Just before National Hispanic American Heritage Month ends on Oct. 15, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Perez announced endorsements from nine members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus representing California, Arizona, Florida and Texas.
The endorsements for the former Democratic National Committee Chair come from U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) and U.S. Reps. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Salud Carbajal (D-Calif.), Tony Cardenas (D-Calif.), Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.), Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), Darren Soto (D-Fla.) and Filemon Vela (D-Texas.)
“Hispanic Heritage Month is a moment in time to both reflect and celebrate our culture, but also reflect on the critical unfinished business,” Perez said in a virtual conversation this week with Padilla, Hispanic leaders in local government and advocates.
In Maryland, the percentage of the population identifying as Hispanic or Latino increased from 8% in 2010 to 12% in 2020. But only 40% of around 250,000 eligible Latino voters are registered to vote in Maryland, Perez said. “Our vote is our voice, and our numbers are our power,” Perez said.
Padilla, the first Latino to represent California in the U.S. Senate, said his parents came from Mexico in the 1960s and his father was a short-order cook and his mom cleaned houses. Voter registration is critical because that is how the Latino community’s political voice is heard, but “registration is only half the battle,” Padilla said.
Allowing voters to cast their ballot more easily, whether through early voting or by mail, will lead to increased Latino voter turnout, Padilla said. “All you need is the right policies in place and a governor to champion these policies and implementation, and I know that’s what Maryland is going to get with you, Tom,” he said.
Perez said he worked on legal cases about voting rights regularly while serving as an assistant attorney general for civil rights in the U.S. Department of Justice for four years, and described the division between Democrats and Republicans on voting rights as “unconscionable.”
“Democrats believe that we should make it as easy as possible for eligible people to vote and then those votes should count. Republicans, on the other hand, are trying to make it as hard as possible for eligible people to register and for those votes to be counted,” Perez said.
Representation matters, as “you cannot be what you cannot see,” said Celina Benitez, the first Latina mayor of the city of Mount Rainier in Prince George’s County. Without someone from the Latino community at the table, it leaves other people to make decisions on behalf of the Latino population without the best interest always in mind, she said.
To get more voters registered, it is important to regularly connect with the Latino community to gain their trust, Benitez said. It is not enough to go door-knocking only during the election year, she said. “The community knows if they’re being used for a vote…and this is the reason why some people don’t go out to vote,” she said.
The Latino community in Maryland is also a “very young demographic,” which means more people who may not be familiar with the political process, said Gabe Albornoz, the vice president of Montgomery County Council. While there are more than 74 elected officials in Montgomery County, only six are Latino, Albornoz said.
“We have to make sure that our elected officials represent the communities we’re trying to serve because inherently there’s a connection, not just by language but by personal and professional experiences,” he said.
And at the local level, a “victory” for the Latino community would be to see Tom Perez elected as the first Latino governor of Maryland, said Gustavo Torres, President of CASA in Action, a Latino and immigrant advocacy group.