Ella Gobierna: Latinas in Elected Office
Ana Roca Castro, moderator
Melissa Mark Viverito
Ana: I'd like to thank the panelists for being here. The title of the conference is Ella Gobierna. I found something very disturbing, that less than 1% of elected officials happen to be Latina and we have 3 here. It takes cojones to do what these women have done. We have Marilinda Garcia, she's state representative of New Hampshire. We have Lucy Flores, assemblywoman of Nevada. We have Melissa Viverito, state representative of New York. This is about leadership and taking ownership of what we have. So, what made you become that less than 1%? How did you get here?
Lucy: I'm Rep Lucy Flores representing Nevada. Thank you for having me here. It's so critical for Latinas and women to be involved supporting each other. The way that I got into politics is a very non traditional route. I dropped out of high school when I was 17, in juvenile parole when I was 15. I had a difficult background. I'm not supposed to be here. I wasn't on the trajectory of being here. I fortunately had a great parole officer who put me on the right path. I realized that education was the way to go. I knew that I wanted to go to law school because of all my interactions with the law, I knew that I wanted to be in it. I ended up in Carson City doing some work. I knew that as a student in Carson, I was making a difference. So, I felt I could make a difference as an elected official. I knew more than anything I was being fulfilled with the work I was doing. I represent the district where I grew up so that seat was very meaningful. This year I got re-elected. I got 73% of the vote in my district.
Marilinda: I had a more traditional route to political office. I was born in Boston, my family moved to New Hampshire when I was 7 then I returned to Boston when I was in college. I did a joint degree with Tufts university and New England conservatory of music. I was convinced I wanted to be a harpist. For a variety of reasons, I thought I was politically active in college but on a part-time basis so I called a friend and asked if anyone needed help on a campaign. Then someone asked me why don't I just run myself in my district. That was the first time someone suggested it to me and I got the confidence and the first time I thought about doing it. I thought why don't I do this, I'll try. I was first elected when I was 23 in 2006. I'm gong for re-election for my 4th term. I think because of my age, even though I have seniority over the incumbents I'm still the youngest. If you're true to yourself and keep your word then you'll get respect. Other people would try to pick me apart but so far I prevailed. At the end of the day, know that you can do it so consider that seed planted and encourage other people too.
Veronica: I'm council member Melissa Viverito. I 'm Puerto Rican, born and raised on the island. I came here for college and decided to stay. My political activism got nurtured at a very young age. My mother was active in Puerto Rico and took me to a lot of events which planted the seed. When I graduated in college, I was very active with the PR community, organizing events. The path as an elective wasn't a path I saw for myself. I was cynical about elected office but as I was active in my East Harlem community, I started to get involved. My members nurtured me and showed me my potential and said they thought they'd like to see me run for office. Based on that encouragement I run in 2005. In 2003 I ran against a incumber and didn't get very far. In 2005 I ran for the empty seat and ran against someone who had a higher profile but by the hard work in my campaign we were able to win. In my second election, it was much easier. In the city counsel in New York, there are 51 counsel members, we're elected for 4 year terms. 18 women out of 51. As we go up in rank, you will see the number of women diminish. We have the responsibility of passing the budget in NY in conduction with the mayor. Its a great opportunity to represent my district. I take what I do very seriously. I wasn't the first Latina in city counsel, I am the first Latina to represent that district. I have a re-election next year. We want to make sure in NY that government reflects that reality of 51% of people being of color
Ana: For the elected officials, What has been your hardest battle in this journey where you felt that's it, I give up?
Marilinda: One of the challenges has to do with being young and female. When I would go door to door it was this emotional roller coaster, one door they'd be excited and say "that's great, your young" and then go to the next and say Oh, you're 23, what do you know." And then at the other day, remember you're an elected official so you're subjected to some of the things that people write about you. But you develop a tougher skin but the more you're in it , the more you persevere.
Veronica: I'm inspired to be sitting here because I believe we have different generations. I'm 43, Lucy you're in your 30's and Melissa you're 29. The standards that are used to address us are much stricter. It's still an unfortunate reality that decision making doesn't reflect the voices of half the population. That stuff doesn't daunt me, it encourages me to break the trend and buck the stereotype. We have to encourage young people to be part of the decision making and be part of the process. We talk down to them instead of taking their hands and having them work with us. I think young people should be a part of eery part of the experience from the board room to the elected office.
Lucy: This was a hard question to answer. It's been a never-ending challenge. Right off the back when I started to run I was pegged as aggressive and too opinionated. But I was like why, because I have an opinion. Sometimes I felt like I was just being overly sensitive. I didn't know if I was being unreasonable and then I thought I didn't think I am and if I was sitting with a suit as a different gender, I would be seen as confident. It's still a challenge to this day. Sometimes I think to the future and limit myself like oh what are they gonna say, "oh that Lucy, what's she gonna say?"
Ana: Veronica, you've done the Summer of Feminista and you're very in touch with the blogosphere with the women who aren't elected and haven't gotten to the ballot yet because many of these bloggers already have a big community so we have to lead them to the ballot. What is their voice?
Melissa: I'm in Chicago so that says a lot about my political upbringing. Chicago politics is on the forefront of the papers all the time. And even though I was in the suburbs, I was entrenched. I say that because Chicago is where politics goes to corrupt. We were called the most corrupt city in the nation. That doesn't read citizen engagement in politics, that doesn't read I'm 23 and going to run against an incumbent without them being the daughter of a party boss. I come from a very cynical view of politics which is interweaved with my background and I'm Mexican American and we love the Kennedys. I picked up a book and read it when I was little and became in love with politics.
There's a lot of cynicism but also optimism with Latinas out there. A lot of Latinas feel like they're invisible until it comes to election time, especially this year where there's a lot of talk about the women vote and the Latina vote. They only see these promises that are short-term thing. One Latina says that she doesn't think any of the parties take our needs into consideration. Both parties, I know they want to get our vote but they're not showing us why we should be enthusiastic. And one Latina said she wouldn't vote for a candidate just because there's a Latino on the ticket or if there's a woman. They look at the values and if there's a match, then they'll get excited.
Ana: Beyond the election and everything, career wise, dream wise, what's next? 5 years? And how can we help you? You see these bloggers here, they're on twitter. We can help. How can we help?
Lucy: I don't know. I want to stay in state, whether it be statewide or in my seat. I ran because I wanted to have the most direct impact with the people I live with and I don't think I'll have that impact in Washington, D.C. Maybe the next 5-10 years I can see myself running for governor. One of the biggest challenges for women, for Latinas running for office is raising money. the more we can do that in small increments. President Obama set a standard for grassroots fundraising. That's one of the ways the bloggosphere can help Latinas in office. Fundraising is an important aspect that we have to talk about. That's a powerful way that you can make a difference.
Ana: Maybe we have to come up with very concrete things to push these elected Latinas to shine and win elections and get out of that less than 1%.
Marilinda: I've never been a long-term planner. Up until now I've gone with if you do the best you can, keep your eyes open and be willing to try things and go for your dream your life will be more fulfilling and exciting. I never thought I'd be a ranking member of the finance committee voting on the state budget. I didn't see myself working in the different areas where I'm working. I'd like to follow through on some of the initiatives from last term. With politics the more you're in it, the more you get sucked in. I've heard "run for Congress" but I don't have that plan now. As of right now I don't have any plans beyond winning in November being in office for another 2 years.
Melissa: I want to jump in.. some of the people I spoke to said they've noticed that Latinas once they get into office, they lose sight of what they first said.
Veronica: When I came into office I wanted to show people that politics can be done a different way. People see me in the community, on t.v. I like for people to see me. After my last term I'm not sure I want to stay in elected office. I'm not sure if I want to pursue higher office but what keeps me inspired is my constituency but what keeps me grounded is that I come home to my bed at night.
Ana: Veronica do you see a pathway from blogging to office? Can there be a correlation?
Melissa: I think so, one of my honorary members in the audience, Jill, was very active on her blog and won an election in 2009. She's an example of how her blogging can add to your voice. I'm very honest with my critique of Chicago politics so I don't know if that would work.
Veronica: With social media, it's really helped raise the profile of the issues we're taking on. I'm a real progressive so that platform being able to add my voice has raised the profile of my office and of me as well. I tweet myself and I blog is very active. And in certain communities, I'll even talk about what's going on in Puerto Rico. Seeing how other communities respond to social media is really great to see.
Ana: If I were to ask a 2 minute pitch on presidential election 2012.
Lucy: I know there's criticism of both parties, and absolutely the democratic party. You have 2 different views, two tests. If on one you get 90% test and one you get 40% test, clearly the 90% is better. I can't say in good conscience that I don't agree with everything that the Republican party is doing. If you look at what President Barack Obama's election made on Latina women and you look at Mitt Romney, in terms of education, early education, and the health benefits that come with health reform, that's huge for me. Are there critiques that are founded? yes, sure.
Marilinda: I'd fall on the other side of that but would agree completely. The issue at the end of the day is people can attack records whether of me or the presidential candidates, I think we have to look at which way we want the country to go. When my colleague mentioned a pap smear as a fundamental right which wasn't what our founding fathers were thinking but when you're looking at a policy that fundamentally restructures the way citizen acts and are compelled to act in a way that our federal government wants us to. I think there's some more fundamental issues that need to be addressed. I think it's an issue of timing. I think what's frustrating, if you're putting the public economy in front of the pirate economy then you're layering our failed structures like education and health care and they're getting bigger and bigger. The harder it is to fix the problem when it's coming from the center. I like the idea of letting people first pursue their own dreams and aren't pushed down by the government.
Member Question: If you could adopt one policy that could help spanish small business communities grow, what would it be?
Lucy: It's the investment in education at the end of the day. The more educated and skilled people that we have the better it will benefit your business. If we don't make a dedication to educating our children, starting at birth, you're not going to be successful
Ana: Let's go back to our pitch.
Veronica: I think Lucy summed it up well. Obviously the Latino community isn't monolithic. We have deeply systemic racism that doesn't go away with 1 generation so then government has a role to play to help with those inequities so that up by your bootstrap doesn't work. We have to get involved we have to vote we have to get engaged.
Lucy: And we have to elect President Barack Obama.
Lucy: I would encourage everyone to go to my blog and join the conversation. Continue to be critical and stay active.