Latinas are an emerging force in Orange County politics

In Orange County, 26 Latinas are running for city council, school board or board of trustees this year.

That’s a huge increase from a decade ago when a handful of Latinas sought local office and only two won.

In male-dominated politics, women have gradually gained a foothold in the OC, as have Latino men. But Latinas were slower to engage.

That’s changing, partly because of the women’s movement that erupted after Donald Trump was elected president and inspired a spate of first-time candidates.

More OC cities are also electing their councilors by district rather than broad based, giving candidates a chance to garner support from their own communities.

The Latinas entering politics include Navy veterans, nonprofit executives, small business women, and teachers. Some are immigrants while others are second, third, or fourth generation Americans. Most are Democrats.

They come from mostly Latin American cities like Santa Ana and whiter communities like Mission Viejo.

As OC becomes more diverse — the borough is 34% Latino and 23% Asian — elected officers should reflect that diversity to better represent residents’ diverse experiences, say community politicians and advocates.

“The loudest voices in the room don’t represent the entire community,” said Andrea Marr, a Costa Mesa
Councilwoman who is Latina. “It’s much harder to realize that most people are working or looking after their families and don’t have the capacity to also get involved in local politics.”

The rise of the Latina politician is another sign that old Orange County has given way to a place where whites are a minority and registered Democrats are more Republican.

“I’ve started looking for other council members,” said Cynthia Vasquez, 45, a legal counsel running for Mission Viejo City Council. “I was like, ‘Why not me?’ because I’m just as qualified, if not more.”

Vasquez, a Democrat, faces two Republican incumbents, Ed Sachs and Greg Raths, in a district with the largest Latino population in Mission Viejo.

The city, which is about two-thirds White, 19% Latino and 14% Asian, is Republican-dominated but changing politically — a majority of voters backed Joe Biden as the 2020 presidential nominee.

Three council members, including Sachs and Raths, extended their terms by two years while the city pursued an alternative to county elections.

If Vasquez wins, she will be the first Latina on the council.

Vasquez hadn’t considered running for office until a lawsuit to extend the city council’s term caught her attention and she began keeping a closer eye on City Hall.

Then a local Democratic Party activist asked if she was interested in running for office herself.

Vasquez hopes that pursuing the council seat — and perhaps sitting on the podium — will show young people, including her two daughters, what’s possible.

“Growing up, I didn’t have a lot of people to look up to who looked like me,” Vasquez said. “I always knew I wanted to be a role model and set an example for other people, especially my girls.”

In 1928, Samuel Bowen was elected mayor of Huntington Beach, becoming the first Latino on an OC city council.

In the late 1950s, Mexican-American men active in the civil rights movement won seats on the Stanton and Placentia city councils.

Orange elected its first Latino city councilman, Jess Perez, in 1968. A year later Ray Villa followed in Santa Ana.

Rose Espinoza

Rose Espinoza became OC’s first Latina councilwoman by winning a seat in La Habra in 2000.

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

More than 30 years passed before Rose Espinoza became OC’s first Latina councilwoman in 2000 by winning a seat in La Habra.

Espinoza first ran for a seat on the council in 1992. Her after-school tutoring program had caught the attention of a Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund activist, who urged her to run.

“I didn’t know anything about the city council,” Espinoza said. “All I knew was that I paid my water bill at City Hall — and that was it.”

But the idea grew on her. Perhaps she could bridge the gap between the council and her Mexican-American community.

She jumped into a crowded field of candidates – and lost.

Much of Espinoza’s campaign consisted of doing it himself. As a professional designer, she designed her own lawn signs.

She never got a door hanger, let alone endorsement, from the Democratic Party and had to navigate a steep learning curve without an experienced campaign manager.

Two years later, Loretta Sanchez was defeated in Anaheim by Lou Lopez, who became the city’s first Latino councilman.

Espinoza and Sanchez regretted their losses — and bonded as Latinas trying to break into local politics.

“I could see that we were both disillusioned,” Espinoza said.

Sanchez rose again and ran for Congress two years later, scoring an angry victory over incumbent GOP President Bob Dornan. Espinoza also persevered, eventually earning a seat on the council on her fourth attempt.

That same year, Claudia Alvarez, now a Superior Court Judge, joined the Santa Ana City Council.

About 35 percent of Orange County city council seats are held by women, according to a Times review. Of these women, 11 or 17% are Latinas.

The 26 Latinas running for local OC office this year represents a 73% increase from 2012 when 15 ran.

In 2018 there were 24.

But despite the increase over the last decade, only about 7% of all candidates this year are Latinas.

Orange County is yet to have a Latina County Supervisor or a directly elected Latina Mayor. (In some cities, the mayor’s seat rotates among council members.)

During her 22 years on La Habra City Council, Espinoza ran for the board of directors several times but never won.

She plans to retire in two years when her term ends.

“There are young Latinas out there who are ready,” said Espinoza, 70, who is still the executive director of her after-school nonprofit. “When they see someone who has or has a similar last name Morena [dark-skinned] like me, they know it’s achievable.”

Now, Espinoza said, more organizations are offering candidate workshops so aspiring Latinas don’t go into politics as green as they did.

Marr, the Costa Mesa City Councilwoman, is working on a doctoral thesis at UC San Diego on women in local politics.

In her research into why women run for office, she found that more women of color are being elected to local office, especially Latinas like her.

And although some scholars have attributed under-representation to women being less ambitious, less likely to be competitive politics and less likely to see themselves as viable candidates, Marr finds such notions oversimplified.

She argued that more nuance was needed as women gain confidence in their own qualifications, even without traditional credentials.

“Some of the women I interviewed didn’t have institutional support but found their own way,” Marr said. “They became grassroots organizers without calling themselves that.”

In some OC cities, council districts were spun off under threat of litigation, with established politicians reluctant to lose the advantage they had over upstarts in citywide elections. Anaheim spent $2.5 million fighting a lawsuit before adopting boroughs and electing its first Latina to the city council in 2016.

In Costa Mesa, home of South Coast Plaza and known for nativist politics, the first county election of 2018 resulted in one Latino councilor and two Latina councilors — Marr and Arlis Reynolds.

Two years later, in the first county election, Orange elected its first two Latina councilwomen.

Marr said she wouldn’t have run Costa Mesa without districts.

“It changed the dynamic,” she said. “The bar for fundraising is much lower, and it’s your direct community that chooses you.”

Marisa Calderon, communications officer for Latinas Lead CA, a statewide political action committee formed in 2015 to support Latina candidates, said more Latinas are running for office across the state.

“Getting to this point has taken active investment in outreach and voter education from a number of organizations and will take much more to reach par,” she said.

After the US Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade in June, the Orange County Democratic Party flooded its members with text messages in an attempt to recruit women of color to run for office within the 11th hour.

Heading into November, the party endorsed more Latinas in the OC and more candidates overall than ever before.

“Did I ever think I would see so many Latinas on the ballot?” said Ada Briceño, a Latin American labor leader who has served as the chair of the OC Democrats since 2018. “No, but it’s a different world today.”

Among the Latinas running for local office are two who are aiming to become the OC’s first directly elected Latina mayor — Valerie Amezcua of Santa Ana and Beckie Gomez of Tustin, who have endorsed each other.

“After 153 years, we have to look at who can really and well do the job of mayor of Santa Ana,” Amezcua said of her city, which is three-quarters Latino. “And that’s a Latina.”

Amezcua, a retired parole officer, is president of the Santa Ana Unified School Board. She wants to improve public safety, add more parks, and fight homelessness through assisted living.

In a hilly Mission Viejo neighborhood, Vasquez recently rang her first doorbell of the day, armed with a stack of ballots.

A man in a Pink Floyd shirt cautiously opened the door, giving Vasquez just enough room to happily introduce himself as a candidate for city council.

She asked if he knew Mission Viejo had switched to county elections.

“We will vote this year,” he said. “There will be a big red wave.”

After the brief conversation, Vasquez gave the man a flyer. She had better luck at the next house, where a retiree took a lawn sign for his wife, a registered Democrat.

Vasquez promises to be a good steward of taxpayers’ money and an advocate of small business while Mission Viejo remains a safe, quiet suburb in which to raise a family.

“I’ve always kept my ambitions to myself because I didn’t want anyone to tell me I couldn’t do something,” she said. “But at the same time, I’m a woman who’s like, ‘Oh, you’re saying I can’t? Watch me.'” Latinas are an emerging force in Orange County politics

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