Latinx policymakers asked gubernatorial candidates to expound on how their plans on COVID-19, education and the economy would support the Latino community, a group that has been steadily increasing in Maryland for more than a decade, during a virtual forum Monday evening.
Five out of nine declared Democratic candidates for governor — Jon Baron, Peter V.R. Franchot, Doug Gansler, John B. King, Jr. and Tom Perez — and one Republican candidate, Robin Ficker, attended the forum hosted by the Maryland Latino Caucus of the General Assembly. The remaining Democratic candidates — Rushern Baker III, Ashwani Jain, Wes Moore and Mike Rosenbaum — were attending the second day of a two-day forum hosted by the Prince George’s County NAACP at the time.
Perez is the son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic and King’s mother came to the U.S. mainland from Puerto Rico in the early 1940s.
On how to make COVID-19 vaccines more accessible to Latino communities, Franchot said he would use community churches and Hispanic community centers as vaccination sites. He supported the idea of a state-sponsored fund so that community centers could apply for small grants, with little to no interest, to help with administering vaccines.
“No vaccine, no economy, you’ve got to get vaccinated,” Franchot said.
Since vaccines have been shown to be effective in reducing COVID-19 related hospitalizations and deaths, Baron said he would require vaccines for all healthcare workers, school staff and children aged 16 years and older and that he would open pop-up vaccine clinics, with bilingual services, in churches and schools.
King said that, to help build trust, he also would use community-based organizations for vaccination sites. But the larger goal is to get all Marylanders access to healthcare, including undocumented Marylanders, and to give them enough time off work to get vaccinated and get other health care that they need.
“Those kinds of economic dignity issues are ones that our next governor has to tackle. Tackling the [COVID-19] surge has to be a part of a broader strategy for ensuring quality of life for all Marylanders,” King said.
Perez said he plans to ensure that all Marylanders have access to health insurance, including undocumented residents, by streamlining health insurance enrollment wherever possible. The Montgomery County Council implemented a program that allowed undocumented pregnant women to get access to maternal care while he was council president, he said.
“We need to have the political will to say if you are undocumented in Maryland, you will get access to health insurance,” Perez said.
Franchot also pledged to make health care accessible by placing federally qualified health clinics or community health clinics within a 15 minute walk from any Marylander living in a city and within a 15 minute drive from a Marylander living in a rural area. Many affordable government health programs exist, but the difficulty is accessing those programs, he said.
Gansler tied lower vaccination rates within the Latino community to their general distrust in government. To encourage residents to get vaccinated, Gansler said it is important to have bilingual and diverse staff within government healthcare departments, which would help strengthen trust.
To help the Latino community grow economically, King supported the idea of a state bank, which would give small immigrant and Latino business owners access to much needed capital. Some of Maryland’s $2.5 billion surplus should be used to tackle long-term obstacles to a good quality of life by investing in affordable childcare, affordable housing and public transportation, King said.
Ficker said he would start statewide English learning classes on Saturdays that would be open to anyone. Ficker also said he would eliminate the state sales tax and attract large businesses such as Amazon and Microsoft to Maryland.
Perez said he helped implement a program that gave immigrants who were trained as nurses and health professionals in another country opportunities to learn English so that instead of “sweeping floors,” they would still be able to practice healthcare in America. “We have so much talent here in our immigrant communities,” he said.
Franchot said he would build on the entrepreneurship and innovation of Latino communities.
“The Hispanic business owners have a tremendous amount of pent-up entrepreneurial energy and innovation, so I think we should, coming out of COVID, focus on some of that unbelievable ability of that community to produce jobs in and of themselves,” Franchot said. English language training and job skill training will bolster an already entrepreneurial Latino community to success, he said.
Baron said he would provide job training for fast growing industries like healthcare and technology, stating that job training has been shown to increase earnings among low-income, young adults of color by 40%.
To be able to implement the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, a sweeping decade-long education reform plan, with fidelity, Gansler said that the next governor should be somebody who has had statewide government experience. To ensure quality education for all Marylanders, Maryland needs enough teachers for English language learners and an administrator who speaks Spanish in every school, Gansler said.
Franchot said one of his priorities in education is to significantly reduce standardized testing, which has “sucked the joy out of teaching.”
“These tests have become somewhat of an obsession in Maryland,” Franchot said. He also encouraged changing curricula to “project-based learning” and a more collaborative learning approach in which students help each other.
Baron said he would focus on expanding programs that have proven to be effective, such as one-to-one tutoring, especially for first and second graders. He also supported a college application advising program for first generation, low-income high school students, which has been an effective way to increase college graduation rates by 8%, including for Latino students, Baron said.
King, who was secretary of education for President Obama, said he would mobilize a statewide student support corps of recent college graduates and retired teachers who could commit to tutoring to help students catch up after the disruption that COVID-19 caused. King also emphasized addressing the social-emotional impact of being isolated from teachers and peers has had on students.
“I became a teacher because of the difference schools made in my life,” King said. “We need a governor who will follow through on implementation of the Blueprint and who’s committed to making sure that teachers and parents are at the table for every conversation about implementation of the Blueprint.”
Ficker said keeping students out of school has been “the most unhealthy thing for Latino families.” Keeping schools closed hurts students, especially Latino students who are learning English as a second language, he said.
Asked whether they would commit to appoint a number of Latinos to cabinet posts, Gansler said there will be at least 12% Latino representation in his office, since 12% of Marylanders are Latino, according to the 2020 census.
Franchot said he would hire a “unique individual” who would be a “secretary of diversity, equity, inclusion and ownership” if he is elected governor, but that he could not commit to hiring a specific number of Latinos yet.
“I’d like to win the job, I guess, before I begin to hand out the cabinet positions,” Franchot said.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated to include information about the Prince George’s County NAACP forum.