A Mario Cristaldo for D.C. Council At-Large sign is still on display at Don Juan Restaurant on Lamont Street NW. The campaign sign is a visual representation of what is possible but has never happened before in D.C.: a Latinx councilmember.
An unprecedented number of Latinx people sought a Council seat this year. But no candidate in the at-large or Ward 2 races received a significant share of the votes. Only 2,329 residents cast a vote for Cristaldo. The highest vote-getter among the Latinx candidates, Mónica Palacio, received roughly 13,200 votes. The winners of the two at-large seats, Robert White and Christina Henderson, had received, at last count, 135,878 and 77,485 votes, respectively.
“We don’t get support, even from Latinos. That is the way,” says restaurant owner Haydee Vanegas.
Vanegas owns Haydee’s Restaurant, another Latinx-owned business in Mount Pleasant that hung a Cristaldo campaign sign. Cristaldo attended fundraisers that Haydee’s Restaurant would host for community members, so Vanegas supported him. “He is always around,” she says. Originally from El Salvador, Vanegas has lived in the District for more than 30 years. She opened her restaurant in 1990, when the neighborhood was majority-minority. The neighborhood has changed in the subsequent decades, as younger White people moved in and longtime Latinx residents left for other wards or the suburbs.
“If you want to win,” says Vanegas, “you have to move to Maryland or Virginia.”
The D.C. Council has never had a Latinx member, despite the fact that Latinx people make up 11 percent of the District’s total population, according to US Census data from 2019. Legislative bodies in neighboring jurisdictions currently have Latinx members, including Montgomery County Council members Nancy Navarro and Gabe Albornoz and Alexandria City Council member Canek Aguirre. The Latinx community makes up a larger share of the total population in these areas as compared to D.C., but Latinx Washingtonians believe the lack of representation derives from more than just population size.
“We don’t have economic strength,” says Palacio, a Colombian immigrant and former head of D.C.’s Office of Human Rights. “And we don’t have a generation that has really been raised—I think it’s changing now—but a generation that has been raised to think about more than just ‘Can I afford my rent? Can I buy a home? How do I put my kids in a good school?’”
Palacio was only able to run for a Council seat this year because she participated in the District’s new Fair Elections program, which provides candidates with public funding if they agree to limit the amount of money donors can give and refuse to accept funding from corporate donors and PACs. Three of the 5 Latinx at-large candidates—Palacio, Cristaldo, and Franklin Garcia—accepted public financing. By many people’s accounts, Palacio’s race was historic. She received more votes than any Latinx candidate has in recent years. A few Latinx-identifying candidates before her have run for Council seats in the past decade—among them Ward 6 candidate Lisa Hunter in 2018, at-large candidate Pedro Rubio in 2014, and at-large candidate Joshua Lopez in 2011—but none have been elected.
The reasons why D.C. has never elected a Latinx councilmember are as varied as the community itself. No one outside the community, specifically those in office, publicly recognizes it as a problem. Historically, few, if any, Latinx people have sought Council seats and candidates say they have not had enough support. It is also challenging to get the Latinx community to coalesce around one candidate when the community itself is not a monolith. According to the most recent government data available, 28 percent of those who identify as Hispanic in D.C. are Salvadoran, 20 percent are Mexican, 6.5 percent are Honduran, and 6.3 are Puerto Rican.
“A Salvadoran to a Puerto Rican to a Cuban is as different as a Frenchman to an Englishman,” says longtime resident and hospitality industry mogul Hector Torres. (He identifies as Nuyorican.) “The only thing that unites us is a little bit of the Spanish. But that is a little bit because we have idiomatic expressions that are different. Our interests and our priorities [are different] as well as our reasons to come to the United States.”
Not everyone subscribes to this way of thinking. “If we start thinking about ‘How do Mexicans talk?’ and it gets back to the gringos, that is what they will love,” says Garcia, an Afro-Latino born in the Dominican Republic. Garcia served three terms as D.C.’s shadow representative before resigning to enter this year’s at-large race. The community needs to come together in order to yield political power, he believes. “I do my cultural thing with my Dominicanos when there is an opportunity, but at the end of the day I am a Latino,” he says.
Both Torres and Garcia acknowledge how proud they’d be to see a Latinx councilmember in their lifetime. “I learned a long time ago that if you are not at the table, you are on the menu,” Torres says. Candidates must recognize that not everyone is going to vote for someone just because they too are Latinx. Citizenship, race, and class influence an individual’s values and politics, in addition to panethnicity. It’s about speaking to the issues that Latinx people care about, as well as capturing voters outside this community.
“You have folks who are conservative in their views … religiously, for example. Or you have folks who are really [liberal] … and active against forces like gentrification in the city and the downward economic pressures that exist,” says Marla Bilonick, the executive director at the Latino Economic Development Center. “You could say that for any ethnic or racial group in the city.”
Getting a strong voice to represent the Latinx community on the Council is important to Bilonick, which is why she says she supported Palacio. Bilonick hosted a campaign event in her personal capacity, even though she lives in Montgomery County.
Longtime D.C. resident and Mary’s Center founder Maria Gomez feels similarly. “It’s not just give us the seat because we need a Brown face there, but give us a seat because we have some extraordinary, talented young people who are coming up to fill those seats,” she says. “This is the time for us to focus on growing our political power.” (Gomez declined to say who she voted for in the at-large race, though she did confirm that one of her two votes went to a Latinx candidate.)
Instead of running for office, Gomez says her generation of Latinx Washingtonians practiced civic engagement by creating organizations that helped members of their community access services. To create Mary’s Center in 1988, Gomez found allies in political leaders, as did other Latinx institutions like the Carlos Rosario Center. Former Mayor Marion Barry gave Mary’s Center $250,000 to launch its first health clinic for pregnant immigrants. (In 1976, Barry also sponsored legislation to create D.C.’s Office on Latino Affairs.)
In those days, the Latinx community made up an even smaller percentage of D.C.’s population. The District’s Latinx population increased 300 percent between 1980 and 2015, from 17,679 residents to 71,129, according to the D.C. Office of Planning. Meanwhile, the proportion of members of that community born outside the U.S. has declined, from 60.3 percent in 2006 to 43.7 percent in 2015.
With an increasing number of Latinx people in D.C. and the public recognition that representation matters, some are trying to seize the moment.
“We’ve been working on this for a very long time. Garcia was a pioneer and a groundbreaker with his win of the shadow representative,” says Jose Sueiro.
Sueiro has been an active member of the local political and cultural scene for more than 30 years, having owned and published two Latinx newspapers. He is now the managing director of the Metro DC Hispanic Contractors Association. He believes that Latinx people have the best shot at getting on the Council in Ward 1, given the community’s rich history in neighborhoods like Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights. He already knows of one Latinx candidate who has plans to run against Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau in 2022. Sueiro declined to say who that person is.
“Do we have the wherewithal as a community to back one strong candidate? In this cycle, that didn’t happen. We ought to look at this and attempt to do this in Ward 1,” Sueiro says.
Some still think it is possible for a Latinx person to be elected to citywide office with governing power. Former at-large candidate and political operative Joshua Lopez believes Palacio should run again in 2022. “Half the Council, on the first go around, they lost and then ran again. So I think there is a good argument to be made that she would be a viable candidate if she were to choose to run again,” he says. Lopez believes Palacio, who’d never participated in electoral politics until this year, would have more name recognition and institutional support in two years. He points out that Palacio is the only other candidate the Post editorial board named in their endorsement of Henderson and Marcus Goodwin.
Palacio says she is “undecided” on whether she will run again. She struggled to get much support in her race this year. “There’s just a lack of a network,” she says, particularly for Latinas. “That is so important in politics because you have to have an understanding of who people know, who people trust, who they go to for information.”
She and other Latinx candidates are frustrated with the lack of endorsements they received from other elected officials and established groups. “One of the biggest disappointments for me was the Attorney General,” Garcia says, referring to Attorney General Karl Racine endorsement of Ed Lazere.
“No one has to give us anything. We are going to fight for it,” Garcia says. “But in politics, you do need a support base. And to me, when we actually have an opportunity, we hope that some of these allies truly show up.”
Despite so many Black and Brown candidates running, Lazere, who is White, garnered the endorsement of labor groups whose memberships include many people of color, like the hotel and hospitality workers’ union, Unite Here Local 25, and the District of Columbia Nurses Association. Group endorsements not only bring name recognition to a candidate but manpower when it comes to phonebanking and canvassing. “The support I have is because I’ve been there,” Lazere says when explaining why these groups chose him over, say, Palacio.
Jaime Contreras, the vice president of 32BJ SEIU and leader of its Capital Area District, which represents more than 20,000 cleaners, security officers, and maintenance workers, 65 percent of whom are Latinx, knows Lazere as a respected progressive community activist. Lazere has testified on issues that SEIU supports, including paid sick and family leave, which is why the union backed him, Contreras says. He did not know Palacio, for example, until she reached out during the campaign cycle.
“If you are thinking of running for office in the next two years, you need to start talking to people now,” advises Contreras. “I’m not going to support you just because you are Latino. You have to be progressive. You have to care about the issues that working people care about.”
Contreras, who grew up in Northwest D.C. and now lives in College Park, wants to see a Latinx councilmember. “I think institutions, city governments or labor unions, for that matter, need to have leadership that represents the people that they represent,” he says. “Kids who are going to school in D.C. need to see themselves represented in the Council.”
Some like Contreras question what it would actually mean to have a Latinx councilmember. Would the Council have set aside money for undocumented workers that were laid off during the pandemic but do not qualify for unemployment benefits sooner? (It took three months for the Council to act.) Would it mean that language access would be more of a priority? (Just last week, Latinx community members had to translate for one another during a Council housing hearing.) Maybe. Maybe not.
“Something we learn here in D.C. is your identity may not necessarily align with your politics,” says Brenda. “After having 6 years with Mayor Bowser, I came to understand that your identity alone is not going to choose the best policies.”
Brenda, a 24-year-old self-described leftist, came to D.C. from Mexico when she was 10 years old. (She asked to only be identified by her first name because she is undocumented and a beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.) Having spent most of her time in grassroots organizing, including with the immigrant rights group Many Languages One Voice, Brenda says her views do not align with Palacio, whom she describes as a “White-passing Latina in a position of power.” She sees Palacio as a “centrist” who wouldn’t go far enough on housing or policing, two of Brenda’s top issues. Instead, Brenda was excited by leftist candidates, including Lazere and Will Merrifield. She especially appreciates the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, a think tank created by Lazere, because she relied on their research in her organizing. But she wishes Brown leftists would run for local office.
“I wish Ed Lazere was something else. His policy and work reflect what we need,” she says. “It’s up to us to polish or uplift the members of our community that we love and do it in a meaningful way.”