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Rookie Hispanic Office Holders Attend Boot Camp to Help Push Latino Agenda


December 12, 2000
Copyright © 2000 WALL STREET JOURNAL. All Rights Reserved.

WASHINGTON -- This year, more Hispanic politicians were elected to state and local offices than ever before. One of the first challenges facing some of them is to stay awake through Edward Cupoli's class.

Mr. Cupoli, chief economist for the ways and means committee of the New York State Assembly, is teaching a group of new Latino state legislators how a budget works. Halfway between his analysis of bond financing and tips on finding hidden expenses, he is stopped by a raised hand. Desiree Sanchez, state representative-elect for Colorado, pleads: "Let's do this in English."

Mr. Cupoli isn't speaking in Spanish. But he is holding forth in a language foreign to many newly minted Hispanic politicians: the language of governing and wielding power effectively. He has been brought here -- to a classroom at Gallaudet University -- along with other political veterans to help build a Latino political machine.

Every two years since 1996, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, or Naleo, has run a kind of boot camp for the nation's Latino political class. Some of this year's 40 attendees are the first Hispanics in their area to win political office. Hispanics account for 12% of the U.S. population and nearly 6% of voters, but they still play a relatively modest role in national political life. There are only 19 Latinos among the 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives and no U.S. senators. At the state level, Hispanics hold only 147 seats out of nearly 5,500 in the legislatures, and they account for only 51 senators out of almost 1,000. Among those who have been elected to office, few have come up from a local political machine and most have little experience in the wheeling and dealing that makes up the process of day-to-day governing.

Gaining Ground?
Hispanics in U.S. House of Representatives
Before election After election
Democrat 15 16
Republican 4 3
Hispanics in state houses of representatives or assemblies
Democrat 15 16
Republican 4 3
Hispanics in state houses of representatives or assemblies
Democrat 118 124
Republican 21 23
Hispanics in state senates
Democrat 46 45
Republican 6 6

The Rev. Julio C. Perez is a good case in point. Born in Honduras, Mr. Perez is the pastor of the Church of the Nazarene in Arvin, Calif. For the last two years, Mr. Perez, a Republican, has been a member of the city council of Arvin, a largely Hispanic town 25 miles southeast of Bakersfield. "This meeting is my school," he says of the four-day session, which includes classes on ethics, navigating the bureaucracy and dealing with the media. "In my town I can't ask anybody anything."

Mr. Perez listens closely as Ignacio de la Fuente, president of the Oakland, Calif., city council, tells his class how tough it is to keep appointed city officials in line, most particularly city managers. He has fired three in the past eight years. "You've got to show them who runs the show," Mr. de la Fuente says.

It is information Mr. Perez can use. Last month, two other Latinos were elected to Arvin's five-member council, putting Latinos in the majority for the first time. With Mr. de la Fuente's advice in mind, Mr. Perez phones home to warn the city manager not to award himself or other city officials a pay raise before the new council takes office.

Of course, there are Hispanic politicians who have achieved national prominence, including Energy Secretary and former New Mexico Congressman Bill Richardson and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros. But while the Latino population is growing faster than any ethnic group in the U.S., political representation hasn't kept pace. The November election resulted in eight more state representatives but one less state senator and no new members of Congress. "My personal dream is to have somebody in the U.S. Senate," says Naleo Chief Executive Arturo Vargas.

Hispanic politicians aren't the only ones to get formal training when taking office. Freshmen in the U.S. Congress go to Harvard University for a stint on the workings of the national legislature, and several cities and states also run prep courses. So too does the National Council of Black Mayors, which holds a yearly leadership conference.

But what sets Naleo's boot camp apart is that it tries to invite every entry-level politician from school-board member to state representative, irrespective of party affiliation. The idea, says Ray Martinez, elected last year as mayor of Fort Collins, Colo., is to "help Hispanic elected officials to stay elected."

In doing so, though, Naleo has a tough task: navigating partisan differences while advancing what it sees as key issues for the Hispanic community. "We are shaping the agenda which centers on improving the opportunities of Latinos in general," says Mr. Vargas. At the top of the list: education, health care and economic advancement. These issues "cut across party lines and won't be going away anytime soon," he says.

It could take awhile. A lot of the boot-camp trainees are young -- very young. "I get comments like 'there are buildings in your district that are twice your age,' " says Louie Lujan, a 24-year-old on the water board for La Puente Valley County in California who says he is the only one of his colleagues that listens to hip-hop on his way to meetings. But even he is seasoned compared with Jaime Huerta of Falfurrias, Texas. At 20, Mr. Huerta, a junior at Texas A&M University and an amateur mariachi singer, may be the youngest president of a county school board to be elected in modern times.

But already, some of the first attendees at Naleo boot camp are back to share their battle yarns. Pedro Colon, a 32-year-old lawyer from Milwaukee, came to Gallaudet in 1998 after he became the first Hispanic ever elected to the Wisconsin state assembly. He chimes in from time to time as Mr. Cupoli delivers his budget talk. "They won't get anything done in their first term," he says of his students, but he urges them not to be discouraged. "If you are in the minority, be a pain in the neck to the majority. That way you will be noticed."

Slow Growth for Hispanic Politicians
A sample of Latinos in both upper and lower houses of state legislatures, by state:
State Legislators State Legislators
New Mexico 44 Rhode Island 2
Texas 35 Washington 2
California 27 Kansas 2
Florida 15 Delaware 1
Arizona 13 Indiana 1
New York 12 Minnesota 1
Colorado 10 New Hampshire 1
Illinois 6 Pennsylvania 1
Connecticut 5 Tennessee 1
New Jersey 5 Wisconsin 1
Massachussetts 3 Wyoming 1
Michigan 2 Washington 1

Source: NALEO

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