SANGER, Calif. — “Ya es tiempo — you have a voice,” Amanda Renteria, a Democratic candidate for Congress, declared one recent Saturday morning at a park in this little city southeast of Fresno. There was no need to translate the Spanish. The park was festooned with “Amanda Renteria para el Congreso” signs.
As she told her local-girl-makes-good story — daughter of onetime migrant fruit pickers, degrees from Stanford and Harvard, a job in Washington as a senator’s chief of staff — men in ranchero hats smiled with pride. Women choked back tears. Candidates like her, they said, do not come around often in places like this.
“We have been waiting, waiting,” said Diana Rodriquez, a retired teacher whose parents also worked the fields here in the agriculturally rich Central Valley, in a largely Hispanic congressional district. “We helped Obama win the election, and they still see us to be passed over. This is going to help the overall national cause — respect for our community.”
But if Renteria represents the hopes of her party and her people, she also reflects Latino Democrats’ deep angst. Seven out of 10 Hispanic voters cast their ballots for President Obama in 2012, but Latinos — the nation’s most rapidly growing minority — are greatly underrepresented in public office.
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“I have been troubled by a lack of Latino bench for the future,” said Bill Richardson, the Democratic former governor of New Mexico. He said Democrats take Latinos for granted, and have not been “as aggressive as Republicans in attracting and encouraging Latino candidates.”
On Monday, the Cinco de Mayo holiday, a new organization, the Latino Victory Project, will announce an effort to promote Hispanic political engagement, in part by grooming Latino candidates; its political arm will endorse eight — all Democrats, including Renteria. The organization is nonpartisan.
Co-founded by two top Obama fundraisers — Henry R. Muñoz III, finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and Eva Longoria, the actress — the project will “use our numbers, our votes and our dollars” to create “the next generation of leadership,” Muñoz said.
Its PAC is open to backing Republicans, as long as they support immigration reform, and is looking far beyond 2014.
Overall, 6,011 Hispanics held elective office in the United States in 2013, according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. Most serve on school boards or in municipal offices, and of those who cite a party affiliation, 89 percent are Democrats.
But at the upper tiers, that pattern is reversed. It is Republicans, with big names like Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, who are winning the race to land a Hispanic on a national ticket.
There are two Hispanic governors: Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Brian Sandoval of Nevada, both Republicans, who co-chair a party effort to recruit Latino candidates. Just eight Latinos hold statewide office; five, including the two governors, are Republican. Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey is the only Hispanic Democrat in the Senate.
“It is stunning,” said Henry Cisneros, former housing secretary under President Clinton. He warned the trend is “very serious” for Democrats. “Because many young Latinos will say, ‘I want to advance in politics, it looks like the Republicans offer a route — and in some states it’s the only route.’”
The reasons are complex. In conservative states like Texas, for instance, Democrats rarely win statewide, though that is projected to change as more Hispanics come of voting age.
State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer of Texas, a Democrat who chairs the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus there, is contemplating a statewide run but predicts the climate will not be right until 2018.
“For every Ted Cruz, you will find there are 10 Julián Castros in the party,” Martinez Fischer, said, referring to the mayor of San Antonio, a Democratic rising star. Martinez Fischer counsels Latino Democrats to “remain calm, cool and collected” until “the demography comports with electoral success.”
Fernand R. Amandi, a Democratic strategist in Miami, attributes the rise of Hispanics in Texas and Florida to the Bush family, especially Jeb Bush, who mentored Rubio, among others. He sees Republicans as “more tactical,” a view shared by Gary M. Segura, a Stanford professor and founder of Latino Decisions, a nonpartisan polling firm.
“Republicans, in the absence of policies that are likely to appeal to minority voters, have decided to invest in faces,” Segura said. “Democrats believe they have the popular policies and they believe these are captured constituencies, so they’re not investing, and it’s crazy.”
Democrats insist they are investing, in candidates like Leticia Van de Putte and Lucy Flores, running for lieutenant governorships in Texas and Nevada, along with Renteria, who blends a pro-immigration reform message with Washington savvy and ethnic pride.
Renteria, 39, was the first Latina Senate chief of staff, to Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. She moved to Sanger in August with her husband and two young sons, in a bid to unseat Rep. David Valadao, a well-liked Republican dairy farmer of Portuguese descent.
Here in Sanger, Renteria’s race for Congress illustrates the challenges. In 2012, Democrats ran a weak candidate, bungling an opportunity to win this politically diverse district, where Democrats out-register Republicans by 14 percentage points and Hispanics make up 55 percent of the voting-age population. Renteria’s challenge now is to get them to the polls.
Valadao, 37, who calls Renteria “an outsider from Washington,” has deep roots in the conservative community of Hanford, where his parents, who emigrated from the Azores, founded the family farm.
Despite his Spanish-sounding surname (he also speaks the language), the race typifies the region’s class divide, said Darry Sragow, a longtime Democratic strategist in California.
“There’s always been a real class dichotomy between the Latino farmworkers and the farmers,” Sragow said. “We’re talking Steinbeck, a very deep divide.”
Grow Elect, a group dedicated to electing Hispanic Republicans in California, has embraced Valadao.
Valadao is among the handful of Republican House members who favor a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally, though Renteria accuses him of not pushing his party leaders to act.
The congressman says he believes his conservative politics on social issues like abortion and also on taxes, appeal to Hispanic voters, especially small-business owners who “work really hard for their money” and “don’t want to see a bunch of government guys regulating them.”