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'Latinas Lead' Works to Get More Women Running for Elected Office

As part of the Latinas Lead Initiative, Patricia Torres Ray said she hopes to identify strong Latina leaders who have what it takes to run for office.

There are not enough Latinas in political and elected positions, and those who have gotten there know it takes a lot more than the energy and desire to do it.

Patricia Torres Ray had thought about running for office, so when there was an open seat in the Minnesota Senate in 2006, she didn’t hesitate to announce her candidacy.

The Colombian native said her desire to be in a position where she could be “more influential” and “have a stronger voice” to advocate for children is what encouraged her to run. Torres Ray beat seven Democratic candidates in the primary and easily won the general election, becoming the first Latina elected to the Minnesota Senate.

But once in office, Torres Ray faced a major hurdle.

Minnesota State Senator Patricia Torres Ray (D-63)
Minnesota State Senator Patricia Torres Ray (D-63)David J. Oakes

“I realized I had no political experience,” she said. “That realization is what motivates me today. We have outstanding Latinas who are doing absolutely necessary work in our community, but they have not been exposed to the process of running for office. And we need to change that.”

RELATED: Latinas Missing from State Legislatures: Groups Work to Change That

Torres Ray is part of the Latinas Lead Initiative, which launched last year at the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislatures (NHCSL). The goal was simple - to increase the numbers of Latinas in public service and elected office. At the NHCLS's current conference in Honolulu, the initiative is once again front and center in the agenda.

Currently, Latinas represent 1.3 percent of state legislators and 1.6 percent of members of Congress. New Mexico’s Susana Martinez is the only Hispanic woman who has served as governor. There has been a notable recent gain; in November Nevada Democratic candidate Catherine Cortez Masto was elected and will be the first Latina to serve in the U.S. Senate.

Minnesota State Senator Patricia Torres Ray (D-63)
Minnesota State Senator Patricia Torres Ray (D-63)David J. Oakes

Still, said Torres Ray, there is a lot of work ahead.

RELATED: In Nevada, Catherine Cortez Masto is First Latina Elected to U.S. Senate

“I am very disillusioned when I hear these numbers, because I happen to know a large network of very talented Latinas all over the country who could do this work so well and so easily,” Torres Ray said. “They are so well prepared, and yet they are not running for office.

She said one reason why Latinas opt out from pursuing elected office is because “they’re not being recruited and they’re not being encouraged.” Another reason, she said, is that many Latinas see politicians as “dishonest people” who don’t work hard, and “they don’t want to be associated with that kind of profession.”

As part of the Latinas Lead Initiative, Torres Ray said she hopes to identify strong Latina leaders who have what it takes to run for office and to provide them mentorship.

Image: US House of Representatives
\Members of Congress and aides walk down the East Front steps of the U.S. House of Representatives following the last scheduled vote of the year on Capitol Hill on Dec. 18, 2015. MICHAEL REYNOLDS / EPA

The organization hopes to create a national network of Latinas in public service and elected office so that they “don’t feel so isolated,” noting that in some states there are only one or two Hispanic women serving in the state legislature. She said the network could also help Latinas share ideas on how to push for legislation and gain leadership positions.

RELATED: Latinos' Presence in State Capitols Grows, Expands With Election

In addition, Torres Ray said there are plans to develop individualized programs and trainings through the Latinas Lead Initiative to help Latinas “build the skills they need to be much more powerful and influential in the work that they do.”

“We want to have the infrastructure in place so that when Latinas decide to do run for office, they can do it, they can do it well and they can excel,” she added.

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