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California Sends Record Number of Latinos To Capitol Hill

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Lauren Silverman

NALEO instructs newly elected officials in the workings of federal government.

By now you’ve probably heard about the record number of Latinos who made it to the polls this election. What’s getting less attention is the record number of Latinos heading to Congress. When Congress convenes in January, there will be thirty-one Latino members, the most in this nation’s history.

And California leads the pack. The state added four new Latino representatives to its delegation, nearly doubling its Latino representation in the House of Representatives.

Over the weekend some of the new Latino members of Congress convened with others in Washington D.C. for the 9th Biennial NALEO National Institute for Newly Elected Officials Conference. NALEO’s president, California State Senator Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima), says the Latino vote was hugely significant in increasing Latino representation in Congress.

"For NALEO it’s a point of pride that the 113th Congress will have the largest number of Hispanic Representatives in our nation's history,” he says. “But with that comes a lot of responsibility."

The newly-elected members of Congress have a lot on their plates. From the upcoming fiscal cliff, to immigration reform and health care implementation. NALEO is preparing new members in the little time left before they cast their first votes in January.

“We describe this as our boot camp for all the people who are just elected in November but will be sworn in very, very soon,” Padilla says.

New Faces, New Priorities

Representative-elect Tony Cardenas is one of California’s new Latino delegates and attended NALEO’s conference. Cardenas was an electrical engineer and businessman before he started his career in public service over ten years ago. After serving on the California State Assembly and Los Angeles City Council, Cardenas saw an opportunity to run for Congress after redistricting created a new majority Latino district encompassing his hometown. His victory in the newly created 29th district makes him the first Latino to represent the San Fernando Valley.

"I'm very proud to say that I look like about seventy percent of my district,” Cardenas says. “For the first time we have people saying, well gosh he looks like my uncle or he looks like my dad or my brother and if he can do it, I can do it."

Cardenas says he grew up in a neighborhood plagued by gang violence and high dropout rates. As a state representative and city councilman, Cardenas focused on reforming California’s juvenile justice system.

“I work on trying to making sure our society has true alternatives of rehabilitating," Cardenas says, "so that we don’t have to spend up to $250,000 a year to incarcerate a 16-year-old, when that kid in three, six, nine months can actually get back into school, get back on track and we’ll never see him in front of the judge again.” Cardenas plans to bring his passion for juvenile justice reform to Capitol Hill.

NALEO President Alex Padilla says we’ll see Latino members of Congress like Cardenas take up a broader range of issues than ever before.

"In the past, Hispanic representatives have been relegated to issues of bilingual education or immigration -- and those are important, don't get me wrong,” Padilla says, “But the background of newly elected Hispanics is increasingly diverse and sophisticated, and so will their service be in the United States Congress.”

Even with the record number of freshman Latino members of Congress, a representation gap still exists. Given that Latinos make up 16 percent of the population, there would need to be about 86 Latinos in Congress to be proportionate. As California’s Latino population grows, Padilla says we’ll likely see more Latino members of Congress packing their bags for Washington.
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