For Katherine Archuleta, the road to the presidential campaign trail in 2012 started back in Denver, Colorado when she said her passion for Latinos, for speaking about issues affecting her community, pushed her into the world of politics. This past year she was the first Latina ever to serve in a presidential campaign in the capacity of National Political Director.
Yet, Archuleta said the road to politics that started in the 1980s when she worked with Federico Peña (the first Latino mayor of Denver), and followed him as chief of staff when he was appointed Secretary of Transportation in 1996 didn’t start out as political at all. Although she’s since worked as chief of staff to former Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, and most recently as National Political Director for President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign, she found her way into public service for more personal reasons.
“You do it because you have a deep passion for public good, for civic engagement,” she said, noting that politics draws in people who have a passion for change.
“For me, I was passionate about women’s issues and Latina issues in particular. I never imagined that I would be in this position, but I always knew that I would speak out on behalf of Latinas.”
In her role as National Political Director, Archuleta said her primary function was to facilitate relationships between the campaign and people all over the country at a variety of different levels. This included members of Congress and governors, but also mayors, state reps and even school board members — the job was to engage with anyone in focus communities who were important to the campaign, she said. One of the first things she learned on the Obama campaign was that grassroots organizing was the main driving force, and consequently she was able to engage with Latinos for Obama in her overall campaign role.
“Adrian [Saenz, National Latino Vote Director] and I realized that my position as the first Latina to ever hold such a position in a presidential campaign was of great value — and was a source of pride for our community, so we made sure that I could reach out in significant ways to the Latino community across the country,” particularly in battleground states, Archuleta told Politic365.
In Archuleta’s mind, she was recruited by the campaign because her work at the local, state and federal levels always involved a responsibility for constituency development. “I’m a patient person and I have a strong interest in building a coalition,” she said, noting that she interfaced with White House personnel during her two and a half years working for former Secretary Solis.
“It was my deep passion for my Latino community and issues around Latinos that led me to where I am today. I never imagined that I would be political, I just imagined myself as someone who voiced the concerns of my community.”
Taking the position was a big decision, but Archuleta said she didn’t make it alone. After discussing the issue with her husband and 22 year-old daughter, who is a cancer survivor, she decided that the role in Obama’s second presidential campaign would be a huge personal and professional accomplishment.
“My daughter was right — serving as the National Political Director was the most important job I’ve ever had. Graciela is a cancer survivor, she was facing lifetime limits and pre-existing conditions, so on the personal side making sure we had a candidate who was going to ensure she had care [was important], but [Obama] reflects values that we care about as a family and who we are as Democrats,” she said. “It was not a difficult decision to make, but it the best personal and professional decision I’ve ever made.”
For many, Archuleta’s ascendance to this position represented an important inclusion of Latinos in the Obama campaign. She said that, on the campaign trail, she felt very humbled by the attention. “I had a job I needed to get done, and you don’t sit around thinking, ‘I’m the first Latina National Political Director,’” she said, recalling women she met on the campaign trailer, and throughout her career that inspired her. “When you get that sort of recognition, you have to stop and think that you stand on the shoulders of many people who came before you.”
Archuleta said the experience in 2012 comes down to three lessons. First, Latinos are the “face of America” in her view, because Latinos are present in all 50 states, immigration is important — but so are jobs, the economy, healthcare, education, and a myriad of other issues.
“We reflect the same worries and concerns that every other American does,” she said. “We have now become a critical part of the fabric of America.”
Secondly, Latinos have become an unbelievable voting bloc that is engaged with “concern and passion.” Latino voters want to vote, and will do whatever they can to make sure their votes count.
“The Latino vote [is] one of the single most important voting blocs today, which means our vote is very powerful,” she said.
Archuleta marvels at the grand changes that have taken place in the political sphere since she began working in it all those years ago: “It’s no longer someone asking us — we are informing people that we are engaged. It’s not a matter of ‘let us at the table‘ — we are the table. It’s no longer people asking us what issues are important to us — we are telling them how they should vote on our issues. No party can ignore the Latino community.”
Currently, Archuleta is working on a research study examining how to increase the number of Latinas in elected office. In many ways, she said this is a return to her roots, to Colorado, to speaking out for the Latino community there — only this time there are many other voices in the chorus. She pointed to President Pro Tempore State Senator Lucía Guzmán and Assistant Majority Leader Irene Aguilar as examples.
“I think, ‘This is unbelievable.’ Now it’s a question of which Latina is going to win in which district. Over the course of time there were so many people who worked to do that, if I have one little drop of influence in that over the years I’m very, very grateful,” she said.
But there’s much to do yet, she told Politic365, “I believe the first Latino president is already here, alive in the U.S. today,” she said. And that means there’s plenty of work to be done.