Ariz Latinos lack an impact in Legislature
The Arizona Republic
Aug. 28, 2006

Yvonne Wingett

Arizona has more Latinos than ever.

Their purchasing power has reached an all-time high, they are earning more college degrees, buying more homes, starting businesses and volunteering more than ever before.

But those successes belie Latinos' struggles where they have an opportunity to change Arizona the most: the Legislature.
The Hispanic Caucus is poorly organized, lacks strong leadership and is too fixated on issues that turn off constituents, Latino leaders and political analysts say. As a result, it hasn't been pro-active enough on issues important to voting Hispanics, such as education, jobs and affordable housing.

"They've been almost silent at times," said Napoleon Pisaņo, a member of the Mesa Association of Hispanic Citizens board.

The 18 Democrats in the Hispanic Caucus last session were at a severe disadvantage because Republicans outnumbered them. Success in passing their bills was minimal. They have been powerless to stop Republican legislation aimed at punishing undocumented immigrants. They have relied heavily on Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano to champion causes they care about.

Still, Latino House and Senate lawmakers press on. All but one are up for re-election this fall and most are expected to cruise through the Sept. 12 primary and November's general election. But some Latino community leaders wonder if they will be able to claim any victories for the hundreds of thousands of Latinos they represent.


Caucus' identity crisis

The Hispanic Caucus is a group of senators and representatives, not all Hispanic, who meet regularly to review legislation that could affect Hispanic constituents. Hispanics make up 28 percent of Arizona's 6 million people and 17 percent of the 90-member Legislature. Fifteen Hispanic lawmakers were listed on last session's roster.

Lawmakers formed the caucus in the mid-1980s. It is informal and has no membership requirements or bylaws. California, Texas, New York and Illinois have formal Hispanic caucuses with staff and researchers.

The Hispanic Caucus here does not keep track of how many of its members sponsored bills, how many were heard by committees or how many were signed into law.

However, members said that during the last session, at least three Hispanic lawmakers were able to get five bills signed into law dealing with irrigation, college credit for military personnel and government construction contracts.

"I'll tell you what: I care about issues, I follow politics, but I don't know much about this group," said auto mechanic Horacio Alvarez of Cave Creek.

"I think they do some things with immigration. But there are other things out there (that) we care about."

Some community leaders and political experts say that in the past four years, the Hispanic Caucus has been too narrowly focused on illegal immigration and is not well-versed enough on mainstream issues. Few members have emerged as credible, persuasive, high-profile personalities who resonate outside of the Latino community, they say. Infighting has turned off lawmakers and prevented them from full participation.

"There's some internal conflicts in terms of personalities, and unfortunately that prevents them from reaching a common goal and working together," said Rep. Pete Rios, D-Hayden, a caucus member and longtime legislator.

"I had a lot of hope for (Rep.) Ben Miranda, then I had some hope for (Rep.) Steve Gallardo, but both are unable to reach across the aisle because they spend so much time throwing grenades on the floor of the House or the Senate. . . . The other side pretty much disregards anything they have to say."

Latino lawmakers have been largely invisible to the public on legislative issues, though a few were on TV during the spring's pro-immigrant marches, and Gallardo, D-Phoenix; Miranda, D-Phoenix; and Rios have been visible on some education, immigration and election law issues.

"I don't even think the Latino community as a whole knows there is a Latino Caucus," said Rep. David Lujan, D-Phoenix, also a caucus member. "That is our failure because we don't do a good enough job of getting out to the public and taking a public stand on issues."


Lawmakers move forward

Several Latino lawmakers acknowledge the caucus' weaknesses but said its success should not be measured just legislatively.

During the last session, several Latino lawmakers worked with school officials and high school student groups to plan their participation in the pro-immigration marches. Several met with Napolitano on the Flores vs. Arizona case, which dealt with funding for children struggling to learn English. They also lobbied universities and community college officials to hire more minorities in top positions.

"There really wasn't much they could do," Tempe attorney Esteban Escobedo said. "They're outnumbered. Whenever there's an issue coming up with immigrants rights, you see them. Because they're Hispanic, they're going to be looked on as ambassadors to the Hispanic community."

Latino lawmakers said they must do better at reaching across the aisle to forge alliances with moderate Republicans to pass bills that would help Hispanics. Several said they hope to do so during the next session, which begins in January.

Lawmakers said they plan to seek formal status for the Hispanic Caucus next session. They hope it will give them more credibility, help them get out their messages and run more efficiently. Some will meet next month with a national group, the Board of Hispanic Caucus Chairs, to discuss how Arizona's group can become more powerful.

They also hope to tip the scale in their favor by talking publicly and pro-actively about mainstream issues instead of reactively on immigration-related issues.

"The key is getting educated on these issues is something the caucus needs to work on," Gallardo said. "We've been spending a lot of time on the immigration issue.

How do we educate ourselves on mainstream issues . . . when we start talking about financial literacy . . . the housing market, the environment. The stuff that we don't maybe study on a day-to-day basis. Getting educated on some of these issues is something the caucus needs to work on."

Reach the reporter at or (602) 444-4712.