lida Garcia loves President Barack Obama. As the National Latino Vote Deputy Director for Obama for America in last year’s campaign, Garcia’s perspective is unique — especially when it comes to Latino voters. Over the course of the past few years, she’s had the chance to support the president as a candidate, incumbent and the figurehead of an organization that she said launched the largest single Latino voter outreach program in history.
“The power in the Latino community is in the fact that still one in two voting eligible Latinos is not registered to vote. If we are still influencing elections with only half of our community registered, then there’s a lot of potential for us to have an even stronger voice,” she said. “The power is in the opportunity.”
After her graduation from Columbia Law School in 2008, Garcia’s foray into politics was — in her own words — random.
“I walked into the California [Obama campaign] headquarters to get buttons and someone sat me down and was like, ‘We need help with our Latino program, you want to come volunteer?’ And I ended up staying there 90 hours a week,” she said.
A full-time volunteer for Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, Garcia was given the title Deputy Director of the Latino Vote in California as she organized people across the state to do work in Reno and Las Vegas for the campaign. In a sense she said California adopted Nevada in Obama’s 50-state strategy, and although she jokes that volunteering for the campaign resulted in her gas and electricity being shut down, the experience altered the course of her life more significantly than she realized at the time.
“I think the feeling of that movement was the hook. Although I went to practice law right after the presidential [election], it was too late: I was going to be involved in politics,” she said. In the next few years she volunteered for current California Attorney General Kamala Harris’ campaign, went to work in Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s office, and helped build up the campaign of former LA mayoral candidate Austin Beutner.
By Garcia’s recollection, at this point, she’d been bitten by the political bug, and in March of 2012 she received a phone call that would force her to commit to it.
“In all honesty, at the time I was scared. I thought it was a lot of responsibility. The idea of moving to Chicago and working on a national stage, quite honestly, was overwhelming at first,” she said of the invitation to join Latinos for Obama. But despite her anxiety, the desire to increase participation amongst Latino voters was too strong for her to say no.
Garcia’s role in the campaign was broad, the way she described it, but narrow enough to be consistent in its intent: finding ways to present the Obama campaign’s message in a more nuanced way to Latino voters. The idea was always to take the campaign’s national framework and negotiate it in a way, with the right nuances, to mobilize Latino voters and also build a cohesive Latinos For Obama brand. This allowed Garcia to work on everything from developing Latinos for Obama materials to creating strategy for the campaign’s digital platform or directing Latino surrogates to different states.
“A lot of what we did was sort of consult in a tactical basis to fit the specifics of the Latino community on the ground — because we are not a homogeneous community,” she said. So, at times this included a huge Spanish language media buy, or helping organizers in New Hampshire understand how to best work with Dominican small business owners, or working with volunteers to do outreach with young Cubans in Florida or Mexican immigrants in a Virginia soccer league, and advising communities how to mobilize Latino high school interns.
Of the many lessons Garcia said she learned on the campaign, two stood out. One, that a genuinely engaged Latino community can be an incredibly loyal community. And, two, that the Latino community is one that demands continued investment. Using herself as an example, Garcia pointed out that in 2008 she was a volunteer and in 2012 she was helping run a national outreach campaign. Figuring out how to take the large group of Latino volunteers and organizers from the 2012 campaign and transform them into long-term political workers is imperative not only for the Obama campaign, but for presidential politics in general.
“Those of us that get involved in this work do so because we have a bit of personal understanding of the community, and almost a personal obligation to the community. There needs to be an investment in all of these 22 year-olds that opt in for this as a part time job, how do we turn these youngsters into leaders?” she asked. “It’s going to be critical for the Democratic party moving towards wanting to turn Texas blue — you’re going to need Latino field talent to do that work.”
Garcia used the Latinos for Obama work in Iowa as an example of the accomplishments of the 2012 campaign. Latinos, as it turns out, are the fastest growing demographic in this traditionally important caucus state; because of the work of the campaign, Latinos were “literally” engaged for the first time there, she said.
“Iowa is the biggest stage in presidential politics and our community has never been engaged, and now they have — thanks to the work of a 27 year-old named Jeanette Acosta (the Iowa Latino vote director),” Garcia said. “Now there’s a whole cadre of Latinos in Iowa that are engaged in the political process, and you cannot tell me that’s not going to matter in 2016.”
Latino voters comprised 10% of the electorate in 2012, something Garcia said she feels personal pride in. Yet, if there’s anything she says her experience mobilizing one of the largest (if not the largest) Latino voter outreach campaigns has taught her, it’s that more works needs to be done.
“I want to continue working in the Latino political space, making sure that more of our community gets registered, and more of our young people engaging in the political space are getting trained,” she said. “When you have 50,000 Latinos turning 18 every month, you need to make sure that our community continues to be engaged.”