The Hill's Latina Leaders to Watch 2019

The Hill's Latina Leaders to Watch 2019
© iStock, The Hill photo illustration

The Hill is pleased to present its third year of Latina Leaders. Previously, we've highlighted Latinas in Washington and Latinas running for Congress, but this year, we took it to a state level, featuring Latinas making waves in their home states. 

 

Alma Hernandez

As the youngest person to serve in Arizona’s state legislature and the first Jewish Latina elected to public office in the Grand Canyon State, Rep. Alma Hernandez (D) is well versed in breaking barriers in politics.

When she was campaigning last year to represent Tucson in the Arizona House, the 25-year-old said she was met with questions about why she wasn’t raising a family instead. 

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“I was always constantly asked, ‘Don’t you have a family? Don’t you have a husband? Don’t you have children?’ In Hispanic, older families, that’s what makes you successful,” Hernandez said. 

But the challenges to achieving such milestones don’t end on the campaign trail. 

Hernandez, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, said she has had to overcome numerous cultural hurdles since entering politics.

“I’ve been told ‘you don’t know any better because you’re young,’ ‘you don’t understand’ or ‘you’re naive,’ ” Hernandez said, both from her colleagues and her constituents.

Still, she isn’t discouraged. Hernandez, who won her race to represent Tucson last year, has already scored a huge win: securing $1 million in state funding to train police officers who work with children. 

When Hernandez was 14 years old, a life-altering experience with a school resource officer left her with permanent spinal and nerve damage. Hernandez said she was attacked by two older students. When an officer attempted to defuse the situation, he landed on her back with his knee. 

If the officer had been properly trained, she says, things would have gone differently. But she thinks the funding could change things for current students. 

“For me, that was a huge win as a freshman [lawmaker],” she said. “Getting something like a $1 million appropriations in a budget for something that I truly have been fighting for for over 12 years now and really care about.”

There are distinct challenges that come with being a freshman lawmaker, Hernandez said — especially with being a young rookie lawmaker. Only 7 percent of Arizona legislators are millennials, compared with 56 percent who are baby boomers, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But Hernandez hopes to be a model for other young Latinas in overcoming those challenges and encouraging others like her to run for office.

“I was told to wait my turn, but I honestly, truly feel that it’s never going to be our turn,” she said. “If we want to create change, and we want to make something happen, we have to go for it and be passionate, continue to fight for it. 

“Because no one is going to hand us anything.”

— Jessie Hellmann

 

Adrienne Benavidez

Adrienne Benavidez almost ended her political ambitions before they began.

Benavidez, 65, first ran for a seat in Colorado’s House in the early 1990s, but ultimately lost by a couple hundred votes.

“I thought you know, I don’t know if I can really do this, or want to again,” she said.

But she decided to run again. 

In 2016, Benavidez actively considered running in Colorado’s Democratic caucuses for an open state representative seat. She went on to run in a competitive primary, winning by 124 votes, before beating out Alexander Jacobson (R) to represent Colorado’s 32nd District.

Before 2018, there had never been more than 12 Latinos elected to Colorado’s state legislature. But last year’s election cycle broke the state’s record for the highest number of Latino legislators elected. Now, Latinos make up 21 percent of Colorado’s population and 13 percent of the general assembly.

“It was historic for us here in Colorado,” Benavidez said.

But she acknowledged that milestone came with its own set of challenges.

“I think most people that get in politics who are Latina or people of color, you know it’s not easy,” Benavidez said. “You really work, and I think all of the new people that came in this last election, they had crowded fields, and they really, really worked their campaigns.” 

Benavidez, who now serves as the chamber’s majority co-whip, attributes her success as a state legislator to her diverse professional portfolio.

The Colorado native has experience serving at all levels of government, having worked for the city of Denver, Colorado’s state government and, at the federal level, the Department of Defense and the Internal Revenue Service. Benavidez, who has a law and advocacy background, also ran a nonprofit dedicated to advocating for communities of color before entering politics. 

“I was probably more of the well-rounded, as far as experience, members of the legislature because I’m also one of the older people in the legislature,” she said. 

But Benavidez said that, regardless of experience, young women — especially young women of color — still must expect to work harder in the workplace, no matter what profession they choose. 

“Nothing is given to you or guaranteed,” she said. “It means going out and working, talking to people, getting them to understand that you are qualified and better qualified than whoever you’re running against. It’s the same story. Any profession that we go into, we have to work much harder, and know what we’re talking about.” 

— Julia Manchester

 

Jeanette Nuñez

When then-Rep. Ron DeSantisRonald Dion DeSantisFlorida first lady to miss Women for Trump event due to planned execution Florida governor orders criminal investigation into handling of Jeffrey Epstein case Groups ask court to block ex-felon voting law in Florida MORE (R-Fla.) approached Jeanette Nuñez last year about becoming his running mate in Florida’s budding gubernatorial contest, she wasn’t quite convinced that it was her time.

Not that she wasn’t interested, she says. But at the time, the 47-year-old Florida state representative was weighing a two-year break from politics and an eventual run for the state Senate. DeSantis, however, was persistent. 

“I like to say he twisted my arm a little,” Nuñez said.

Of course, she eventually took DeSantis up on the offer. And in January, Nuñez was inaugurated as the first Latina lieutenant governor in Florida history, a position she had never planned to hold.

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Nuñez said much of her career has played out in a similar fashion. She never really intended to enter politics, but after graduating from college, she interviewed for a job with former state Sen. Alex Díaz de la Portilla (R) just to “see how that goes,” she recalled. She ended up working for him for nearly a decade.

“I didn’t really have any intentions of sticking around for a long time, but I ended up working for that legislator for nine years,” she said.

Since then, she’s held roles at Jackson Health System, a nonprofit medical system in Miami, and at the for-profit Hospital Corporation of America. Working in the health care industry, she said, helped keep her close to the legislature.

“Somewhere along the line of interacting with legislators, I thought, ‘Maybe I could do that, maybe I could run for office and really make a difference,’ ” she said.

In 2010, she won her first campaign for the state House. Then she won again in 2012, 2014 and 2016, when she was named speaker pro tempore. It was her victory as DeSantis’s running mate, however, that earned her the historical distinction as Florida’s first Latina lieutenant governor.

The weight of that title isn’t lost on Nuñez. 

“Of course it means something; obviously it’s a huge honor. It’s also somewhat of a responsibility,” she says. “Whether I think about it on a daily basis, I would tell you no. But there’s a lot of people that look at it through that prism, whether it’s young girls or people from all walks of life.”

As for her political future, she says she’s not looking too far ahead just yet. Nuñez wants to play an active role in 2020 when President TrumpDonald John TrumpDavid Axelrod after Ginsburg cancer treatment: Supreme Court vacancy could 'tear this country apart' EU says it will 'respond in kind' if US slaps tariffs on France Ginsburg again leaves Supreme Court with an uncertain future MORE is up for reelection — the Trump campaign has already named her a co-chairwoman of Latinos for Trump — but her top priority is navigating her first term as lieutenant governor.

“The people that do something with a preconceived notion of where they want to be, it doesn’t turn out that way, quite frankly,” she said.

— Max Greenwood

 

Iris Martinez

Long before she became the first Latina elected to the Illinois state Senate, Iris Martinez (D) got her start in politics in Chicago’s Humboldt Park.

Martinez, 63, grew up in the majority-Puerto Rican neighborhood after her parents migrated from the island territory to take manufacturing jobs in Chicago. 

“All of my family ended up working at factories when they migrated from Puerto Rico,” she said. “That was during the time here where they were looking for people from Puerto Rico to come and fill these jobs here.”  

Martinez said she first became interested in politics and social issues during her time at Chicago’s Roberto Clemente High School, named for the Puerto Rican baseball legend. 

“At the time, there was a lot of poverty, the lack of housing, the lack of health care. Those were things many of us in high school were already talking about,” she said.  

Growing up, Martinez said her own family struggled with poverty, though she acknowledged, “We always had a hot meal on our table.”  

Her experience with poverty during her formative years helped motivate her decision to become involved in community-based organizations. During high school, Martinez volunteered her efforts at Chicago’s Department of Health and Human Services and separately worked to help displaced Chicagoans find housing.  

“That is really where I developed my skills of being a public servant,” she said.  

That experience later translated into Martinez taking a role working for the city of Chicago. There she worked as an assistant commissioner in the Department of General Services under then-Mayor Richard Daley (D).  

Martinez later went down to Springfield, Ill., as part of her work for City Hall, working as an assistant to the mayor in Intergovernmental Affairs and managing legislative matters for the city. 

After spending three years working in Springfield, Martinez was approached by Miguel del Valle, the first Latino elected to the Illinois General Assembly, about running for a state Senate seat.  

“I said, ‘I can do this behind the scenes [work]. I cannot be the forefront of this,’ ” Martinez recalled. “He said, ‘Iris, you’ve got the perfect story to tell. You’re a single mom, you’ve struggled in your community trying to find affordable housing, affordable day care, that’s your story.’ And I said, ‘You know what, that is my story.’ ” 

So in 2002 she ran — and won — against then-Alderman Mike Wojcik (D). 

Twenty years after del Valle became the first Latino elected to the body, Martinez became the first Latina elected to the state Senate.  

Now the Senate’s assistant majority leader, Martinez has “risen through the ranks,” even presiding over the body as “madame president.”  

“From being a little girl from Humboldt Park to presiding over the Senate is really a story to tell. I’m very proud of that,” she said.  

Martinez said she works closely with other women in the legislative body, adding that the cohort has been able to reestablish a good working relationship across the political aisle. 

“I’m very proud of the women that are coming behind me, for the women right now that I’m actually mentoring,” she said.  

But Martinez hopes to continue paving the way for women and Latinas with political ambitions in her state.  

“If you have an agenda that ... you feel can make a difference, then run for public office. We have room. More and more women are stepping forward,” she said. 

— Julia Manchester

 

Catalina Cruz

As the second formerly undocumented immigrant elected to New York’s state legislature, Catalina Cruz has always approached politics from personal experience. 

Growing up in Queens in an immigrant family, the 36-year-old experienced firsthand the struggles that many of those she now represents can relate to.

“Everything is guided by the pain that I went through and the pain that my people are still going through,” she said.

Cruz said her mother, who raised her and her three siblings alone, was fired from multiple jobs in the service industry without sufficient compensation or protections because she was undocumented.

Later on, Cruz said her status prevented her from applying for financial aid at most universities. She eventually attended City University of New York, where she obtained her law degree in 2009, the same year she became a U.S. citizen.

Cruz then went to work tackling the issues she encountered growing up.

After working as a housing attorney representing low-income families, she served as counsel to New York City and state immigration departments, before becoming chief of staff for former City Council member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland.

In that role, Cruz helped pass legislation protecting workers, women and small-business owners before turning to her own political ambitions.

Ferreras-Copeland’s retirement, in part, spurred Cruz to seek office; President Trump’s 2016 election was another catalyst.

“It made me rethink – was I really doing everything that I could to help my community?” she said. “I could already see that he was going to try to end DACA, that he was going to try to come after immigrant families,” she said of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Cruz ran in 2018 to represent the 39th District in New York’s State Assembly, beating out incumbent Ari Espinal and becoming the first former “Dreamer” elected to the legislative body.

Now, Cruz uses her personal experiences and those of her community to inform her political priorities and her “moral and ethical compass.” 

Two marquee issues Cruz has pursued, the Child Victims Act and the Driver’s License Access and Privacy Act, are directly connected to her past.

In a January floor speech, Cruz revealed that she had been a victim of sexual abuse as a child, shortly after she and fellow lawmakers overwhelmingly passed the Child Victims Act. The measure, which greatly extends New York’s statute of limitations for childhood sex abuse, had foundered for years before being signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) in February.

Cruz also was deeply involved in the Driver’s License Access and Privacy Act, which will make New York the 13th state to allow undocumented immigrants access to licenses. Cruz said the measure aims to reduce immigrants’ barriers to economic engagement.

Though Cruz hopes to effect positive change as a state Assemblywoman, she cautioned that, without more diversity in politics, “we’re never going to create the change that’s needed.”

“I want to encourage others to take this leap. It’s not easy, it will change you in ways you can’t begin to imagine,” she said. “But if you can win, you can create a different world.” 

— Chris Mills Rodrigo

 

Nellie Gorbea

Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea (D) says she was born to run.

“In middle school when they explained student council, I heard the description and said, ‘I could do that,’ ” she said.

Gorbea, 52, was active in student government throughout her formative years, and in a variety of civic organizations at Princeton, where she studied public policy.

“I ran for some offices, I won some and lost others,” she said.

But things changed for Gorbea when she hit the big leagues.

“A lot of people asked me when I was going to run,” she said. 

She recalled spending two years considering launching a campaign before she committed to her political ambitions in 2014. 

“Part of it is structures of government and politics have historically been male. It’s easy to decide to run for something that you see others like you, that there’s a clear path,” she said. “It’s a lot harder when you start to think, ‘that structure wasn’t made for people like me, how do I do it?’ ”

When she decided to run, it was for an open seat as Rhode Island’s secretary of state — a role Gorbea knew well, having served as a deputy to the position.

Gorbea jumped into the heated primary as an underdog. She was outspent by her opponent, Guillaume de Ramel, but went on to win the Democratic nomination and beat out Republican nominee John Carlevale in the general election. 

She was sworn in as Rhode Island’s secretary of state in January 2015, becoming the first Hispanic to hold statewide office in New England.

Gorbea, who was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, said Hispanic politicians in Rhode Island decided to band together to boost each other and non-Hispanic candidates who would support the state’s growing community.

That led leaders in the Hispanic community to create allies and open up leadership roles for burgeoning talent.

“[When] you’re inside, you see how things are managed and then share experiences on what makes a successful campaign or a successful administration,” she said.

Gorbea said those diverse voices helped transform Rhode Island’s government, ultimately making it more inclusive for those working within it and for the state’s constituents.

“You get to be in these elected positions and change the structures of government and make them available to others,” she said. “There’s no reason why when you come up to a government form or a website, you feel like you need a lawyer.”

But the first step toward diverse participation in government, Gorbea said, is for everyone to speak up.

“It is crucial to get involved in your community, whether that be on a community-level board, your school, run for office. We each have something highly valuable to contribute to the public square — the only way we’re going to change things is if we get involved,” she said.

“Pick one thing, two things, either an issue area or a civic organization or body of government to get involved,” she added. “That doesn’t mean that body or organization will welcome you immediately, but we can’t give up. We have to get involved.”

— Rafael Bernal

 

Mary González

Texas state Rep. Mary González (D) got her start in politics because she wanted to practice what she preached. 

González, 35, said she first decided to run for office while pursuing her doctorate in education. She was teaching classes at Southwestern University when a group whose mission is to recruit, train and elect progressive female candidates in Texas, Annie’s List, approached her about running for office.

But it was a student, González said, who convinced her to run.

“One student after class said, ‘You know what Mary, every day you tell us to go out and change the world, to be at the forefront, take risks, make sacrifices. Here’s Annie’s List asking you to do the same thing,’ ” she recalled.

So, she ran for the Texas House in 2012, securing her seat in the legislature while continuing to work toward her Ph.D. 

González, the first openly pansexual elected U.S. official and second openly LGBT person elected to the Texas legislature, said she’s proud to be a trailblazer. 

Now in her fourth term, González chairs the House’s LGBTQ Caucus and serves as the vice chairwoman of its Mexican American Legislative Caucus.

“I’m really proud that we were able to break those glass ceilings,” she said, noting that she now serves alongside four openly LGBT women. “I think these moments are powerful for our communities.”

But she said her time as a representative has also been “a test.”

González represents Texas’s 75th District, an area encompassing rural El Paso County, that includes the towns of Clint and Tornillo — both of which have been at the forefront of the national immigration debate. 

Tornillo has been the site of at least two controversial immigration detention centers, one of which shuttered in January after national outcry.

González recently joined Democratic state and congressional lawmakers to visit facilities housing detained migrants near the Texas border. There, she said, she saw a “mess and a failure of our system.” 

Because immigration policies are determined at the federal level, González said she has focused on raising awareness of the immigration issues facing her district and using her social justice background to connect the public to advocacy groups.

But González said she has also focused on tackling issues that affect her constituents’ day-to-day lives. Her legislative work has included addressing a lack of water and wastewater infrastructure in rural and low-income areas and seeking to ensure an equitable and well-funded education system.

“These are the things that I think impact peoples’ daily lives and contribute to social inequality,” she said. 

In between working to get her bills passed and being present for votes, González managed to secure her Ph.D. from the University of Texas in May.

“I’m now Dr. Mary González, which is really crazy,” she said. “I like the fact that the visibility I have encourages more Latinas specifically to go to graduate school and get a Ph.D.”

As for her political aspirations, González says her attention remains on her constituents.

“I’m looking forward to continuing to serve my district and that’s really all I’m focused on,” she said.

— Rachel Frazin

 

Luz Escamilla

Luz Escamilla has spent most of her life bridging divides.

Escamilla, 41, spent her last two years of high school living in a border town in Tijuana, Mexico, and crossing into the U.S. every day to attend school in San Diego. 

“I had this really unique opportunity to almost enjoy the best of two worlds, and really have this opportunity to share in this very multicultural, bicultural situation that gave me a different perspective,” she said. 

And that perspective, Escamilla said, has been key in shaping her career in politics.

The Utah state senator said she first got involved in her community when she became an English tutor during her time at the University of Utah, helping other immigrant students and parents understand and navigate the education system. 

Escamilla then spent time working in the private sector, serving as state diversity outreach director for the Utah Domestic Violence Council before taking a post as a multicultural health policy analyst for the Disability Law Center. 

After earning her master’s degree and working as the director of policy and research for the Utah Office of Ethnic Affairs, she was appointed by former Gov. Jon Huntsman (R) to serve as the director of the agency. 

Escamilla, a Democrat, said her experience working for Huntsman’s administration helped her build relationships and trust down the political spectrum. 

“I work across the aisle,” she said. “I realize that the welfare of a community, the wellbeing and sustainable smart growth of a community requires people with different perspectives.” 

But Escamilla said her time working in the administration also shed light on her frustrations with the state’s legislative processes, propelling her to run for state Senate.

“I needed a bigger place to put my ideas and my perspective,” she said. “I was getting very frustrated with the legislative process and I felt like I needed to be there at the table.”

In 2008, Escamilla ran a successful campaign, becoming the first Latina, the first immigrant and the youngest person ever to be elected to the Utah state Senate.

During her time in the chamber, Escamilla has worked on legislation advocating for health care and public education. 

Now, Escamilla is running to become the mayor of Salt Lake City. 

If elected, she would be the first Latina mayor of Utah’s state capital, and only the third woman to hold the post. 

Though she’s aware of the significance that those milestones hold, Escamilla hopes to use her position to better address the issues that affect those — like her — who come from marginalized communities.

“A lot of firsts, but more importantly, it’s an opportunity to continue to bring representation, addressing issues that are important to many communities that are underserved and underrepresented,” she said. 

— Julia Manchester