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Democrat Hala Ayala seeks to be Virginia's first Latina, female lieutenant governor

Democrats hope Ayala, who made history as a state legislator, can boost voting in the high-stakes state elections, with the gubernatorial candidates in a dead heat.
Image: Hala Ayala
“I was elected to office because I did the hard work,” said Hala Ayala, who made history when she was elected in 2017 to the Virginia House of Delegates as one of the first two Latinas to serve in the chamber.Jahi Chikwendiu / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

In a campaign ad for her bid to be Virginia’s next lieutenant governor, Hala Ayala wears a flannel shirt and rings up a purchase at a gas station store at night.

The Democrat says in the ad that “a little help” and “hard work” took her from the minimum wage gas station job she worked while pregnant and without health care to her middle-class life and career as a state legislator.

Ayala, who identifies as Afro Latina, told NBC News she created similar economic opportunity for Virginians as a state delegate, such as voting for a minimum wage increase, which she's confident will help pull voters, including Hispanics, to her corner.

“I was elected to office because I did the hard work,” said Ayala, who made history when she was elected in 2017 to the Virginia House of Delegates as one of the first two Latinas to serve in the chamber. Ayala said her father is from El Salvador with African roots and her mother is Lebanese-Irish.

If she wins, she'd be in the history books again: Virginia has never elected a woman or a Latino as lieutenant governor. 

Democrats hope Ayala can boost voting in the closely watched state elections. President Joe Biden, former President Barack Obama and other national politicians have descended on the state to rally Democratic voters.

Early voting is underway, and the candidates for governor, Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin are in a relatively dead heat.

Ayala faces Republican Winsome Sears, who was born in Jamaica and is a Marine Corps veteran and former Virginia House delegate; she would be the first Black female lieutenant governor. Her campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

“The only thing I would want for this history thing is for children to see me and say, ‘Oh, Winsome is there. If Winsome can do it, I can do it,” Sears told NBC Washington.

Vying for the growing Latino vote

Ayala could see the benefits of her work in the legislature this election, particularly in her legislative district in Prince William County, where about a quarter of the population is Latino. 

“Latinos want to know that their kids will get a good education, access to the things we care about, which is setting yourself up for success, paying the bills, making sure that [Virginia is] No. 1 for business and No. 1 for workers,” she said.

Dorothy McAuliffe, from left, Terry McAuliffe, Kamala Harris and Hala Ayala cheer at the end of a campaign rally in Dumfries, Va., on Oct. 21.Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images

At issue is whether Ayala's message will inspire enough statewide Latino turnout for Democrats to offset an aggressive push for Latino voters by Republicans.

Hispanics are the third-largest racial and ethnic group in Virginia, behind whites, who are the largest, and African Americans.

While the state lost people who identified as white alone, a loss of 5.1 percent, the Latino population jumped to 10.5 percent, a total of 908,749 people, and the Black population rose to 18.6 percent, according to the 2020 census.

Democrats have not lost in Virginia statewide since 2009, largely because of work done by on-the-ground groups to turn out people of color, Steve Phillips, host of the podcast Democracy in Color and author of “Brown Is the New White,” said.

“There are far more Democratic votes than those that are Republican” in Virginia, he said. “Who is going to inspire, particularly people of color, to turn out and vote?”

There are about 425,000 eligible Latino voters in Virginia, Phillips said citing a Census Bureau post-2020 election report. Phillips said he has been frustrated by what he sees as continued lack of investment by Democrats in voters of color.

Biden captured 61 percent of the Latino vote to former President Donald Trump’s 36 percent in the 2020 presidential race when Biden won Virginia. But he has seen his approval ratings drop, including sharp drops among Hispanics.

“It absolutely helps to have a lieutenant governor [candidate] running who is a Latina, who has relationships in those communities, and she has been out there working and talking to the community. She is a tremendous asset,” said Kristian Ramos, a Washington-based Democratic consultant.

A lot of the Hispanic outreach is happening in the gubernatorial contests, with each candidate presenting competing endorsements from Latino groups and leaders and speaking at Latino events and restaurants.

This year’s election differs from the 2017 race, when Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie ran ads linking gangs and to immigrants. Gillespie lost.

A big push for Republican Latino outreach has come from Youngkin's gubernatorial campaign, with a Latinos for Youngkin group and a Spanish-language site up for the candidate since June.

Republican Jason Miyares, who speaks on the campaign trail about his Cuban mother, is challenging Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring. Miyares' campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

The GOP made inroads with Latinos, particularly in Texas and Florida, in 2020 by focusing on jobs, which resonated more among Latino men than Latinas. Disinformation and misleading election claims targeting Latinos have also played a role, particularly in Florida.

Jaime Florez, the Republican National Committee's Hispanic communication director, said the GOP Latino outreach is bigger than in the past and the party is "working on the gains we got in the last cycle."

Most Latinos that the GOP deals with fled socialism in their countries and don't want to see in the U.S., he said.

"I think education is one of those things. I think asking people to pay more taxes so they can have more money to give free things to people who don't work" is seen as socialism by many Latinos drawn to the Republican Party, he said.

Tougher to motivate voters

Angel Romero, 23, of Stafford, Virginia, has been canvassing for CASA in Action, a progressive political group focused on immigrants and Latinos.

Romero said motivating voters has been harder this election than in 2017.

Besides lingering fears of Covid-19 and concerns about talking to strangers, there is a “palpable sense of people feeling discouraged a bit from voting.”

“From the conversations that I have had, they see what’s going on at the federal level, that nothing is moving there, and they haven’t heard of all the changes here in Virginia we’ve had with the General Assembly Democrats,” he said.

“I’m surprised at the number of people who haven’t heard about the Medicaid expansion and the G3 [tuition assistance] program,” Romero said. 

CASA in Action has knocked on 50,000 doors of mostly Latinos, immigrants, African Americans, independents and new or infrequent voters, Luis Aguilar, the group's Virginia director, said.

Democrats also passed legislation creating a driver’s license for immigrants that now allows Romero’s mother to drive legally. 

“What motivates me now is keeping this progress that we’ve already created and creating more, because there is still a lot more to do,” he said.  

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