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Puerto Rican Seeks Kansas Congressional Seat

by Melanie Feliciano

April 24, 2000
Copyright © 2000 LATINOLINK. All Rights Reserved.

The quickest way to get Carlos Nolla to do anything is to tell him he can’t do it.

Running for U.S. Congress in the fourth district of Wichita, Kan., the Puerto Rican immigration lawyer and former military brat chose long ago to ignore the warnings that the Anglo majority wouldn’t vote for him.

While Nolla, 37, is proud of his ethnicity and bilingual ability, he believes they really have nothing to do with going to Washington, D.C. to represent the best interests of the people of Wichita. As a moderate Democrat, Nolla is turning many Republican heads. And as a citizen who cares about his community, his ideals seem universal.

Before choosing public office, Nolla served six years on the board of a job skills training and placement organization in Wichita, and learned from his military family the value of public service.

His main political credit is working as an aide to former U.S. Representative Dan Glickman (who is now Secretary of Agriculture for the Clinton administration). Nolla is running against Republican Todd Tiahrt, the man who beat Glickman in 1994.

Born in Glendale, Ariz., and raised all over the world, the candidate spoke with from Wichita, the place he has always considered home. What kinds of challenges did your parents face and what did you learn from them?

Nolla:The first thing I learned is family is everything. They also taught me that when you give your word you keep it. One of my earliest memories -- one of my best and worst -- was when my dad was serving in Southeast Asia [during the Vietnam war] and all six of us kids slept in one room and my mom slept in the living room. The military wouldn’t pay very well at that time, and I remember hearing my mother crying one night because she didn’t know what she would feed us the next day. It didn’t bother me too much until I became a parent. I realized if I was ever in that situation, how would I feel? How will you represent the next generation of Latinos?

Nolla: For all our children, I want to make sure everyone has the best education. Education gives you the ability to overcome any setback. It took me eight years to get through college: I put myself through school being a bartender, a janitor, etc. If it weren’t for Pell Grants and guaranteed student loans, I wouldn’t have made it. I don’t come from a rich family, and it’s thanks to education that I’ve managed to work my way into a profession. We need to make sure that opportunities are always there for all our children. That will be the great equalizer for all of society.

LatinoLink: Why do you think people will vote for you?

Nolla: I think we’re very fortunate to live in this country because people care about their communities. I’ve got the right message. I’m a moderate Democrat. I do believe our district, although largely Republican, tends to be moderate. My associate, Dan Glickman (who was a Democrat) held on to the seat for 18 years. It will not be easy, but do I believe I can win? Absolutely. I’m not getting into this race for fun or for experience. I’m in it to win. I’ve committed myself to this campaign so much that I walked away from a lucrative partnership with a prestigious firm. What was it like growing up a Puerto Rican in Kansas?

Nolla: The longest I lived anywhere has been in Kansas. Growing up in a military family, I had the opportunity to live all over the country, Asia and Europe. But this [Kansas] is where my roots are. My children [Kylie, 7, Samuel, 3, Andria, 2 months] were born here, and my wife has been here in Kansas for several generations. I know I could represent the fourth district well because it’s diverse, it’s industrial (Boeing and McConnel air force bases are located in Wichita). Did you ever feel pressure from your military family members to also join the service?

Nolla: Never. In fact, one time when the Gulf War was going on, I did call my father and asked if I should drop out of law school and join the military because it seemed we were going to war. He said I would do better for the country by finishing my education. If the conflict went on, then, yes, I would have gone. But it didn’t, and my father proved to be right. My father’s service to the country has taught me public service is a noble thing to do.

When I worked for Dan Glickman, he made me realize this was something that I want to do. Why politics? There are lots of other ways to help people.

Nolla: There are. You could serve in a lot of ways, but one thing I’ve noticed in running for public office is there are a lot of people who don’t want to serve in a public way. Part of my reason for running is to encourage people to get out and run. But this is something we need to encourage. Our youth needs to see politics as a good profession. Right now it doesn’t have a good name. We need to make sure this country continues to progress. We always have to have quality people in office.

Having good people involved in government is what makes good government. To be a good lawyer, doctor, or engineer, ultimately you have to be a good person first. I want to encourage people to make the sacrifice to run for public office. It’s hard. It’s not for everybody. Do you emphasize your Latino background more with some constituents than others?

Nolla: Perhaps one of the unique aspects of this race is I’m a minority who’s running in a district that’s not minority-majority. A lot of congressional seats that are held by minorities means there’s usually a strong presence of minorities in that district. That’s not the case where I am. I’m consistent in that aspect -- I am who I am, I cannot change my ethnicity, that’s the way I was born. I’m very proud of it. I think the Latino community gives a lot to American culture, but I’m running to serve all people, and that means I don’t care if they’re Republican, Independent, Democratic -- I don’t care about their background. I’m here to run for all people in the district. Do you think there will be more Latino candidates than ever elected to office this year?

Nolla: I hope so and I plan to be one of them. Do you aspire to a higher office in the future?

Nolla: No not yet. Right now I need to dedicate myself to just one job. And in all honesty, I might just do this for a while and then go back to the private sector. Right now, my focus is the House. One of the criticisms I first got was, 'why don’t you run for the state legislature?' But I didn’t want to use it as a stepping stone for merely what I really want. I want to make sure that when people run for office, they really want to be there. People will be better served. For several years I’ve always wanted to go to the House.

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