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 NapolitanoHispanic Democrats demand funding for multilingual coronavirus messaging Bicameral group of Democrats introduces bill to protect immigrant laborers Latina leaders: 'It's a women's world more than anything' 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-LehtinenWomen are refusing to take the backseat in politics, especially Latinas Watchdog groups call for investigation into Ros-Lehtinen's foreign lobbying work Ex-Rep. Frelinghuysen joins law and lobby firm MORE (R-Fla.) and Reps. Lucille Roybal-AllardLucille Roybal-AllardThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democrat concedes in California House race Hispanic Caucus pushes McConnell on 'Dreamer' bill California Rep. Costa endorses Biden 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 RyanTwitter joins Democrats to boost mail-in voting — here's why Lobbying world John Ratcliffe is the right choice for director of national intelligence — and for America MORE (R-Wis.) despite public opposition from President TrumpDonald John TrumpMinneapolis erupts for third night, as protests spread, Trump vows retaliation Stocks open mixed ahead of Trump briefing on China The island that can save America 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 WalkerDemocrats press OSHA official on issuing an Emergency Temporary Standard John Ratcliffe is the right choice for director of national intelligence — and for America NCAA backs plan to allow college athletes to cash in on name, image and likeness 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.