Changing face of area’s politics
Keeping up midterm momentum, Latinos turn toward local races
When North Texas voters head to the polls in May, they will elect more than 100 mayors, city council members and other public officials — including, possibly, the first Hispanic mayor in Dallas history.
When North Texas voters head to the polls this May, they will elect more than 100 mayors, city council members, school board trustees and other public officials — including, possibly, the first Hispanic mayor in Dallas history.
Unlike other cities with large Latino populations, such as Los Angeles or San Antonio, Dallas has never had a Latino mayor.
Already, the list of possible candidates to replace Mayor Mike Rawlings includes three Hispanic names: Regina Montoya, former head of the Mayor’s Task Force on Poverty; Miguel Solis, Dallas school board trust
ee and president of the Latino Center for Leadership Development; and former Republican representative Jason Villalba. Montoya and Solis have announced their candidacies; Villalba is still deciding on whether to run.
“These are people with an important political background. … It should be noted in the past we’ve had Latino candidates [for mayor], but never a woman,” said Valerie Martínezebers, director of Latina/o and Mexicanamerican Studies at the University of North Texas.
“There has been a tremendous change in terms of female leadership. Unlike male motivation — both white and Latino — women run with a political reason focused on helping their communities. Men feel motivated by power and prestige and a desire to advance their careers.”
Montoya became the first Latina candidate for the job when she announced her bid in November.
“Not only am I the first female candidate here in Dallas, but really there has never been a Latina mayor in any of the main U.S. cities in the history of this country,” Montoya said in an interview with The Dallas Morning News.
Montoya worked in the Clinton administration and has been a member of the DFW International Airport board and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF).
“Not only is Dallas ready for a Latina mayor, we owe it to the city,” Montoya said.
“We owe it to the young Latinas who attend, for example, Thomas Jefferson Middle School, where my mom taught for many years. Or to the 38 percent of children who live in extreme poverty in Dallas,” she said.
Montoya led an unsuccessful campaign in 2000 to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions in Texas’ 5th District.
She recalled that one of her most fervent volunteers was current state Rep. Victoria Neave, now in her second term as a lawmaker but who at the time was a middle school student.
“We women are all in this battle,” Montoya said.
Three North Texas Latinas — Jessica González, Terry Meza and Anamaria Ramos — were elected to the Texas Legislature in the midterm elections.
That means this year’s state Legislature has 32 women, up from 29. Female candidates helped the Democratic Party win 12 formerly Republicanheld seats.
“I’m very excited about 2019,” Neave said. “We want other young women to realize that they can, too. It’s us women who work on issues impacting women’s lives like domestic violence and sexual assault, as we have promoted platforms like the women’s march to make ourselves heard.”
While North Texas’ legislative caucus is becoming more diverse, Hispanic representation in eight city councils — Arlington, Dallas, Fort Worth, Garland, Grand Prairie, Irving, Mesquite and Richardson — is poor.
Of 66 members on these bodies, only five are Latino. (And only eight are AfricanAmerican.)
In other words, white council members older than 50 decide the fate of North Texans.
“The Latino vote and Africanamerican vote in city elections in the Dallasfort Worth area are the worst in the country,” said Jorge Contreras, director of Working Families Party in Texas.
“In cities like Arlington, just 0.5 percent of Latinos vote in local elections,” Contreras said. “What we’re trying to do is recruit and train young and diverse candidates who can inspire those voters.”
A few days before Christmas, Contreras was leading a workshop for a group of about 60 progressive candidates who will run in May’s local elections.
The candidates learned about strategies and campaign planning, recruiting volunteers, communication and fundrais ing practices, among other topics.
“The Latino vote inspired by Beto O’rourke’s grassroot campaign was impressive. We don’t want to lose that momentum,” Contreras said.
“But the candidates contending in statewide elections don’t manage the education system for your children, nor do they decide whether your neighborhood streets are clean,” he said. “We must make sure those who get to those posts look like the communities they represent.”
Analyst Martínezebers said that Latino participation is up in comparison with previous elections. “But the number of those who register is bigger than those who indeed turn out to vote,” she said.
“Disinformation discourages people, as does the fact that candidates don’t campaign for them, don’t reach out to them. If a candidate shows voters that their issues are important for them, that creates a voting habit.”
According to Democratic Party data, national Latino voter turnout in the 2018 midterms was up 174 percent from the 2014 midterms, a leap that helped the party gain 34 seats in the U.S. House.
But getting that Hispanic enthusiasm and energy to carry over to local polls, with cities like Dallas and Fort Worth having among the nation’s worst turnout rates, is no small challenge.
Moreover, the median age of voters turning out in local elections is 62 for Dallas and 66 for Fort Worth, while only 2 percent of Latinos ages 18 to 49 turn out, according to data from Portland State University.
Another obstacle shown in the data is that in Dallas, 32 percent of voters live in “polling deserts,” or neighborhoods where voter turnout is lower than half the average for the city. In Fort Worth, the figure is 25 percent.
Latinos on the ticket
Even though city elections are nonpartisan — meaning candidates don’t run under a party affiliation — some of the new Latino faces running for office have volunteered for Democratic campaigns in the past.
That’s the case of Giovanni Valderas, an alumnus of the Latino Center for Leadership Development, who announced in October his bid to represent north Oak Cliff in the Dallas City Council’s District 1 seat.
Valderas had already worked for the campaigns of Paula Rosales, who in November was elected Dallas county judge, and current council member Omar Narváez.
“Working for those campaigns helped me to overcome the fear of knocking on doors of strangers and asking for their support,” said Valderas, who as an artist and deputy director of Kirk Hopper Fine Art, is the brain behind Casitas Tristes, little piñatas mimicking real estate signs that are placed in sites deemed to be contributing to gentrification.
“Initially, that was the hard part, but now it’s very exciting for me getting to know the voters and their struggles to get to the end of each month,” he said. “Our elected officials forget that and see us [Latinos] just as numbers.”
Valderas’ platform includes affordable housing for his district, as he thinks developers in Oak Cliff are killing not only the chance for people to pay a lease or buy a house, but for Latino businesses to get subsidies to survive.
He says Oak Cliff covers neighborhoods “beyond Bishop Arts” that the city has forgotten and where service infrastructure should be improved.
“We need to provide safe neighborhoods and safe streets, but at the same time, working with schools so they become more of a cultural and community center,” he said.
Six staffers work on Valderas’ campaign, but he continues to recruit volunteers for what he calls “the Chancla Squad” (flipflop squad). He said he’s run ning for council to change “a narrative about Latinos which isn’t true.”
“I have a Spanish version in my website for Spanishspeaking people,” he said. “I share their values, and I believe if most elected officials are rich, Latinos won’t feel empathy or representation.”
Dan Barrios, candidate for Place 3 on the Richardson City Council — held since 2011 by Scott Dunn — said his city has a diversity deficit, pointing out that the body is made of largely of “grayhaired white men.”
“We need more than a chair at the table for everyone — more voices celebrating diversity,” he said. “And most important, to not forget the people who elect us.”
A South Texas native, Barrios said he wants to push for affordable housing in Richardson and to help ensure small businesses aren’t ousted by newly arrived big corporations.
Meanwhile, for his campaign, his wife and 10yearold son are helping him by making shirts and buttons. Barrios’ Facebook page already has nearly 1,000 followers, and he hopes to lead people to the polls.
“Each small step contributes to create a coalition,” he said. “If traditionally we Latinos have not been pushed to run, it’s up to us doing it now — from the base and humbly.”
State Sen. Jessica González is one of three North Texas Latinas, including Terry Meza and Anamaría Ramos, newly elected to the Legislature.