Is America Ready for Its First Latino President?

first latino president

The 2012 election is almost over and President Obama is a favorite to win in many circles. Considering his historic election as the first black President, perhaps now is the time to reflect upon the possibility of who could be the first Latino President of the United States. Latinos make up the fastest growing bloc of independent voters in the nation and their influence is still little understood. Regional politics prevail and the best candidates will be those who are able to break through and present themselves worthy of national and international leadership. Here is IVN’s analysis of the most frequently talked about candidates to be the first Latino President. Let us know in the comments if we missed anyone.

Bill Richardson – El Veterano

Age: 64
Profile: Congressman (1983-1997), UN Ambassador (1997-1998), US Secretary of Energy (1998-2001), Governor of New Mexico (2003-2011)

One of the most prominent Latinos in American political history, Richardson was raised in Mexico City and eventually sent to elite prep schools in Massachusetts. From there he attended Tufts University where he studied French and Political Science.

Two years after moving to New Mexico, Richardson ran unsuccessfully for Congress. It would be one of his few losses though, as the Mexican-American would go on to serve 14 years as an elected official and then to senior appointments in DC before returning to run for Governor of New Mexico.

He ran for governor on a popular platform and broke the Guinness World Record for most handshakes in eight hours by a politician, previously held by Teddy Roosevelt. As Governor, Richardson focused on funding for large infrastructure projects and on promoting LGBT civil rights.

In a presidential run, Richardson would have no trouble collecting the Latino vote from across the Southwest, however his popularity would fade the further East one travels across the South and into Florida. Picking up Florida has become an important mark of triumph in Presidential races and Richardson would likely have to work hard to show off his ability to work across the aisle on conservative issues.

His past run didn’t last very long after a less than stellar showing in the primaries where he took only 5% of the New Hampshire primary. After that, Richardson endorsed Obama over Hilary Clinton which created a rift between him and life-long friend Bill Clinton. The Clinton factor, as with this year’s race, will likely be an important part of any candidates win, although perhaps that will be replaced by an Obama factor, in which case Richardson’s endorsement may have been a bigger set-up than anyone anticipated at the moment.

Antonio Villaraigosa – El Populista

Age: 59
Profile: CA State Assembly (1994-2000), LA City Councilmember (2003-2005), Mayor of Los Angeles (2005-present)

The first Mexican American Mayor of Los Angeles in 130 years, Villaraigosa received a strong 58.7% of the vote in his first race, but struggled in his re-election bid where he took 55.7% of the vote despite outspending his most prominent challenger 15 times over.

Villaraigosa’s legacy after leaving the Mayor’s office will perhaps be his expansion of the city’s mass transportation network. His policy agenda has not always been successful, for example a failed bid to take over the city’s schools may alienate voters who prefer a smaller federal government.

Villaraigosa has served as the primary ambassador for the City of Angels which may amplify his credibility with voters who value the US’ international reputation. He has traveled around the globe and hosted numerous high-profile trade delegations to LA.

Villaraigosa’s biggest hurdle may not be that Americans aren’t ready for a Latino President, but simply that American’s just don’t think mayors are qualified enough to run the nation. There have only been four US Presidents who have served as mayor. It seems that Villaraigosa would have a better time with a presidential run after some time in DC.

The Castro Brothers – Los Hermanos

Age(s): 38
Profiles:
Julian: San Antonio City Council (2001-2005), Mayor of San Antonio (2005-present)

70% of the City Council District represented by Julian is Latino which may signal his future ability to get out the vote. When he assumed the mayor’s seat he followed in the footsteps of other young Latino mayors of San Antonio including Henry Cisneros who has become a king-maker of sorts among Latino political circles.

Julian is plagued by the same parochial problem as Villaraigosa, which makes Joaquin the stronger bet, but he’s still pretty young and has lots of time to establish himself as a political heavy-hitter. Julian gave the keynote speech at the 2011 Democratic National Convention where he focused on the need to improve education; about 7 years after a relatively unknown candidate for US Senate from Illinois took the dais at the national convention.

Joaquín: Member, Texas House of Representatives (2003-present); Congressional candidate

Joaquín’s legislative agenda has included authoring and working on legislation involving workforce development, highway safety, and education programs intended to reduce teenage pregnancy rates. He is running unopposed in the Texas 20th District and introduced his brother at the DNC.

Although they meet the Constitutional age requirement and are noted for their charisma, they have met with little opposition. They’re too young to have established much of a reputation with their adversaries and may not have the credibility outside of their core constituency to impress Latinos outside of Texas who don’t know enough about them, but that will likely change for both as they mature.

They’re both definitely stars to look out for.

Susana Martinez – La Gobernadora 

Age: 53
Profile: District Attorney Doña Ana County, New Mexico (1997-2011); Governor of New Mexico (2011-present)

Martinez made history in 2011 when she became the first Latina Governor in the United States. She began her career as a DA as a Democrat and changed her party affiliation in 2005 to Republican. It’s not long until she sheds her party affiliations and runs as an independent candidate.

She has distanced herself from her predecessor, Bill Richardson (also on our list). She fired his cooks and sold the government-owned jet. With respect to one of Richardson’s pet projects the Spaceport America project, she has pushed for it to be completely privately-funded and replaced the entire board of directors.

New Mexico seems to be an incubator for prominent Latinos, but there’s a challenge with making experience from this corner of the US relevant to the rest of the nation. Her ability to reach out to Latino voters may also be difficult considering the Republican party’s rocky history with immigration.

She was a rumored pick to be Mitt Romney’s running mate, but in an interview with the Albuquerque Journal Martinez resoundingly batted away any hint that she would leave her current post, partially due to her father’s ongoing battle with Alzheimer’s and her need to be close to family.

Martinez spoke just prior to Paul Ryan at the Republican National Convention and took the opportunity to explain her shift in party affiliation after a lunch with Republican leaders: “When we left that lunch, we got in the car and I looked over at [my husband] and said, ‘I’ll be damned – we’re Republicans.”

Marco Rubio – El Principe de Té

Age: 41
Profile: Florida House of Representatives (2000-2009), US Senator from Florida (2011-present)

Cuban American Rubio is frequently mentioned as a potential candidate for VP. He is known as a staunch Republican, often referred to as the Crown Prince of the Tea Party Movement. He beat out former Republican Governor Charlie Crist for his current seat in the Senate after Crist launched an independent candidacy. Rubio won his seat with less than 50% of the vote in a three-way race.

Rubio took considerable heat after the St. Petersburg Times and the Washington Post reported that Rubio had not been forthcoming about his immigration story. Those media outlets discovered that his parents were not exiles of the Castro Revolution in 1959, rather they immigrated during the prior regime of Fulgencio Batista. The Washington Post went so far as to consider these fabrications as merely a way to sway voters who would be more impressed with his family being political refugees from the Communist dictatorship, rather than economic migrants that are frequently accused of being job-stealers.

During his introduction of Presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, Rubio made no mention of his Tea Party roots, perhaps attempting to seem less radical. Many groups however, still see his original opposition to the various versions of the DREAM Act as a betrayal which may not play well if attempting to attract a national support base from other Latinos.

Although his name has been bandied about, it seems that without being able to reach out to others having Rubio on a presidential ticket would do little to build Latino support outside of Florida.

Ted Cruz – ¿El Tejano?

Age: 41
Profile: Solicitor General of Texas (2003-2008)

Cruz was born in Calgary, Canada. His father, a Cuban, fought for the Castro Revolutionaries, but allegedly only until he realized that they were Communists. His mother is an American from Delaware. He was raised partially in Texas and then went to graduate cum laude from Harvard Law School.

Cruz was the first Latino to serve as a clerk to a Supreme Court Justice and during that time he helped author 80 Supreme Court cases. In his role as Solicitor General for the State of Texas, his job is to defend the State before the Supreme Court.

Like Rubio, Cruz has won significant praise from Tea Party Republicans and is well recognized for his conservative positions on issues of gun control, religious expression, and states’ rights.

Two questions emerge when discussing Cruz the Candidate. First, whether he is constitutionally permitted to run. The term ‘natural born citizen’ is not defined in the Constitution and no mention of the term is made in the US Code except as a requirement to be President. Whether Cruz’ maternal roots are sufficient has been the subject of much debate.

The second question is whether someone can make the jump from Court House to White House without a step in between. It’s very unlikely that voters will feel confident making this leap of faith without first seeing how Cruz fares against political adversaries and not just legal adversaries.

Luis Gutierrez – El Activista

Age: 58
Profile: Chicago City Council (1986-1992), Congressman (1993-present)

Gutierrez gets the win for most compelling immigration story. Raised in a working class neighborhood in Chicago and then shipped off to live with family members in Puerto Rico where he had to learn to speak Spanish. He would bring a story of belonging from neither here, nor there, yet somehow still able to ascend the ranks to become a stand-alone political institution in Chicago.

He is the Chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Immigration Task Force and was the first elected official to sponsor a version of the DREAM Act. He is also an outspoken activist on Puerto Rican civil rights and was a leader in the Vieques Movement. He has been arrested three times while serving as a Congressman: in 2000 to protest the use of Vieques Island as a bombing range, and in 2010 and 2011 when protesting President Obama’s inaction on immigration reform.

Gutierrez’ activism plays well in his district where he has never taken anything less than 75% of the vote, however, this may serve to turn off a broader spectrum of Americans. He is often mentioned as a potential candidate for the Mayor of Chicago, but it’s unlikely that he’d have the national reach that others on this list might have. Also, while important to many Latinos and other Americans, focusing so heavily on the sole issue of immigration may make it seem to those unfamiliar with his legislative record that he is unable to lead on any other issue.

Hilda Solis – La Secretaria

Age: 55
Profile: California State Assembly (1992-1994), California State Senate (1994-2001), Congresswoman (2001-2009), US Secretary of Labor (2009-present)

Perhaps the title of La Legisladora would better fit the present Secretary of Labor. Regardless of how you want to title her, Solis would come to the race with an impressive set of credentials having worked in the California State Legislature and the US Congress and then further increasing her profile as cabinet member for President Obama.

Assisted by an educational outreach program that helps low income, first generation students attend Cal Poly Pomona, Solis was active from an early start in organized labor. While praised at the time by organized labor, her appointment was met with opposition from business groups.

Solis has been an outspoken critic of attempts by State governments to limit collective bargaining rights and has spoken out strongly and emotionally against such moves, saying “[those governors] aren’t just asking workers to tighten their belts, they’re demanding they give up their uniquely American rights as workers.”

Solis is well regarded on domestic issues and championed environmental issues while a legislator. She was also caught up in an imbroglio over the treatment of Latina women legislators with Joe Baca after she denounced Baca’s directing funds to his son and Baca responded with less than choice words, but Solis seems to have soldiered on without tarnishing her reputation.

In order to make a viable run Solis will have to expand her credentials and prove that she’s just as capable of championing business interests as she is as fighting for workers. She has a prominent national platform and her close connections to President Obama will likely prove useful to her in the future.

Loretta Sanchez – La Centrista

Age: 52
Profile: Congresswoman (1997-2003)

Sanchez is a member of the Blue Dog Coalition of House Democrats and represents the Republican stronghold of Orange County California. Critics argue that her conservative credentials are questionable, but this hasn’t stopped her from being re-elected.

A native Californian, Sanchez got her start organizing with labor unions. She is credited with being one of the first Democrats to break away from then Gov. Gray Davis, which may signal to some her willingness to step-away from the party line in times of crisis.

Sanchez was also caught up in the same falling out with Baca as Secretary Solis, and has equally managed to move passed it all. She sits on the powerful Armed Services Committee, the Committee on Homeland Security, and the Joint Economic Committee. While many Latino legislators pursue a single-issue platform (usually dealing with immigration) Sanchez has proven herself able to pivot from issue to issue with ease.

Her centrist positions would easily assuage any concerns about having a Latina candidate on the ticket.

Luis Fortuño – El Boricua

Age: 52
Profile: Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico (2005-2009), Governor of Puerto Rico (2009-present)

Fortuño is a member of the New Progressive Party of Puerto Rico that advocates for Puerto Rican statehood. He caucuses with Republicans in DC and like others on this list is frequently mentioned as a long-shot for VP or President. Fortuño is well known in DC circles and is outspoken on issues of national importance such as the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).

His efforts to gain statehood would play well among other Latinos who would be hopeful that he could shine attention on issues of nationality surrounding immigration reform. And his efforts to reduce the size of the Puerto Rican Legislature would appeal to states’ rights promoters who disfavor oversized government. His ethnic background would appeal to Puerto Ricans spread throughout the Northeast who would like to see one of their own take the national stage.

Fortuño hosted the first visit by a sitting President to the island since Kennedy visited in 1961, which served to show off his ability to work with Democrats, even though he is a critic of much of Obama’s policies. Fortuño was an early supporter of Mitt Romney for President and if Romney wins, it’s likely that Fortuños name will be considered for a higher post. Whether he opts to accept will be a different question, however.

In case you’re wondering, yes Puerto Rican’s can run for President. However, Puerto Ricans who aren’t also US citizens can’t vote in presidential elections. Something Fortuño is ardently working to resolve.