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Latina leaders: 'It's a women's world more than anything'

Latina leaders: 'It's a women's world more than anything'
© Kristoffer Tripplaar

Latina members of Congress are growing in number, but still have to punch above their weight to represent their communities.

The Hill's third Latina Leaders Summit featured three Latina members — two Democrats and a Republican — who spoke of the challenges they've faced moving up in politics.

"When I first came to Congress you could throw a ball down the halls of Congress and not hit a Latino or a Latina," said Rep. Grace NapolitanoGraciela (Grace) Flores NapolitanoWe can't ignore COVID-19's impact on youth mental health Hispanic Caucus asks for Department of Labor meeting on COVID in meatpacking plants Hispanic Caucus requests meeting with private detention center CEOs MORE (D-Calif.), who's represented her district since 1999.

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Napolitano, the fourth Latina ever elected to Congress after former Rep. Ileana Ros-LehtinenIleana Carmen Ros-LehtinenHouse Hispanic Republicans welcome four new members The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by UAE - US records 1 million COVID-19 cases in a week; governors crack down Trump-backed Republican unseats Shalala in Miami House race MORE (R-Fla.) and Reps. Lucille Roybal-AllardLucille Roybal-AllardDemocratic Women's Caucus members split endorsements for House campaign chief Hispanic Caucus asks for Department of Labor meeting on COVID in meatpacking plants Democrats may bring DHS bill to House floor MORE (D-Calif.) and Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), said when she started in politics, "when we would run people didn't make much of it."

There are 14 Latina members of Congress in 2019, including one senator. Ros-Lehtinen was sworn in as the first Latina in the history of Congress in 1989, followed by Roybal-Allard and Velázquez in 1993.

Napolitano recalled being told politics was "a man's world."

"Well, guess what? It’s a women’s world more than anything," said Napolitano at the event sponsored by Bank of America and AT&T.

Still, Napolitano said newcomers to Congress have to get used to the body’s rules of seniority and parliamentary structures, which she said are important for Congress to function adequately.

Asked by by event moderator Lulú García-Navarro whether Democratic newcomers are pushing the envelope too much, Napolitano replied, "I don’t think so, we need to push it more."

And Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón (R) said women in politics continue to face undue obstacles.

"Being an elected leader, being a Latina, especially in Puerto Rico, that’s not an easy task," said González-Colón.

"The main issue we’re facing is the gender gap and the wage gap — not just in politics but in the private sector as well," she added.

But González-Colón said she's learned to keep her eye on the ball in the face of political and personal challenges surrounding her as a non-voting Latina Republican representing a U.S. territory.

"I try to be out of the noise of Twitter," said González-Colón. "I can’t have time for that — I have to get things done."

"Sometimes you need to work behind the scenes to get things done," she added, before recounting her role in passing a Medicaid funding extension for Puerto Rico in 2017 by working with then-Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPaul Ryan calls for Trump to accept results: 'The election is over' Bottom line Democratic anger rises over Trump obstacles to Biden transition MORE (R-Wis.) despite public opposition from President TrumpDonald John TrumpPennsylvania Supreme Court strikes down GOP bid to stop election certification Biden looks to career officials to restore trust, morale in government agencies Sunday shows preview: US health officials brace for post-holiday COVID-19 surge MORE.

González-Colón declined to engage when asked about Trump's assertion that he is "the best thing that ever happened to Puerto Rico."

"I’m not going to get into whether he is or not the best thing that happened to Puerto Rico, but he is the president who has signed the most money for the island," she said.

González-Colón said that part of representing Puerto Rico means building relationships in Congress for stateside lawmakers to understand the territory's problems.

After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, "I thought at the time I need to gain empathy from my colleagues," said González-Colón.

"What I did was bring members of Congress to Puerto Rico," she added. "It was easier for me to push them around after that because now they knew what I was talking about."

Rep. Nanette Barragán (D-Calif.) recounted using a similar strategy on a bipartisan visit to the southwest border.

Barragán said she met with a Republican Border Patrol officer who talked to her about the need to keep migrant families together, even when some members are undocumented and others are U.S. citizens.

After hearing the agent's position, she summoned Rep. Mark WalkerBradley (Mark) Mark WalkerNorth Carolina's Mark Walker expected to announce Senate bid Lara Trump mulling 2022 Senate run in North Carolina: report House GOP votes to keep leaders in place MORE (R-N.C.) to hear directly from the agent to avoid injecting partisanship into the family unity argument.

Still, Barragán said she's glad to push back on political opponents when necessary.

"Frankly, our people are under attack, so for me I take a lot of pride and it’s a lot of responsibility to be that voice fighting back," said Barragán.

Barragán added that a diverse group of representatives in itself fosters more diverse representation.

She credited Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.) with recruiting her to run for Congress, a possibility she hadn't seriously considered before jumping into a contested Democratic primary in 2016.

"Had [Sánchez] not made that call, I would have never considered running for that seat," said Barragán.