Latino Influence Should Follow Latino Population Growth

Votes and political power have much to do with influence, and as more Latinos become eligible and vote the influence will follow. But there’s a lot to be said about the influence of who-you-know.

I learned the lesson from my grandfather, a businessman and political influencer who told me once that sometimes it was better to be the king-maker than it was to be the king.

My Papá Grande came to mind when I read an article in the New York Times about how as Latinos rise in numbers they are not rising in influence. The article centers around Florida, specifically Orange County, where Latinos are now 1 in 4 of the population.

The question is: Why Latinos are not represented in the city’s influential boards? The same question could be asked of cities, states and counties across the country.

Getting elected to office is different than getting appointed to influential boars and commissions. And yet, board and commission members are extremely influential in setting policy and framing political discussions.

The most direct way it works is that one follows the other. If Latinos are elected to office, they will appoint people they know and trust to influential boards and commissions. But that’s half the battle.

There are many boards in many cities and states in the country that are actively looking to diversify their membership – they “get” the need to mirror the diversity of their communities. The problem is that they don’t know how to go about finding the people they need.  They typical answer to the board diversity question is “we can’t find qualified people.” My answer: where are you looking?

The NYT article paints this picture well regarding the appointment of members of a panel that is to draw political districts, an extremely influential and powerful panel in any city:

The appointing of two non-Hispanic whites by County Commissioner Jennifer Thompson (who, like all the commissioners, had the power to name two panelists) drew particular criticism because she represents a district that is 38.4 percent Hispanic.

“It just breaks my heart to see that we are here 40 years, and we should be moving forward and included in every segment of the community, and that is just not happening,” said Trini Quiroz, 62, a community leader who raised her concerns at a recent County Commission meeting. “How do you ignore one-third of the entire population? It’s not right.”

Commissioner Thompson chose a former colleague at the Chamber of Commerce and an Orange County lawyer.

When asked by WFTV Channel 9 news in Orlando about why she did not name a Hispanic, she said, “I wouldn’t say it was a priority.”

But in an interview, Commissioner Thompson said that her comment was taken out of context. She said that no Hispanic constituent had applied for the position.

That’s a double-edged statement. On the one hand, the passive approach that waits for community members to apply for spots on boards and commissions generates more of the same. And the truth is that on the most influential boards the elected official asks specific community members to apply. On the other hand, community members, Latinos in particular, can’t sit and wait to be asked – this isn’t the Friday night dance.

I say this from experience. I’ve been a member of an influential board in San Antonio for several years. It happened because of who I know. The city council person who appointed me is a friend, and she trusted that I would represent our council district well. Her successor (we had strict term limits at the time) re-appointed me. There are 12 members on the board that directs policy and governance for an organization that pumps $4.3 billion into the local economy and has generated 14 thousand well paying jobs. 6 of the board members are Latino, 2 are African-American.

“Finding a Hispanic was not a priority over finding the most qualified individual on that board,” she said, citing among the important qualifications the willingness to make the time commitment.

That can no longer be accepted as a viable excuse from those who have the power to appoint citizens to commissions. There are talented people who would gladly make time to serve and contribute to their communities.  And the rewards for those who volunteer are great.

I’m not paid to serve on my board, but this week I spent an entire day in a retreat with the guy who wrote the book-books actually-on board and commission governance: Doug Eadie. I learned about leading change and how design plays a key role in leadership at all levels. I wish more people in my community could have learned along with me. That’s one of the values I get for my service.

Every city, state and county has a boards and commissions arm or department in their structure. Many of the vacancies on those boards are posted on line. Most of the elected’s who have the power to appoint members to boards are looking for citizens to participate.

Granted, a lot of this stuff is political, and spots on influential boards go to friends and/or contributors. But this is how influence grows. There is a sizable lack of Latinos at this level of influence, and we can’t wait for someone else, who has the power, to come calling.

Yes, that influence will come as more Latinos are elected to office, but a more proactive mindset is needed as well.

What talents do you have that you could put to use in your community’s boards?

Follow Victor Landa on Twitter: @vlanda

[Photo courtesy International Olympic Committee]


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