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jonetta rose barras: The rise of Latino political aspirants in DC

olitical floodgates in DC opened after at-large Council member David Grosso announced he would retire at the end of his term this year, rather than seek reelection. A virtual sea of individuals — at least a dozen at last counting — have jumped into the November general election race. As required by law, the seat Grosso held is reserved for a minority party member or independent. 

None of the candidates has self-identified as a Democratic Socialist. More than a few have labeled themselves “independent Democrats.” That’s a fake moniker, but I won’t rant; I’ve done that already.

 

Regardless of my dissatisfaction with counterfeit branding, there’s a noteworthy and potentially impactful aspect of the crowded field: the rise of Latinos among the political aspirants. It provides an opportunity for greater diversity and the inclusion of more voices in the city’s political and civic discourse, which since Home Rule has been dominated by whites and blacks.

Current U.S. shadow Rep. Franklin Garcia, community advocate Mario Cristaldo and former DC Office of Human Rights executive director Mónica Palacio have all announced their candidacy. 

“I’m super-excited all three decided to run,” said Joshua Lopez, a former at-large council candidate and a well-known political operative, adding that he thinks the city is ready for a “Latino/Latina on the council. [Ultimately], we may see what we’re seeing in the national races with one candidate rising above the fray.” 

An obvious question is this: Will the community’s representation prove to be a significant topic of debate in the November campaign?

While Latinos have won public office in DC before, their posts have not come with the power to significantly reshape the direction of local policy. Consider, for example, that Garcia was elected in 2014 as shadow representative; his is a mostly ceremonial post designed to advocate for DC statehood. Sure, the House of Representatives recently took a historic vote on a bill that would achieve just that. But all roads end there, at least as long as Republicans control the Senate and the White House.

Prior to Garcia’s election, Victor Reinoso won a seat on the DC Board of Education in 2004 representing wards 3 and 4; he subsequently went on to serve as the deputy mayor for public education under Mayor Adrian Fenty. Frank Shaffer-Corona may have been DC’s first local elected official from the Latino community; he served as an at-large member on the school board from 1978 through 1982, according to the DC Board of Elections.

That scant history isn’t worth applauding — especially since DC officials created the Office of Latino Affairs in 1976, declaring the goal to achieve an inclusive and diverse government. Multiple-language documents have been distributed, services are provided to the Spanish-speaking population and employment discrimination may have been reduced. However, on the council and in the mayoral suite — where public policy decisions are made, and destinies are determined — the door has remained closed.

Latinos make up more than 5% of the city’s population, according to U.S. Census data. In some wards, like 1, 3 and 4, if they are galvanized, they can help swing an election. They own homes and businesses. “We’re a diverse group. We come here to work and in search of the American dream,” said Lopez, noting that economic development tops the list of priorities for many Latinos. He offered proudly that his mother has owned her home in DC for 20 years.

Jose Sueiro once owned and published two local newspapers — El Latino and La Nación — and has been active in the political and cultural life of the city for more than 30 years, including a stint as an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Adams Morgan. Today, he writes a blog and is managing director of a Hispanic contractors’ group, whose members employ more than 10,000 workers. “There are a lot of changes going on in the city,” he told me. “There is talk about running a candidate in the Ward 1 race the next time around.”

Regardless of their increasing economic clout, Latinos often are treated as if they’re a single-issue population, concerned primarily with immigration. Locally, most of us care about stopping abusive national policies that separate families at the country’s southern border and keep children in cages. The District has long been a sanctuary city.

Latinos have common ground with other District residents on a variety of issues. They’ve demonstrated an active interest in affordable housing, quality public education, a fair criminal justice system, income equality and human rights. 

Cristaldo said he worked for nearly eight years with the nonprofit housing provider Manna; he has also managed tenant purchase projects. He was a member of Mayor Anthony Williams’ Rental Housing Conversion Task Force.

“I am a DC community activist who just happens to be Latino. The city can’t be displacing 20,000 African Americans and Latinos. We need to do better,” he told me during an interview. He said he jumped into the council race because “it was the right time for me personally.“

Palacio said she’s been working in the District for 25 years. As a law student she focused on fair treatment for prisoners and helped gang-involved youth. Later, she turned her attention to the nonprofit community, working with Barrios Unidos Youth/Community Development Coalition and the Latin American Youth Center. 

“I feel like we need anti-displacement zones. We need an aggressive plan to preserve what DC means for us,” she told me, echoing many candidates’ interest in affordable housing and slowing the adverse effects of gentrification. “I’m a coalition-builder. I’m a problem-solver. I have fresh ideas.”

Palacio resigned earlier this year as director of the Office of Human Rights. Those years inside government, working with agency directors and council members, give her an edge over her opponents, she asserted, adding that, “My lifelong dream has been to be a legislator.” 

Garcia is no slouch, however. He’s been elected as the shadow representative three times: 2014, 2016 and 2018. He received 114,073 votes in the first race, 252,992 in the second (a presidential year with higher turnout) and 197,299 in the last — although in the latter two he ran unopposed. He and others think that record could translate into a victory in November in a crowded field. 

“I got elected because of the work I’ve been doing,” Garcia said. He founded the DC Latino Caucus and more recently served as communications director for the DC Democratic State Committee. In that capacity he has crisscrossed the city, making alliances across racial and class lines. However, he cautioned that “there is no entitlement in elective office. There is a genuine desire, however, for Latinos to be on the council.

“I am going to try but the electorate is ultimately going to decide do we need to bring [greater] substance to the issue of education, of affordable housing and other issues,” Garcia said.

“This is going to be a bumpy road,” he added, rightly assessing his way forward. 

Sueiro told me that of the three, “Franklin is the only one that has a shot of winning this.” He recently wrote in his blog, Metro Diversity: “No one in our memory has been this engaged, this prepared, and this ready to accede to a position of authority and power on the DC Council … as Franklin Garcia.”

That sounds like an endorsement from Sueiro. Will any political leader put action into the city’s diversity chatter by offering an early endorsement of a Latino candidate?

Who knows? It may not be a good idea to hold your breath.


jonetta rose barras is an author and freelance journalist, covering national and local issues including politics, childhood trauma, public education, economic development and urban public policies. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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