Congress goes, redistricting hasn’t been very kind to Latinos [in Texas]. And when those races have come up, the male candidates have beat the female candidates,” Van de Putte said, noting a good example from one of Texas’ historically Latino congressional districts. “Henry B. Gonzalez was long-serving [in Texas], and when he stepped down his son (Charles) ran.”

The economics of being a Latina politician in Texas versus California are quite different, too, she told us. California has a full-time, paid legislature while Texas has a part-time legislature that gets paid a pittance — $600 a month. Which means politically ambitious women in Texas are left with an unenviable set of choices: pursue office and work full-time while raising a family, or be dependent upon their spouses’ income.

“The difference between California and Texas is that I don’t know many Latinas that are independently wealthy, [such] that they can afford to serve in the legislature,” Van de Putte said.

This economic issue has undoubtedly clipped the number of Latinas with enough political experience in Texas down to a small number. Van de Putte, a pharmacist, uses her own experience as an example; when started, she already owned businesses, allowing her to hire others to cover for her when she had to travel to the capitol. Even then, she said she loses income every year she serves because of the time she spends away from her businesses. Most people in the senate are “pretty damn well off,” she said, whereas in order to represent the 880,000 in her district, she has since sold her pharmacy and now works part-time as a pharmacist.

While organization and money are big factors, the elephant in the room with Latina legislators often seems to be culture. Texas state Senator Judith Zaffirini recalled that when she was running to be the first Mexican American woman legislator in that body, she was asked flat-out by a constituent why she was running for office instead of cleaning house.  She replied that she was doing exactly that — “I’m going to mop up in November!” This cultural preference means that women may not be taught or exposed to the skills needed to run for office, such as asking people for money (fundraising).

Van de Putte had similar experiences, but said that if Latina politicians reach out to each other and engage in mentoring potential candidates, change will come. Now that there are organizations like Emily’s List, she said, the time is ripe for change, “I think we are changing the paradigm, how you perceive legislators.”

While Texas lost out on its chance with Sylvia Romo, Latinas we spoke to say a Latina congresswoman is a matter of organization and time. Molina put it concisely, noting that getting a Tejana into Congress will take work. “We need to be on guard,” she said, “You need to plan, plot, strategize — because it isn’t going to just happen.”