1 of 6
Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Mark Wheatley and his wife, Josie Valdez, discuss politics and the large number of Latino candidates at their kitchen table in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, August 8, 2012. They are the first couple to run for a legislative seat together in Utah.
Can you imagine the impact of 300,000 people participating? Let's take away everybody who is under 18 and you are down to about 200,000, that is 10 percent. Ten percent moves any election. —James Gonzales, chairman of Pace Latino

SALT LAKE CITY — James Gonzales was sitting in the dining room of La Puente Restaurant in 1991 with state Sen. Pete Suazo when the flow of conversation turned to the then soon-to-be-released results of the 1990 Census.

Gonzales recalled that Suazo, who died in 2001, was debating how many Latinos would be listed as residents of Utah.

"We were absolutely certain it was over 100,000 and even then we knew it was incomplete. I remember how excited Pete was at that point. He spoke very clearly about the future of the Hispanic community and Latino community," said Gonzales, chairman of Pace Latino, an organization that leverages the power of Utah's growing Latino community through political participation.

It was a glimpse into the future and what would become the need for greater representation by those who understand the Latino community and the changing population of Utah.

Today, more than 20 years later, Latinos make up 16.3 percent of the population with growth estimates projecting it to be among the fastest growing segment of the state. This year also marks elections with the largest number of Latino candidates seeking office in Salt Lake County.

Salt Lake County currently has eight Latino Democratic candidates, six of whom are women, running for legislative seats in the November elections. The Republican Party has one Latino candidate, and other Latino candidates are seeking to represent other Utah counties, making this the largest number of Latino candidates in Utah running for a state legislative seat at the same time.

The Utah Latino population has increased by 156,781 people between the past two census counts — from 201,559 Latinos in 2000 to 358,340 Latinos in 2010. The Latino community represents 66 percent of all documented minority groups in Utah and 45 percent of all documented U.S. minority groups, totaling 50.5 million people.

A change in demographics

Gonzales has been analyzing the numbers for several years. He said the 16.3 percent of Latinos in Utah can be the difference in the upcoming elections, if they vote.

"Can you imagine the impact of 300,000 people participating?" Gonzales asked. "Let's take away everybody who is under 18 and you are down to about 200,000, that is 10 percent. Ten percent moves any election."

He said in Salt Lake County there is an 18 percent Latino population.

"In 10 years from now the demographic change to Salt Lake County will be profound … because the children that represent the 50 percent or 60 percent of those in elementary schools and junior high schools will be at voting age," Gonzales said. "Salt Lake City will probably have close to a majority of Latino residents."

A similar demographic change occurred more than a century ago. In 1900, Utah's foreign-born population was 92 percent European. In 2010, it was 62 percent Latin American, according to research conducted by Pamela Perlich, senior research economist for the University of Utah's Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

"It's just a matter of time when we white baby boomers start dying off in significant numbers and the generation that takes our place, which is already minority-majority in many communities throughout the state, and certainly nationally, they become the new face of the state and the nation," Perlich said earlier this summer.

Mark Wheatley and Josie Valdez said they usually make it a habit to argue political issues at the dinner table, but they have made a promise to each other to put the debates on record from now on and only debate on Capitol Hill, that is if each of them wins their respective elections.

Wheatley is of Spanish ancestry and is a member of the Utah House of Representatives for District 35. He has been married for 27 years to Valdez, who is running for Senate in District 8.

The power couple have lived in Utah for the majority of their lives and have been involved in Latino and Chicano — meaning people born in the U.S. but of Mexican descent — politics in the state since the 1970s. Together they have helped elevate the political interest in the Latino community.

"People would say, 'Oh it is so wonderful that eight Latinos are running and how do you feel being a Latino candidate?'" said Valdez. "We like to respond by saying we are a candidate for this office because we are professional, because we are prepared, experienced and educated and because we have been a servant of the people for many many years.

"If you are not at the table, you are probably going to be served on the menu," Valdez said. "Well we (the Latinos) don't want to be served on the menu; the decisions are made sitting at the table."

Overcoming obstacles

With the Latino population increasing, obstacles still arise in Utah for the Latino community to close an education gap that some say is limiting their political involvement.

"In politics you need two things to run: money and votes," said Marco Diaz, who chairs the Utah Republican Hispanic Assembly. "Unfortunately, the Hispanic community has not been traditionally good at either one, maybe because of the education, maybe because they are not traditionally used to forking out money. It has been hard to raise money within our gente (people). Number two, Hispanics usually don't vote as much. Those are the things you need if you want power, and I think that is where the gap exists."

On issues concerning the minority demographic, Valdez has said that some legislators believe that the Latino community does not care about minority issues because they don't call the state Senate complaining about them.

"They make no real effort to cater to the needs of the Latino community because they don't hear from them," she said. "So, they figure they are a none entity in the formula.

"They (Latino community) really are a 'sleeping giant,' but the time to sleep is over, it's snoring and it's time to wake up and take action," Valdez said in Spanish.

Wheatley said Latino issues are the same issues as the predominant community with the exception that a lot of the Latino issues are compounded.

"We are a voice for the entire community, but especially the Latino community," he said.

The couple explained how the candidates can create change if elected.

"This is how these eight candidates will help. There (are currently) two in the House and two in the Senate," Valdez said. "Well, with eight of us there is now eight votes, but not only eight votes, eight voices that can go to the other side in a one-on-one sit and say 'we need to discuss this educational gap, let me tell you a story about (an immigrant).'"

In Salt Lake County, Wheatley and Valdez are joined by incumbent Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake; incumbent Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake; Angela Romero, running for House District 26; Liz Muniz, running for House District 34; Celina Milner, running for House District 34; and Elias McGraw, vying for a seat in House District 38.

Latino Republican candidate Andres Paredes is running against Romero for House District 26.

Other Latino candidates in the state include Cimarron Chacon of House District 75 in Washington County, who is a part of a newly formed minority coalition that addresses Latino and other minority group issues in her county.

Meanwhile, the Latino community will be losing representatives, starting with Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake, who serves in District 7, who won't return because of redistricting. Also, House District 6 Rep. Brad Galvez was impacted by redistricting and was defeated in the primary for District 29 in the Utah House of Representatives.

The education gap

Robles, a vice president at Zions Bank and a Tijuana native, would cross the Mexican-American border daily to go to high school in San Diego. She is the daughter of engineers and came to Utah to attend the University of Utah in part because of her Mormon upbringing.

The education issues she witnessed in Utah became a passion for her in public policy.

"What really got me going (in politics) is the huge disparity I was able to see with regards to children in education and health care for people of color," Robles said. "Ethnic disparities were too obvious for me, and the need for changing policy it's always been my passion. I felt this was the most active way to have a bigger impact was through politics and found a great niche here in Utah."

Her Senate district intersects with Romero's House district and Muniz's House district. The three candidates hope to represent the Northwest side of Salt Lake County where a big part of the education gap exists.   

"You still have to go through the process of education, and that is a challenge when we (Latinos) have the highest high school dropout rates," Robles said. "You think of what makes someone successful and it is quality education and quality health care so that you can be healthy to pursue your education."

Romero said that the biggest concern in her House district is giving the Latino and refugee youths an opportunity at quality education. She said that the achievement gap is significant in the Latino and refugee population in her community and that funding pre-kindergarten and kindergarten programs would be a start in closing the gap.

Paredes, Romero's counterpart, also recognized the education gap.

"A lot of Latinos are registered Democrats and they didn't even know they were registered Democrat," Paredes said. "Being able to inform them, 'here is two parties and let me show you about this party and showing you things that they can offer you.'

"There is that gap, but everyone is different," he said. "To be able to address it like a blanket wouldn't work, and so it is good when we have a new community coming into our community to incorporate them," he said of the need for multiple solutions.

According to Wheatley, the education gap has existed since researchers have been gathering data on the issue and not much has improved.

"I don't think it is just one magic bullet that is going to solve that achievement gap; it has to come in from all angles and make sure we are always included in the discussion," he said.

Seeking engagement

There is also a gap in the number of individuals who can participate in the civic process because of immigration status or language barriers, which places civic responsibility on the youths.

"Their children are the ones that can come forward and take the next step, becoming full-fledged Americans, as they have every right to. They have every right to participate in this process and every obligation to their family and to their children who are yet to be born," said Gonzales. "This is a representative democracy which means they (Latino youths) ought to represent the people who are there."

Gonzales urged the undocumented community to get involved in expressing opinions and identifying problems, and not worry about the ramifications of deportation when getting involved.

"I have yet, ever, to hear one of these representatives ask somebody in the course of listening to the problems whether they are documented," he said. "I have yet to hear 'well that is well and good but are you a citizen?' What they say is, 'what are the problems and how can we resolve them? How can we get these things fixed?'"

Participation from the undocumented community can be another key into getting the wheels rolling in the Latino political arena.

"Luz's (Robles) strong education, her strong involvement in business community and her previous experience as an advocate for low-income people, all those things affect people who are eligible to vote, (also) people who aren't," said Gonzales. "So those folks who are undocumented who aren't eligible to vote can participate by encouraging people they know who are eligible to participate."

Diaz also put the problem on education but had different views on how Latinos view immigration. He said Pew research polls show that Latinos are not single-issue voters, with both white and Latino families with immigration issues low on their list of priorities.

"People think that Hispanics wake up every day and are thinking about immigration," Diaz said. "You know what, jobs and the economy is by far (more of a concern), education and health care is more important to any Anglo family and to any Latino family than immigration is."

Melodía Gutiérrez, the Latino outreach director for the Utah State Democratic Party, said that her party has made moves to reach out to Latino communities in Salt Lake City.

"They (Democratic Party) recognize that we are a fast growing population here in Utah and that it is important to have representation to our population in the state," Gutiérrez said. "The National perception (of Utah) is this really monochromatic state that doesn't have a lot of cultural diversity when in fact it does and it does more so than people realize."

Not all of the districts are Latino or ethnically diverse, but the voice of Latino politicians will resonate with the community, according to Robles.

The loyalty of the Latino population doesn't lie with either party, Wheatley said.

"Latinos put President (George W.) Bush in office when he appealed to a lot of the issues that we (Latinos) are concerned about, and Latinos put our current president in position," Wheatley said.

Means to an end

As both parties look to improve the state through active participation by the Latino community, the candidates say higher education will be key in closing the gap as the Latino population increases.

"We need to have an education that reflects that and we need to have leaders ready to be engaged and involved," Gutiérrez said.

Many of the candidates attributed their success to having role models and mentors guiding them into public service, while allowing them to engage in civic causes. They acknowledged the examples of their families and felt that is one key in promoting higher education and closing the gap.

"If we can have people that can inspire us, I want more of those people, and hopefully this election cycle will bring some of that stuff and bring more Latinas and Latinos saying, 'wow, yes I want to participate, that could be me in a few years from now,'" Robles said.

"The moment that the so-called 'Sleeping Giant' wakes up, it is going to be pretty dramatic for both parties and the whole process itself," Robles said.

E-mail: jreyes@desnews.com Twitter: @_JulianReyes_