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NALEO’S Arturo Vargas On Latinos’ Growing Political Landscape

Arturo Vargas, NALEO’s executive director, speaks on Tuesday, June 26, 2014, at the start of NALEO’s 3-day conference in San Diego, Calif. Suzanne Gamboa / NBC News

SAN DIEGO, CA -- Latino lawmakers from across the country who hold public office at the federal, state and local level gathered Thursday in San Diego for the three-day National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials conference. Arturo Vargas, NALEO’s executive director, has run the group for two decades, building it into a vocal national force. He spoke with NBC about Latinos' growing role in the nation's politics.

NBC: How has the landscape of Latinos in public office changed since you first became executive director in 1994?

VARGAS: In those two decades, there has been exponential growth in the number of Latinos in elected to office. In 1994, it was over 3,000, now it’s 6,000. More important, Latinos have become a permanent structure on the political landscape. No one would dare talk about national elections without factoring in the Latino vote.

NBC: How much of a role did Proposition 187 (the California immigration control measure) play in that growth and change?

VARGAS: Proposition 187 in California was a seminal moment. It really turned the tide in terms of Latino political mobilization. Here you had a proposition and an issue that was exploited for political purposes by the governor, Pete Wilson, and the campaign was conducted by the Prop 187 proponents in such a way that the message that came across was not that there were too many undocumented people in California. The message came across that there were just too many Mexicans … It led people to become citizens, and non-voters were so angry that you had people who would not participate in a midterm election decide to engage. It really was a turning point for California politics to the kind of California we have today. You can’t run for statewide office now in California and win when you don’t have Latino support.

NBC: What about NALEO, how has it changed over the years?

VARGAS: The previous executive director was Harry Pachon and with (the late Rep. Edward) Roybal. They really put an emphasis on naturalization and that is not only something we continue to do, but have increased … Something we’ve added is voter registration and getting out the vote, with a focus on low-propensity voters. We are trying to get at people who don’t believe voting makes a difference for them … Campaigns have always been focused on who are the people who are going to vote. But if you go after only those that vote, those that don’t vote are going to be alienated.

NBC: And you actually have had some success at that haven’t you with your citizenship and voting campaigns you had in recent elections?

VARGAS: We had “Ya Es Hora Ciudadania” (Now is the Time, citizenship), “Ya Es Hora Registrarse” (register to vote), “Ya Es Hora, ¡Ve y Vota!” (vote). And we had the Census campaign, “Ya Es Hora ¡Hagase Contar!” (Get Counted). It became a real powerful brand. If you look at the impact we had, especially in California, it’s a very different state in 2014.

NBC: But we still see a lot of Latinos who are eligible to vote not turning out. How much financial support is there for groups like yours for turning out Latinos?

VARGAS: The support is not nearly what we need. In the past couple of election cycles, there was a better mobilization of resources (among Latino 'get out the vote' groups), because one of our challenges has always been people throw money at mobilizing at the last minute. Lately we have been able to do more with money because it came in a little earlier, giving us the opportunity to be strategic and to plan.

NBC: But what we are hearing and reading is that the Hispanic vote really can have little effect in a midterm election.

VARGAS: Because of the nature of elections, there is some truth to that. There are 435 little elections happening and because of the way districts are gerrymandered in some areas, Latinos have been stripped out of districts where they could have an impact … But to say the Latino vote is not going to matter at all, sets people up for possible surprises … In places like Virgina, North Carolina, where the effect is statewide, and like Colorado where Udall is in a tight race and we know the Latino vote made a difference for (Colorado Sen.) Michael Bennett in 2010.

NBC: What about Latinas, how have things changed during your time at NALEO as far as their presence in public office?

VARGAS: We really have seen more Latinas, more women, just look at the California delegation. The men are four, the women are five. (Latinos). But also at the local level, in local offices and school boards …That’s where we’ve seen the growth of Latinas.

We’re also seeing the benefit of access to higher education. We’re seeing our elected officials with juris doctorates, they’ve gone to top law schools. We have Joaquín Castro being considered for Secretary of HUD and he’s a Harvard graduate and undergrad from Stanford. That’s not the kind of thing we had 20 years ago because we didn’t have access to the best schools.

NBC: So what isn’t happening on the Latino political landscape?

VARGAS: What’s not happening, is that it's not fast enough. There’s a certain amount of impatience. There was a time I thought my work is done when I get my first Latino elected to the Senate, and we got a Latino elected to the Senate. Then I thought my work is done when I get a Latino in the Cabinet, and we’ve got Latinos in the Cabinet, and now it’s when I get my first Latino in the Oval Office.

NBC: Tell me about you, are you from California?

VARGAS: I was born in El Paso, Texas, but raised in LA. My family was from Chihuahua. My mother is an immigrant. My father technically was born in El Paso.

NBC: Technically?

VARGAS: He was born in El Paso, his family came during the Mexican Revolution, but once things settled down, he grew up there. My mother was an immigrant both culturally and legally. She was one of the people who naturalized in 1994, the year of Proposition 187. She will tell you to this day, that’s the reason she naturalized. She was angry and wanted to vote.

NBC: So how did you end up doing the work you do? What did you do before?

VARGAS: Growing up in the 60s and 70s and having my older siblings be at college at the time and really having a political consciousness to the point that even my parents took it upon themselves to organize other parents and boycott our elementary school, (Magnolia elementary). That was in 1975. We walked the picket line, there was overcrowding, the school district was not investing in new schools to expand capacity. I attended double sessions all the way to the fourth grade which meant there was less learning for Latino kids … It was all of LA Unified, but if you are talking about LA Unified you are mostly talking about Latino kids … I wanted to be a high school teacher. I got my teaching credentials and masters in education. Then I actually went into this kind of work, rather than being the Chicano “Welcome Back Kotter.” I worked for (National Council of La Raza) in DC for three years and (Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund) for seven years.

NBC: Something we did not discuss, you are working on voting rights?

VARGAS: We are doing all we can to get legislation to remedy the Shelby County decision (which gutted voting rights protections against discrimination in the Voting Rights Act.) It really has affected Latinos especially in the State of Texas now, where Texas can do what it wants carte blanche. If you look at history, redistricting, voter ID, they just can’t help themselves in violating the rights of Latinos in Texas. We are trying for a modernized remedy to protect Latino voters in these states but also other parts of the country where Latinos are voting.

NBC: But time is dwindling. (Congress ends this year’s session at the end of July.)

VARGAS: There’s just too much politics in the way with the midterm election coming up. It may be that just like other civil rights legislation, we have to wait a second congressional cycle to get something done. Typically that’s what has happened in civil rights legislation.

NBC: What about Republican Latinos. How much have their ranks grown or changed?

VARGAS: There continues to be a strong presence in the Republican Party of elected officials. There are seven Latino Republicans in Congress, three U.S. senators and two governors. You also have a lot of Latino Republicans who are getting very, very impatient with their party not getting behind things like immigration reform and believing they haven’t learned the lessons of prop 187 where Republicans were pushed into arms of Democrats, and that really has changed politics in the state.