SHE’S WELL-SPOKEN and widely known in local Latino circles, a successful attorney with a natural interest in public policy.
So she started thinking about what it would take to run for office — for her local city council — and made calls to the type of people who support and prepare potential candidates in the Greater Boston area. She had many questions, including practical, financial ones: Should she quit her job? How much personal savings should she have?
“I’m still waiting for them to call me back,” she told me, after asking not to identify her. “One of them actually sent me a pamphlet.” She added: “Here I am putting myself out there, and no one would talk to me. This is the thing that breeds apathy” among potential Latina candidates.
She related her story while we were waiting for a half-day conference held in Boston late last month and convened by LatinasRepresent to encourage more women like her to run for office. LatinasRepresent is a partnership between the nonprofit Political Parity — a group founded by former Ambassador Swanee Hunt, whose focus is to increase the number of women in the upper levels of government — and the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda. The event was both a pep rally and a practical seminar on gearing up for a political race.
It’s hard for almost anyone to summon the courage and support to run for office, but it is particularly challenging for Latinas, who often look in vain for role models. The conference underscored a few things: There is only upside for Latina political candidates, given the paltry numbers in office. And it’s encouraging that bright lights like Hunt and her co-chair at Political Parity, former lieutenant governor Kerry Healey, are invested in the effort. But without consistent follow-up on the grass-roots level, potential candidates like the promising Latina attorney may allow their dreams to idle unrealized. The risk is that the energy will dissipate.
Only 1.3 percent of all the seats in state and national office are held by Latinas, while no Latina ever has served in the US Senate. Beyond the dearth of role models, there are cultural issues as well holding back Latinas. In a landmark survey, LatinasRepresent found that Latinas talked about the need for mentors and also said that politics is too dirty. “Well, if they don’t get in there and clean it up, it’s going to remain too dirty,” said Hunt.
Here in Massachusetts, Latinas have been willing to get their hands dirty mostly in minority-majority districts and in the so-called gateway cities, places like Chelsea, Lawrence, and Springfield. Chelsea, which is now 62 percent Hispanic, has elected eight Latinas to political office in the past 30 years.
One of the most prominent Latinas in Boston politics is Sonia Chang-Diaz, who became the first Latina elected to the state Senate in 2008, and remains the only one. Chang-Diaz had an anti-procrastination message for the crowd at LatinasRepresent: “If you wait until you think you are ready, you will never do it. If you’re here, you are ready.” Her path to success included a defeat in her first run — and wiping out her savings account during her campaign.
One of the workshops offered during the conference was “Planning to Run,” and the local Latina leader who was thinking about going after a city council seat was in attendance. Facilitated by Emerge Massachusetts, the workshop provided detailed and pragmatic answers to the questions of where, when, and what to run for.
“One of the biggest mistakes women make when thinking about running is that they keep it as a big secret,” said Taylor Woods-Gauthier, executive director of Emerge. “You have to talk about it. You have to get your name out. Men have no problem announcing their intentions.”
But the Latina attorney would still not let me identify her. Perhaps if she feels she can receive some backing, she’ll let her secret out.