Ricky Hurtado's attempt to flip a North Carolina House seat from Republican to Democrat and become the first Latino elected to the state’s House will go unseen by much of the country. But Hurtado could play a role in Democrat Joe Biden’s presidential bid.
So, too, could the campaign of Andre Del Valle, one of the few Latino candidates for a state House seat in the critically important battleground state of Pennsylvania, which holds its primary on Tuesday.
Hurtado, 31, and Del Valle, 27, are among some of the Latino candidates in state and local races who could accomplish historic firsts for Latinos and whose candidacies are important for galvanizing Latino voters in the 2020 election.
Hurtado, whose father drives a sanitation truck and whose mother lost her poultry and tortilla factory work in the Great Recession, faces incumbent Republican Stephen Ross in November in the reshaped state House District 63, which leans Democrat. Del Valle, a child of immigrants who grew up in a 10-person household, faces a four-way contest in House District 175 in Pennsylvania’s primary.
"Coming of age—and able to vote and run for office"
Both candidates are among an initial batch of legislative hopefuls endorsed by the Latino Victory Fund, a liberal, national organization focused on increasing Latinos in elected office. In the presidential race, the group first backed Julián Castro and switched to Biden after Castro exited the race. The group has close ties to the Biden campaign.
“We were looking at our 2020 presidential map and looking at states where Latinos will be the difference for the top of the ticket,” said Mayra Macias, Latino Victory’s executive director.
“We looked at states like Pennsylvania, where the Latino population is established and where the community’s political power is still growing and at North Carolina, where we had lost the state by 100,000 votes, the Latino population is growing and there are young folks who are children of immigrants and are coming of age and able to vote and run for office," she said.
Hurtado's parents fled the 1980s civil war in El Salvador to Los Angeles and then transplanted to Sanford, North Carolina.
“We were and still are working class. My mom and dad live paycheck to paycheck, as has been the case for many families in the country,” Hurtado said.
Latino Victory's Macías says having a national organization support these legislative races "sends a message of affirmation that we are seeing the growth of the community."
“We are seeing the work being done on the ground and we want to be supportive, so we are helping the community realize its political power," she said.
Knocking on doors turns to virtual "Happy Hours"
Initially, Hurtado and his campaign were knocking on 1,000 doors a week through about mid-March.
When coronavirus forced Americans to limit their in-person contact, the campaign switched to making 1,000 calls a week to check on the community, find out what issues people were facing, deliver groceries and masks, and help residents get assistance and jobless benefits. He replaced house parties with "Happy Hour With Hurtado" on Zoom to gather donors and supporters and discuss North Carolina politics.
That has helped build the trust and relationship with potential voters that candidates need to encourage some Latino voters to engage, he said.
The last Democrat to challenge the incumbent lost by 300 votes. For candidates whose races could be determined by razor-thin margins in battleground states, “the Latino voice is going to be critical," Hurtado said.
“As a party we can’t just think shortsighted. Many challenges the nation faces existed before Trump and are going to exist after Trump," said Hurtado. "Where we are headed in terms of power, we have to include Latinos in order to be successful in the future."
North Carolina and Pennsylvania aren’t states with large Latino populations. Eligible Latino voters make up about 4.4 percent, or 338,000 people, of North Carolina’s eligible voters, and 5.3 percent, or 521,000, of Pennsylvania’s electorate.
Down-ballot races "key mobilizers" for Biden
Latino Victory Fund reasons that the presence of a Latino candidate may help build the margin needed for Biden, while getting more Latinos in the political office pipeline.
“Down-ballot races are key mobilizers for Latino voters,” Latino Victory Fund president and CEO Nathalie Rayes said in a statement.
“We’re heading into a high-stakes election that requires an unprecedented mobilization for Latinos,” she said, adding that supporting the Latino legislative candidates “will help energize our communities to vote.”
Castro, who is serving as a senior adviser to Voto Latino, a group focused on mobilizing young Latinos, launched a PAC this week that also focuses on down-ballot candidates, including non-Latinos. Helping candidates at the local and state level can help inspire the Latino electorate, which will be the second-largest voting bloc this election.
“Every time we attract new people to politics, especially people who are not afraid to run on a bold agenda, it gets people excited that may not have paid attention to politics before,” Castro told NBC News.
Latino Victory Fund’s endorsement of Del Valle and two other Pennsylvania Latino candidates marks the first time the group has gotten involved in racesat the legislative level in the state, Macias said.
Del Valle, running in a Philadelphia district that is 11 percent Latino, is the son of a father who emigrated from Cuba and mother who emigrated from Colombia. He grew up with many cousins and other relatives who were also immigrants.
Del Valle is a former aide to the only Latino member of the Philadelphia City Council, Maria Quiñones Sanchez, and helped her draft anti-poverty policies, including a landmark domestic workers’ rights bill.
But as the coronavirus spread in the U.S., Del Valle said it's been difficult to make his calls to potential voters about turning out for him or contributing to his campaign.
It is not uncommon to call a potential supporter and be told: “Now is not the right time. I just lost my job. I’m trying to figure out how to get my unemployment checks," Del Valle said.
Seeing the need in his community, which has a mix of incomes but includes an area of high poverty, Del Valle decided that rather than campaign, he would distribute food, help residents navigate the unemployment benefit system and get out more information about coronavirus prevention, including in Spanish.
“It would be incredibly selfish of me to continue (asking for votes) and talk about what I want to accomplish, while people around me are suffering and wondering where their next meal is going to come from,” he said.
He still believes he and other Latino candidates can have an impact, even if the current coronavirus pandemic has diluted other issues his campaign is advocating, such as tackling the district’s opioid crisis and advocating for immigrant and workers’ rights.
“My race has the opportunity to bring out the Latino vote here in Philadelphia. I hope people are engaged and understand the importance of the election,” he said, adding he thinks his campaign will have "ripple effects."
In addition to Del Valle, the Latino Victory Fund endorsed Rep. Danilo Burgos, the first Dominican American elected to Pennsylvania’s state House, who is running for re-election in state House District 197. It also endorsed Manny Guzman, who if elected, would be the first Latino elected in the state's District 127. Guzman is in a five-way primary that includes other Latino candidates.
The other candidates the Latino Victory Fund is endorsing for election or re-election are:
— In Florida, Alex Barrio, House District 43; Ricky Junquera, House District 118; Rep. Cindy Polo, House District 103; Rep. Javier Fernandez, Senate District 39; and Sen. José Javier Rodriguez, Senate District 37.
— In New Mexico, Neomi Martinez-Parra, Senate District 35
González-Rojas in New York and Martinez-Parra would be the first Latinas elected to their districts if they win.