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Few Latino candidates on 2024 North Carolina ballots despite population growth

Albaro Martinez-Reyes (left), president of the N.C. Democratic Party's Hispanic-American Caucus, and Luis Toledo (right), a former candidate for state auditor of North Carolina.
Campaign Photos, Submitted
Composite Image by WUNC
Albaro Martinez-Reyes (left), president of the N.C. Democratic Party's Hispanic-American Caucus, and Luis Toledo (right), a former candidate for state auditor of North Carolina.

Nearly 11% of North Carolina’s population is Latino, but the state has no Latino elected officials serving in the legislature and statewide offices. Groups within the Democratic and Republican parties are making efforts to change that.

Luis Toledo wanted to be the first Latino candidate elected statewide. Last November, he launched a campaign for state auditor — a position he’d also run for in 2020. He thought he’d have a better shot at winning after longtime auditor Beth Wood announced she wouldn’t run again.

But Toledo’s campaign didn’t last long. He dropped out after Gov. Roy Cooper appointed former Wake County Commissioner Jessica Holmes in December to finish Wood’s term. Toledo says the governor didn’t talk to him before making the appointment.

"I would say it was a slap in the face to the Hispanic community," Toledo said. "It was a slap in the face, I would say, to many of the Democratic Party members to see him appoint somebody that had previously lost an election in 2020, even though other Democrats had won at that statewide level."

Holmes became the first Black woman to serve on the Council of State, and she’s running for a full term with backing from Cooper and others. Cooper called her a "dedicated, enthusiastic public servant" who "will lead the department with determination and hard work."

Toledo thinks Cooper and other Democratic Party leaders picked Holmes in an effort to respond to criticism that the party’s top-tier candidates this year are mostly white.

"If white candidates were going to win some high-level seats, they had to give a few to the Black community as well," Toledo said. "And that's where they kind of pushed aside the Hispanic candidate."

The other Latino candidate running statewide, Gabe Esparza for state treasurer, lost in the Democratic primary to N.C. Rep. Wesley Harris. Out of the 170 seats in the state legislature up for grabs this year, Democrats are running just two Latino candidates. Republicans also have two Latino candidates for the General Assembly.

The lack of candidates comes as about 4% of North Carolina registered voters identify as Hispanic, a total of more than 290,000 people. That’s nearly 30 times as many Hispanic voters as the state had in 2004, when State Board of Elections statistics showed just over 10,000 Hispanic voters.

Toledo says a party that preaches the value of diversity needs to do better.

"The Democratic Party could do outreach to recruit Hispanic candidates, but it has not," Toledo said. "And when well-qualified Hispanic candidates step up, party leadership does show hesitation So the first thing that the party needs to do is stop showing hesitation — stop putting up a barrier."

Earlier this year, a group of mostly younger party activists re-established the Democratic Party’s Hispanic American Caucus. Albaro Reyes-Martinez is the newly elected president of the caucus.

"This caucus had a lot of energy going" in previous election cycles, "but there was just a lot of stuff that was kind of not kept up with, and it kind of fell down," Reyes-Martinez said. "And so, last year, me and a colleague of mine, Anna Rios, were working together trying to figure out how to make this come back. It's basically rebuilding the entire thing again."

He says the party needs to do a better job of outreach to the Latino community.

"This caucus’ focus won't be just to sit a bunch of Hispanics around the table and be like, ‘this is why you should vote for Democrats,'" Reyes-Martinez said. "We want to make sure we hear about the issues that they care about, the issues that they face."

He says politicians often make the mistake of assuming immigration policy is the top concern.

"I think one of the biggest issues we see is education and jobs," Reyes-Martinez said, adding that gun control is also on the list in the wake of the 2022 school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. "Yes, immigration is an important issue to the community. But the reality is that as we start seeing generations and generations and generations continue to be born in the United States, they kind of distance themselves from the conversation of immigration."

Reyes-Martinez says younger generations are also more likely to get active in politics.

"Prior to my generation, we were taught to kind of shy away and stay away from government functions and government systems, out of fear that it's best to stay away from law enforcement, best to stay away from those pillars of government," he said.

But outreach to the Latino community has to be considerate of those worries. Reyes-Martinez tells volunteers not to start by asking people about their home address or whether they’re registered to vote.

"If you are having strangers come up to your door and they're asking you all these questions, it could be a very rough conversation," he said. "It can be a very terrifying conversation, to say the least."

Reyes-Martinez says campaign workers should recognize that some of the people they encounter might not be eligible to vote. But their children might be, and the Democratic Party’s new Hispanic caucus doesn’t require its members to be U.S. citizens. He also encourages candidates to put a Spanish-language section on their campaign websites.

While four Latino candidates are running for legislature this year, only one is assured of winning. Democrat Jordan Lopez is running unopposed for a House seat in Charlotte. Steve Martinez is the Democratic candidate in a conservative-leaning district in Henderson County.

Democrats have several Latino elected officials serving at the local level, including Carrboro Town Councilman Eliazar Posada and Mecklenburg County Commissioner Susan Rodriguez-McDowell, who is seeking re-election this year.

On the Republican side, Cabarrus County House candidate Brian Echevarria will have a competitive race after unseating a GOP incumbent in the primary, and Fayetteville Republican Freddie de la Cruz is running in a left-leaning district. Lopez and Echevarria are also Black.

Toledo says both political parties have an opportunity to increase their support in the Latino community if they make it a priority.

"Remember Hispanics don't have a seat at the table at this time," Toledo said. "And if the Republican Party actually gives them that opportunity to have a seat at the table, the Democratic Party could lose the support for generations in this space."

North Carolina has an active chapter of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly. Its chairman, Eduardo Andrade, has led campaigns for Congressman Patrick McHenry, and new Republican National Committee chair Michael Whatley headlined the group’s meeting last month.

Which party wins more support from Latino voters could be an increasing factor in deciding North Carolina elections. The Latino population in the state grew by a million people between the 2010 and 2020 Census, and that growth is expected to continue.

Colin Campbell covers politics for WUNC as the station's capitol bureau chief.