Hispanic Leaders Prescribe Ways For Democrats to Fix Their 'Latino Problem'

National Latino leaders, the ones who run organizations and whose political arms are often entrusted with outreach to Latino communities, have described Democratic investment in those voters as "deeply troubling" and "disappointing and confusing," with money that "comes too late" in the election cycle to make a difference.

And those quotes are from 2015.

Although calls for Democrats to invest in and prioritize Latino voters have been made for years, Latino leaders and progressives hope there is a sense of urgency to fix the problem now that the party has seen the erosion in support from Hispanics in the 2020 election.

The loss of support in places like south Florida, south Texas and other parts of the country has led Republicans to increasingly look towards Latinos as a possible electoral growth area, beginning as early as the 2022 midterm cycle.

"I'm hoping that 2020 put the fear of God into some of these folks," Lisa Navarette, who has worked at UnidosUS for 33 years and within the Latino community for four decades, told Newsweek.

She said she wrote about Democrats needing to improve Latino investment in the 1990s, but thinks it could be different this time.

"Maybe they are getting that it's costing them," Navarette said, "and they're leaving votes on the table."

She pointed to south Texas as an example, which she said is socially conservative and has ties to law enforcement, and where it wasn't surprising to see a pro-law enforcement message or exaggerations about Democratic Party support for defunding the police resonate, even among Latinos.

"We're not the base," she added. "If you want proof of that, look at 2020."

In Florida, many Latino leaders say, effective Latino infrastructure was erected not by Democrats, but by Republicans like now-Senator Rick Scott, who supplied the Trump 2020 campaign with the roadmap to do it again. Beyond engaging Florida Latinos on hot-button issues like socialism, the lynchpin of the blueprint is simply spending time and money talking to Hispanics in the state and learning what they care about.

When Democrats did spend resources in Florida — with 2020 on the line — much of it came late, a long-time criticism from Latino leaders.

During the last month of the election in the Miami market alone, Democrats spent $14 million just in Spanish, while Republicans spent $6 million, according to a Democratic media monitoring report.

By that time, voters' opinions on their choices had already hardened and millions were already voting.

"Democrats have to take a page out of the Trump playbook and understand that there is no offseason when it comes to engagement with Latinos," Arturo Vargas, the CEO of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), told Newsweek.

Vargas said that Democrats need more Latino leadership talking to Hispanics. As others mentioned, he stressed the need for the integration of more Latino consultants into campaigns, people like former Bernie Sanders senior advisor Chuck Rocha, who has successfully reached Latinos in the past.

Rocha, like many of the Latino leaders who spoke with Newsweek, said there has been improvement, with Democrats spending money earlier than in previous cycles. He mentioned the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) as one arm of the party which has done so.

But he said that not much has changed locally.

"One of the things I've noticed is the exact same consultants who lost every race for us in 2020 in heavily Latino districts are running everything again," he said. "They're hiring the same people over and over again and hoping for different results."

In November, the DCCC announced a $30 million campaign it described as "the earliest-ever investment House Democrats have made" to persuade and mobilize voters of color, including Black, Latino and AAPI communities.

The DCCC told Newsweek that it began its 2022 efforts early last summer. That included hiring 50 constituency organizing directors across the country and an increased effort to provide bilingual multimedia assets and graphics on their website for local organizations and campaigns to use.

In places like Miami, the DCCC has taken to messaging against Republicans by talking about defending democracy and hypocrisy on Cuba and other issues.

That's critical, said Ben Monterroso, a well-respected Latino leader and senior advisor for Poder Latinx, who traces his political awakening to Prop 187 in 1994, which offended Hispanics in California at the time.

"The Latino community has to know the difference between one party and the other," he said. "We see efforts from the GOP in some areas trying to court our community, but when it comes to being on the right side of issues they're nowhere to be found."

He agreed with his contemporaries that Democrats have begun to talk the talk when it comes to prioritizing Latinos, but when it comes to walking the walk "we still want to see more," he said.

Some Latino groups caution that the politicization, polarization, and urgency in the current climate sometimes leads Democrats to shy away from 501(c)(3) nonprofits who engage in nonpartisan civic work like voter registration in favor of hard-charging 501(c)(4) political messaging.

Frankie Miranda, the president of the Hispanic Federation, a grassroots network of nearly 100 community 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations, said that in the time of rising Spanish-language disinformation, it is important to fund trusted Latino groups who work on the ground and don't spread fear and disinformation.

He said his group had the opportunity to engage directly with the White House and Vice President Kamala Harris along with a dozen Latino groups in August at the remembrance of the El Paso hate crime shooting, where he stressed that the Hispanic community should be included in the administration's agenda, including Puerto Rico.

The Hispanic Federation engaged in voter mobilization in Georgia ahead of the Senate runoff races, as well as in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, and has plans to expand to states like Texas, Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado. However, its operations — the states it goes into and the voters it reaches — will be heavily dependent on the level of funding the group receives.

The organization, Miranda said, has a "basic" plan in progress with a budget of $1 million for 2022 that would enable the group to operate in five states. But it also has a "Cadillac" $4 million plan that would allow the group to take its work to Latino communities in 20 states.

He hopes the funding and investment for the Cadillac plan materializes.

"The approach of coming in late with a weird Spanish accent and the candidate saying a few words has been tested," Miranda said. "With the new reality of misinformation and messaging coming from a place of fear in certain communities, we need to go back to the drawing board to see what is really affecting Latinos across the country."

Monterroso, like others, said the progressive donor network Way to Win, which helped raise $110 million during the 2020 election, is one of the groups that 'gets it,' and is "trying to drag others along."

The president of Way to Win, Tory Gavito, said she has long been part of the chorus that believes trusted local leaders are needed to amplify the work Democrats. She said progressives are doing that, but that it's not enough, because Latinos just don't know what Democrats have done for them lately.

She said the way forward clicked for her recently when Amazon flooded the Austin media market where she lives ahead of a warehouse opening to prime the pump for hiring people in the community.

From YouTube TV to ads on her phone, Gavito couldn't escape the Amazon ad campaign.

"Why Biden doesn't have the same approach is beyond me," she told Newsweek. "The president himself has to talk about what he's done. He has to do fireside chats, get on Univision, and really on any radio outlets he can."

She said that from his time as governor, Rick Scott was adept at putting up welcome signs at the airport and for people coming from Puerto Rico that said, "The Republicans of Florida welcome you," and providing resources to new arrivals.

"The [Biden administration] has to put money behind resources to send people tests and get serious about the retail side of politics," she added.

In her view, Democrats need to be open to iterating and trying new ways of reaching Latinos.

"We have to make the road by walking," Gavito said. "Folks like Chuck Rocha, like Stephanie Valencia, like Kristian Ramos, there are a number of Latino leaders that are building firms, and building with new ideas."

Those who spoke to Newsweek said that both political parties need to understand their viability as a majority party is going to have to include Latino strategy being a permanent part of their work.

"If you always do what you've always done," Rocha said, "you'll always get what you've always gotten."

latino vote biden
"The president himself has to talk about what he's done," Tory Gavito, the president of the progressive donor network Way to Win, told Newsweek. "He has to do fireside chats, get on Univision, and really on any radio outlets he can." In this photo, supporters wait to hear then-candidate Joe Biden speak at the East Las Vegas Community Center about the effects of Covid-19 on Latinos on October 9, 2020. Brendan Smialowski / AFP/Getty Images