Los Cien forum at Sonoma State University tackles Latino voting, civic engagement

Despite their growing population, Latinos in California aren’t flexing their full strength in voting booths. That’s become a major concern for Sonoma County’s largest Latino leadership organization, Los Cien.

It held a conference Thursday at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park to address Latino voting, political involvement and representation. Nearly a dozen Latinos already serve as elected officials in Sonoma County, but event organizers say more needs to be done to better reflect the area’s racial diversity.

“There’s still a long way to go,” Los Cien president Herman J. Hernandez said. “But it’s not impossible.”

Political experts say the solution is clear: Latinos need to get to the polls in greater numbers.

“The true solution to representation is voter turnout,” said Sacramento GOP political consultant Mike Madrid, who spoke at the forum that drew about 500 people, including state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, and several county supervisors and local officials.

“While we’re the largest ethnic group in California, we have the lowest voter turnout,” Madrid said.

Latinos may make up nearly 39 percent of the state’s population, but they comprise just 19 percent of registered voters in California. They make up less than 17 percent of the electorate that actually casts a ballot in an election, Madrid said.

The state is home to more than 10 million immigrants, the majority from Mexico, he said. Of those, he estimates about 6 percent are undocumented and nearly 49 percent are naturalized citizens, meaning they can vote.

The rate of voter registration among Latinos in Sonoma County is even lower than the statewide figure. Latinos constitute a quarter of the county’s population but only 8 percent of the 240,000 voters, Madrid said.

“We have a crisis in our democracy,” National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Executive Director Arturo Vargas said, pointing to the dismal rate of Latinos who turn out to vote in elections.

“The problem is they don’t believe voting makes a difference in their lives,” Vargas said.

However, he voiced confidence that Latinos will mobilize for the upcoming presidential election. He said the controversy swirling around Donald Trump - denounced recently by Latino leaders for his comments on immigrants - has served as an awakening for many Latinos.

“A lot of people don’t know who Pete Wilson is,” he said, referring to the former California governor who two decades ago drew scorn from Latinos and immigrant advocates for championing Proposition 187, which sought to deny all services to undocumented immigrants, including public education for their U.S.-born children.

“We need another bogeyman,” Vargas said.

Madrid said there were 300,000 more voters in the 1990 governor’s race between Wilson and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, then a former San Francisco mayor, than in the gubernatorial race last year.

“While we’re registering a lot of new Latino voters, they’re not voting,” Madrid said.

In place of a bogeyman, he added, an inspiring candidate would do best to get out to vote.

“That figure doesn’t exist in the Latino community,” he said.

Los Cien is aiming to fill that void and inspire Latinos, particularly youth, to vote and get involved in their communities. The group was founded in 2009 and now boasts about 600 members.

Herman G. Hernandez, the son of the Los Cien president and an elected member of the Sonoma County Board of Education, encouraged youth to volunteer more in their community and network if they aspire to be elected officials in the future. They also need mentors who can guide them, he said, noting that McGuire had served that role for him.

“We (Latinos) need an opportunity,” Hernandez said before the forum.

But voter engagement requires more than knocking on doors around election season, said Omar Medina, president of the North Bay Organizing Project.

It’s also about getting residents to talk about issues that impact their lives, such as a lack of affordable housing in Sonoma County, said Medina, who could not be at Thursday’s forum but attended last year’s inaugural State of the Latino Community conference, where leaders unveiled their call to action, including the creation of a permanent voter engagement and education program to increase turnout of Latino voters. They also called for developing a program that would draw more Latinos into leadership and elected positions.

“There are people that would like to (run) but don’t necessarily have the money, nor experience in raising the money,” said Medina, who fell short in his own bid last year for a board seat with Santa Rosa City Schools.

Reymundo Sandoval, 17, and Dara Kheva, 21, said they walked away from the conference feeling encouraged.

Sandoval, who is student council president at Youth Connections, an institution that helps at-risk students make up class credits and earn their high school diplomas, said he planned to register to vote in a few months. He said other students his age need to know that their votes are important and that they need to register.

“Show us that our votes matter. Show us that we’re part of something,” he said.

Vargas said that change in the state’s political scene is inevitable with 34 percent of the state’s youth population now made up of Latinos, ?93 percent of them U.S.-born.

Madrid echoed that thought.

“Non-Latinos in the state are for the first time in our 200-year history handing over their legacy to a people that does not look like them,” Madrid said. “What we’re realizing is, though, that we are both increasingly intertwined with the success of this transition.”

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González?at 521-5458 or eloisa.? On Twitter?@eloisanews.

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