An earlier version of this post appeared on Commentary & Cuentos.
While the Republican field of presidential candidates is whittling down after the New Hampshire primary, the Democratic race now only features Clinton and Sanders. Martin O’Malley dropped out of the presidential race after running a hard-fought, policy-driven campaign that never caught on with voters. Jorge Rivas, the national correspondent at Fusion, declared that O’Malley was “the most progressive candidate in history on immigration.” I wrote on O’Malley’s pro-Latino policies that fell on deaf ears as well. O’Malley’s exit means that Latino issues may receive less attention in subsequent debates — the February 4 debate had no discussion of race or immigration — but that does not mean Latinos will figure less in the campaigns, especially given the demographics of the coming Nevada caucuses.
Clinton has led in the effort to staff her campaign with a diverse group. Her campaign includes Betsaida Alcantara, a former Julián Castro press aide and now a communications spokesperson; Xochitl Hinojosa, as the director of coalitions press; Amanda Renteria, as national political director; Jorge Silva, as Hispanic media director; Jose Villarreal, as campaign treasurer; Cheska Mae Perez, a DREAMer and field organizer; Jorge Nera, as the organizing director in Nevada; and Gabe Rodriguez, as Latino outreach director in Colorado. The most attention-grabbing staff choices of the Clinton campaign were the appointments of DREAMer activist Lorella Praeli as national Latino outreach director and Paola Ramos, daughter of Univision Noticias host Jorge Ramos.
Sanders has made key attention-grabbing appointments of his own. Most notably, the campaign appointed Cesar Vargas, a DREAMer activist and the first undocumented immigrant lawyer in New York, as the national Latino outreach strategist. In addition, another notable DREAMer, Erika Andiola, accepted a position in the Sanders campaign as the national Latino press secretary. Arturo Carmona, an immigration activist and former head of Presente.org, is the director of Latino outreach. Héctor Sigala is Bernie Sanders’s social media director. These staffers join a list of DREAMer activists from 35 states across the country that support Sanders.
Both campaigns have also sought key endorsements from Latino politicians. Clinton managed to secure an important early endorsement from one of the highest-ranking Latino lawmakers, Xavier Becerra, in August 2015. She scored a crucial high-profile endorsement from HUD Secretary Julián Castro at a large rally in San Antonio, Texas last October. Joaquín Castro, Julián’s twin brother, also endorsed Clinton. The next major Clinton endorsement came from Illinois representative Luis Gutiérrez in December. In endorsing Clinton, Gutiérrez said that she, more than any other candidate, would “get immigrants and their families fully integrated into our communities.” Dolores Huerta, a co-founder of the United Farm Workers and venerated Chicana activist, also endorsed Clinton in her campaign against Barack Obama in 2007 and again in October 2015. Clinton has also won the endorsements from Tom Perez, the secretary of Labor; Bill Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico; Henry Cisneros, the former HUD secretary under Bill Clinton; and Antonio Villaraigosa, the former mayor of Los Angeles.
Clinton has managed to gather endorsements from six of the most populous Latino states, ranging from New York to Illinois and a few Southwest states. In California, Representatives Pete Aguilar, Tony Carendas, Grace Napolitano, Lucille Roybal Allard, Raul Ruiz and Linda Sanchez have endorsed Clinton. In Texas, Henry Cuellar, Ruben Hinojosa and Filemon Vela have done so. In Florida, former Congressman Joe Garcia, state Senator Darren Soto, and state Representatives Janet Cruz, John Cortes, J. J. Rodríguez and Victor Torres endorsed Clinton. She has even managed to gain the endorsement of Puerto Rico’s sole member of Congress, Pedro Pierluisi, the resident commissioner.
While Sanders has not secured similar high-profile endorsements from nationally recognized Latino politicians, he has been endorsed by influential Latino politicians from key swing states. In Arizona, Representative Raúl Grijalva endorsed Sanders and campaigned for him in Iowa among Latinos. Former state Senator Alfredo Gutierrez has also endorsed Sanders. On February 8, the Sanders campaign released a list of Arizona politicians that supported him. The list included state Senators Andrea Dalessandro and Martin Quezada and state Representatives Richard Andrade, Mark Cardenas, Juan Mendez and Ceci Velasquez. In Nevada, popular Democratic politician Lucy Flores formally endorsed Sanders. Recognizing that the endorsement wasn’t the politically “smart” or “safe” thing to do, she wrote that she chose to endorse Sanders because she believes “Bernie Sanders will lead the charge, with many millions of Americans behind him, against the unfettered Wall Street greed that has threatened the very existence of the middle class and shackled so many more to permanent poverty.” In Illinois, Sanders received the endorsement of Chuy Garcia, a Cook County commissioner and former Chicago mayoral candidate.
Not as politically important, but certainly interesting is the list of celebrity endorsements both Clinton and Sanders have received. Clinton has been endorsed by Marc Anthony, Salma Hayek, Wilmer Valderrama, America Ferrera, Christina Aguilera, Demi Lovato,and Ricky Martin. Sanders has been endorsed by George Lopez, Nicolas Gonzalez and Herbert Siguenza, the co-founder of the Chicano comedy troupe Culture Clash.
Do these staffing decisions and endorsements signal an important shift in American politics? The political endorsements are political calculations by the Sanders and Clinton campaigns. They need mediators and go-betweens to reach the Latino community. Meanwhile, Latino politicians need the audience and media coverage that goes with endorsing a presidential candidate. Latino politicians are underrepresented nationally. While there are 27.3 million Latinos eligible to vote, there are only 6,100 Latinos serving in elected office. Those who are in office are still struggling to earn seats on influential congressional committees. They need a strong fundraising base. In many ways, they are still struggling to be included in the mainstream of the Democratic Party.
This explains why Julián Castro would endorse Hillary Clinton, regardless of the possible VP nomination. Whether Clinton wins or loses, Castro comes out ahead — with a bigger name in the Democratic Party, and into contact with bigger Democratic fundraisers. Latino state representatives need to ride the momentum of the four-year presidential campaign cycle, before the midterms lose the attention of the American public. If Latino statewide officials can harness the energy of Sanders voters, they could still win election even though Sanders may lose the presidential election. And given that Sanders voters tend to be younger and more educated, and Latino voters tend to be younger and more educated, Latino politicians could build a reputation and base of support among a population that will be voting for decades to come.
The unprecedented recruiting of DREAMers and immigrant activists should indicate that the issue of immigration is a central issue for the Democratic Party. Yet, in debates and forums the candidates have rarely mentioned it. President Obama has deported more people than any other president, earning the title “deporter-in-chief.” ICE raids and deportations of Central American women and children have drawn criticism from many within the Latino community. Moreover, it seems that for both candidates the issue of immigrant rights has been conflated with Latino outreach. The scramble to amass as many DREAMers as possible has turned into a twisted political arms race to provide Sanders and Clinton legitimacy among the Latino community. While immigration continues to be an important issue among the Latino community, the most pressing concerns are education, the economy and health care.
Nonetheless, the fact that both candidates have decided to pull from the ranks of DREAMers does show that these activists are no longer on the political margins. The organizations they created and their experiences have given them real skills in political organizing, recruiting and messaging. Experienced Latina political advisers have played key roles in this presidential campaign in non-Latino-related positions. Amanda Renteria for Clinton and Gabriella Domenzain for O’Malley served as senior advisers to the national campaigns. These Latinos have fought for and earned their seats at the table. One day, they will sit at a table of their own making. The year 2016 will be a watershed. It will be the election year that many activists went from being political window-dressers to influential political operatives.
The key Latino appointments and endorsements of 2016 hint at a possible Latino establishment in the near future.
Aaron E. Sanchez received a Ph.D. in history from Southern Methodist University. You can connect with him @1stworldchicano.