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Pat Contreras Seeking to be Missouri's First Latino Elected Statewide

by Suzanne Gamboa /  / Updated 
IMAGE: Pat Contreras
Pat Contreras, 34, says he is the first Latino candidate for statewide office in Missouri. He is seeking to be the state's Treasurer, with the hope of creating a financial literacy program for the unbanked and of eliminating financial deserts - places without banking institutions - in the state. Sally Morrow / Pat Contreras campaign

As part of our NBC Latino Political Profiles series we are featuring Hispanics who are running for races across the country and or are actively involved in local, state and national races.

Democrat Pat Contreras is campaigning to run for Missouri state treasurer in 2016. Based on recollections with longtime politicians in the state, Contreras believes he is the first Latino to seek statewide office and would make history if elected.

Contreras says he is unfazed by the challenging race, largely by following his mother’s advice: Never give up.

“She’s one of the toughest ladies I know - she had grit. That’s what it takes to have grit, never giving up,” he said in an interview with NBC Latino while in Washington to attend Congressional Hispanic Caucus events.

An economist and more recently a diplomat for the State Department, Contreras, 34, has served in the Obama and Bush administrations. Raised in Kansas City, Missouri, he is the great-grandson of Mexican immigrants, except one grandfather, his stepfather's father, who was Cuban.

The Missouri State Archives does not have record of the ancestry of all of Missouri's statewide elected officeholders since it became a state in 1821. The state does not collect race and ethnicity information from candidates.

Contreras's campaign is creating some excitement in the state's Hispanic community and nationally.

"We are excited to see another great Latino candidate running for office, especially in a state where we have so much work left to do to empower our community," said Cristobal Alex, president of the Latino Victory Project, which seeks to increase the numbers of Latinos holding public office.

Latinos make up only 4 percent of the population in Missouri. The largest number live in Kansas City. Last year some 44 percent of Latinos in the state were eligible to vote, according to Pew Research Center.

Contreras spoke of working his way up through a modest and at times difficult childhood.

Born and raised in Kansas City, MO, Contreras has been a staff economist at the Federal Reserve and a State Department diplomat.

As a young man, following his parent’s divorce when he was 9 and mother’s remarriage, he lived with his father in the basement of a group home, in a neighborhood with a mix of black and white residents and few Latinos. Gunfire was not uncommon.

He said he was friends with what some might consider the “wrong crew.” They teased him for his studious nature, but remained his friends, he said.

He didn’t have the money for college or the standardized test scores that would win him academic scholarships to top universities. So he applied for every scholarship he could find, Papa John’s Pizza scholarship, a Puerto Rican Society scholarship. Eventually he won a full scholarship from the Gates Millennium Foundation.

But his acceptance to St. Louis University was conditional; he was on academic probation and had to prove he could hack it. By time his probationary enrollment ended, he not only showed he could handle college coursework, “I convinced them to accept me in the honors program,” Contreras said. “I showed up and said, I’m smarter than they think I am.”

He went on to earn a master’s degree at Columbia University in New York, and work in the U.S. State Department.

Contreras has been on the campaign trail about six months and only recently picked up an opponent for the 2016 Democratic primary.

Judy Baker, a former state House member, announced last month she also is seeking the seat. She served two terms in the state House. She ran for Congress in 2008 and lieutenant governor in 2012 and lost both races. She worked in the Obama administration as a regional director for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"I have long been a champion of Latino candidates and helped Latino friends succeed in the political and policy process. I have championed issues while in the Missouri House to give the newly-rising Latino community in Missouri more opportunity and visited many uniquely Latino sites to listen and learn about the challenges of the Latino community," Baker said to NBC News. "This is far more than about running against the Latino candidate. It's offering voters the option of someone who is uniquely qualified to be Missouri's state Treasurer with experience in policy making, financial empowerment, economics, and balancing state budgets."

If he wins the Aug. 2, 2016 primary, Contreras will face a formidable foe in the general election. St. Louis Republican Eric Schmitt, 40, is on his second term as a state senator. He faces no primary opposition and has some heavy backing from other officeholders and businesses.

Missouri voters backed Republicans John McCain and Mitt Romney in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections and its legislature is Republican controlled. But the governor is a Democrat and Democrats still hold a few of the statewide elected offices.

St. Louis, MO, has one of the largest populations of unbanked city residents. Contreras wants to add a financial literacy program to the Missouri state treasurer responsibility.

Missouri’s treasurer manages a $3.5 billion portfolio of investments, reinvests state tax dollars, manages the state’s college savings plan fund, is responsible for returning unclaimed property and manages a staff of 50 people.

Contreras wants to add to the office responsibilities a financial literacy program for Missouri residents. The program would teach the basics of having a bank account and setting up savings, while working with the community banks to eliminate financial deserts, areas devoid of any financial institutions.

“I want to be a liaison and provide information to these families, whether it’s a shelter over their head so they can move forward or whether the family wants to buy a car, and what they need to do to build credit history and take out a loan if they need a loan,” he said.

According to Contreras, St. Louis has one of the largest populations of unbanked residents of any major city.

That mission is an outgrowth of his first job with the Federal Reserve, which he got after graduating from St. Louis University with a business and economics degree.

Brought in to be a staff economist, Contreras assisted his boss with a project on researching ways to assist the unbanked.

He spent a week with about 100 families, most of them Latinos, who lived in an trailer park in Garden City, Kansas, where many worked in the meatpacking industry.

Many of the families didn’t know they could get a bank account or how to do so. They relied on check cashing centers and money transfer companies such as Western Union.

“That was keeping them behind,” Contreras said. His personal experiences and work at the Federal Reserve has shown him that access to information is key to getting ahead, he said.

“You don’t know what you don’t know and you don’t know what you are eligible for,” Contreras said. “For example, I’m working with veterans and they often don’t know what they are eligible for after they’ve served, health benefits for example.

Between undergraduate and graduate school, Contreras did the Coro Fellowship in Public Affairs, a competitive program that chooses 12 fellows a year. The fellowship included an education in policy for low income housing development, public works issues, politics from a local campaign and working with a union for sprinkler fitters.

"During that process, I was able to see how decisions in labor specifically affect the private sector," said Contreras, the son of a steel and electrical worker.

“For me it’s always been about impact,” he said. “Who do I want to help and what is the impact for Missouri?”

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