How This Election Will Bring in a Different Breed of Hispanic Leadership

PHOTO: CastroEric Gay/AP Photo
Former President Bill Clinton, second from left, stands with fellow democrats State Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, left, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, and U.S. congressional hopeful Joaquin Castro, right, during a campaign rally on Oct. 25 in San Antonio.

If the 1996 election marked the origin of the modern-day Hispanic electorate, 2012 will be a turning point in the political empowerment of the fastest growing voting bloc in the country, as a new breed of Hispanic leaders is set to sweep into Washington.

In that 1996 election, an unprecedented and still record 73 percent of Latinos voted to reelect President Bill Clinton against Republican Bob Dole. This advantage was largely built on the incumbent's opposition to an anti-immigrant ballot initiative in California called Proposition 187. Yes, all politics is local.

Proposition 187 was personal to Latinos and the Clinton campaign understood this well. Immigration was and still is an identity issue for Hispanics. The idea of implementing an anti-immigrant law in the largest Latino populated state in the U.S. had dire consequences for its Republican supporters. Since Prop 187 passed in 1994, Arnold Schwarzenegger has been the only Republican elected to statewide office in California. California, formerly a swing state in presidential politics, is now solidly Democratic. A voting bloc unlike anything this country had ever seen before was born.

Today, 12.2 million Latino voters are expected to cast their ballots. Key races in states like Florida, Nevada, Colorado and Virginia will be decided by their votes. Soon, Republican bastions like Texas could swing from red to blue if the GOP doesn't do a better job of understanding and embracing diversity in their platform. First, they learned a few words in Spanish, now the candidates are spending millions of dollars and a good share of their time to reach them. Indeed, the road to the White House goes through El Barrio.

Still, political representation has been missing despite the demographic blitz of Latinos. There are more than 50 million Hispanics in the U.S., or about 17 percent of the total population. But there are only two Latinos serving in the Senate and 24 representatives in the House. Out of the 50 states, only New Mexico and Nevada have a Hispanic governor. The only branch of government where Latinos are actually proportionally represented is the Supreme Court, courtesy of Judge Sonia Sotomayor.

A fresh crop of politicians is looking to change that this time around, and by doing so, they hope to become the largest Latino class ever in Capitol Hill. Joaquín Castro in Texas, Raul Ruiz in California and Michelle Lujan in New Mexico are among this new breed of Ivy-League educated candidates.

Many had modest upbringings. Some became English dominant out of a need to blend in. Although not a direct product of it, almost all of them have some type of connection to the civil and immigrants rights movement that produced most of the politicians that preceded them.

In a way, they're the Shakiras and Pitbulls of modern politics, as they maintain an appeal that goes beyond their community and resonates with a general market, across language barriers. They represent a thriving force of second- and third-generation Hispanics, able to switch back and forth between two cultures.

Alongside candidates like the astronaut Jose Hernandez and former Surgeon General Richard Carmona, this group could represent the largest Hispanic caucus ever to serve in Congress. By the end of the day, the number of Latinos in the Senate could double and the number of representatives could increase from 24 to as many as 31.

While mainstream America tries to shake its hips to the animated beat of Mr. Worldwide's latest hit and fill its belly with flour tortillas, another, and may I add, more authentic Latin revolution is taking place in this country. One that's already redefining politics across the electoral map.