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First Two Latinas Are Elected to Virginia House of Delegates, Making History

Elizabeth Guzmán and Hala Ayala became the first Latinas elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, part of a Democratic sweep in the state.

by Stephen A. Nuño /
Elizabeth Guzman and Hala Ayala, the first two Latinas ever elected to Virginia's House of Delegates. Elizabeth Guzman, Hala Ayala campaigns

Two Latinas, Elizabeth Guzmán and Hala Ayala made history in Virginia; they are the first Hispanic women elected to the state's House of Delegates.

The two women not only beat long-term incumbents, but flipped their districts from Republican to Democrat. Ayala’s opponent, Richard Anderson, ran unopposed in 2015, but while the Democrats did not even run a candidate against Anderson in the 51st District, Ayala beat Anderson by almost 6 percentage points and mobilized 14,000 voters to win. Similarly, Guzmán was able to increase turnout in Prince William by 72 percent and was able to win by a comfortable nine point margin.

Guzmán, who is Peruvian-American, is a public administrator with a background in social work whose platform includes expanded preschool and family and health services, including mental health, and more accessibilty to these services in local schools.

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Ayala is a cybersecurity specialist who helped organize the historic Women's March — she was a local president for the National Organization for Women — and quit her job to run for office in the county where she grew up. She told a reporter during her campaign that she believed President Donald Trump and his administration would "discriminate against people who look like me." During the campaign, she spoke of how she had been on Medicaid several years ago to obtain the health insurance that saved one of her two sons, and vowed to fight for these programs.

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The victories were part of a Democratic sweep in the state that energized the party after worries that Virginia's Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Ralph Northam, would lose to Republican candidate Ed Gillespie.

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Gillespie's use of ads featuring MS-13 gang crime to attack Northam on his stances on immigration angered Latino groups.

Following the Democratic victory Tuesday night, CASA in Action, the political arm of an immigrant rights organization based in neighboring Maryland, said in a statement that their extensive grassroots organization had paid off; nine of the ninde candidates they endorsed won.

In a press release with the heading, "Immigrants Turned Hate into Political Power," CASA in Action touted their efforts, stating they knocked "on over 58,000 doors and reached over 20,000 voters via text and phone calls." The group also mounted an aggressive communications stategy with TV and radio ads in the top eight Latino radio stations and a bilingual digital program.

"If we want greater voter participation, we must connect with people meaningfully and positively," said CASA in Action president Gustavo Torres.

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In a conference call with media on Wednesday, progressive organizers from CASA in Action and NextGen America, as well as polling analyst Matt Barreto of Latino Decisions, described last night's wins in Virginia as a repudiation of racial politics that associated immigrants and minorities with negative messages.

“The Virginia campaign sends a very clear message that building your campaign around anti-immigrant, anti-Latino, anti-black messages does not work," said Barreto, a professor at UCLA. "We saw this before with Sharron Angle in Nevada and Tom Tancredo in Colorado, who failed miserably in their anti-immigrant crusade.”

Also of note in last night’s victory was the success of Ayala and Guzmán against two non-Latino white men who had repeatedly won in their districts by wide margins, or had run unopposed. Research has shown that gender can act as a mitigating factor in elections where Hispanic women can achieve greater success than their male counterparts.

Kansas University political scientist Christina Bejarano, author of the book "The Latina Advantage," said in an email that Ayala and Guzmán’s “gender and ethnic identities likely provided for an increased pool of supporters, which is even more apparent in our currently charged political environment that is leaving most diverse groups on edge.”

Bejarano urged Democrats to take this as a lesson in how to overcome narrow perspectives regarding which voters to appeal to instead of expanding the reach of the party’s message.

“The election of Guzmán and Ayala demonstrate that Latinas are strong political candidates that can run successful grassroots campaigns in non-traditional districts," Bejarano said. "As a result of these successes, we will likely see more Latinas running for office and hopefully they will get increased campaign support if the political parties and organizations learn from this lesson.”

Guzmán and Ayala join a list of notable victories by women and people of color. Sheila Oliver will be the first black woman to be lieutenant governor of New Jersey. Justin Fairfax also won lieutenant governor in Virginia, making him the first African American to win a statewide office in almost 30 years.

Also in Virginia, Danica Roem is an openly trans woman who won election, defeating a conservative incumbent who had not only been in office for over 20 years, but had sponsored an anti-trans “bathroom bill” regulating where transgender persons could use the restroom and refused to debate Roem or refer to her as "she."

Ravhinder Bhalla became the first Sikh mayor of Hoboken, New Jersey, despite incendiary flyers calling for Bhalla to be deported and other ones about terrorism. Kathy Tran, a Vietnamese refugee, became the first Asian American woman elected to the Virginia House of Delegates and Vin Gopal became the first Indian-American to win a legislative seat, defeating long time incumbent Jennifer Beck in Monmouth County, New Jersey. Gopal’s win also flipped his district from Republican to Democrat.

Tuesday's elections reflect a two-tiered approach on the issue of minority outreach and "identity politics." Where statewide candidates like Virginia's Ralph Northam were more careful in their direct appeal to minorities, the Democratic Party ran a diverse group of candidates down ticket that focused on bread-and-butter issues like healthcare. Roem focused her campaign on traffic issues in her community.

Other Latinos who won in local and state elections on Tuesday include Democrat Alfonso López, who won a fourth term to the Virginia House of Delegates. In Massachusetts, Andy Vargas, 24, defeated a longtime incumbent for a seat in the state's House of Representatives. Vargas made history in 2015 when he became the youngest city council member elected in his hometown of Haverhill. In Atlanta, Latino attorney Jason Esteves won his current seat on the Atlanta Board of Education.

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