Pennsylvania’s Latinos want more state lawmakers from their communities. New district maps offer that chance

First term legislators of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives are sworn-in, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021, at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. The ceremony marks the convening of the 2021-2022 legislative session of the General Assembly of Pennsylvania. (Laurence Kesterson/AP Photo)

First term legislators of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives are sworn-in, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021, at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. The ceremony marks the convening of the 2021-2022 legislative session of the General Assembly of Pennsylvania. (Laurence Kesterson/AP Photo)

This story originally appeared on WITF

Earlier this month, at around dinner time on a Friday after a long work week, Latino advocacy group CASA hosted an informational session to talk about new state House districts in York and Lancaster counties.

While others were starting their weekend, more than 60 people joined the online meeting. Some set up their phone cameras in their cars while driving; others listened while digging into their meals.

CASA’s Maria Gutierrez, who leads the organization’s redistricting advocacy efforts, dove into a presentation comparing what a court would later uphold as the final legislative maps with the community maps her group had drafted.

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She told the audience to feel proud of their efforts — because the approved maps reflect the community feedback each person helped gather. With the help of members and organizers, CASA gathered 120 community maps from Lancaster and 155 from York.

“Look, this means that they listened to us, they respected us and they tended to us,” Gutierrez said in Spanish to her audience. “You feel that the fight was worth it.”

During the meeting, Fanny Duarte from Norristown said something you hear again and again from Latinos when they talk about representation: A Latino candidate would be better.

“He understands our necessities, his family has gone through what the majority of Hispanics go through here, and it’s important because he’s going to look out for the community that got him there in the first place,” Duarte said.

The complicated process of drawing new district lines for state lawmakers is now over. The monumental task often prompted outcry against – and sometimes praise for – how communities are parceled.

Members of CASA in York.

Advocacy groups strived to make their voice heard by attending public hearings and submitting their own maps based on community feedback.

State leaders responded with creation of more than a dozen of what are called “opportunity districts”—meaning they are designed to allow minority communities to elect a candidate of their choice.

How were districts drawn?

The five-member group known as the Legislative Reapportionment Commission leads the process each decade. One of its challenges this time was trying to make sure the commonwealth’s fastest growing community is well-represented in state policy decisions.

Political scientist Jonathan Cervas, an expert advisor for the commission, said the map reflects the carving out of opportunity districts.

“That districts are drawn in a way that doesn’t deprive a protected class their ability to elect a candidate of choice,” Cervas said.

Latinos are a legally a protected class of voters, as a result of the Voting Rights Act of the 1960s.

Cervas said that means elected leaders are barred from using any techniques that either keep Latinos away from the polls or from electing someone who represents their interests.

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The preliminary map was approved in a hotly contested, split vote by the five-member Legislative Reapportionment Commission. (Matt Rourke/AP)

“[That] doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s somebody who’s descriptively similar to the protected class but somebody who is substantively, has policies that are substantively similar to a protected class,” Cervas said.

What makes a good opportunity district is how it accounts for where Latino voters live and how they’ve voted in the past, he said. When creating legislative districts, one of the goals is to avoid putting a bunch of non-white voters into a district with significantly different needs.

Between the state House and Senate maps, Latinos make up a majority of the non-white population in 13 districts. Four are basically brand new, which means there’s no incumbent. So, Latino voters will have an opportunity to elect a lawmaker who would represent their interests.

For Cervas, he’s thrilled the commission could make that happen.

“We feel that the law compels us to draw districts the way we did, and not to mention it’s just the right thing to do, right? To represent communities of all kinds and to represent communities where they live,” Cervas said.

To what extent are Latinos represented?

Latino lawmakers are few and far between at the state capital. Out of 253 representatives and Senators, only four are Latino. All are Democrats and three represent the Philadelphia area.

The question of how well Latinos are represented is being asked in Allentown — the state’s third-largest city.

Community leaders like Enid Santiago aren’t optimistic.

Santiago argues House and Senate districts in Allentown were changed in ways that actually cut out Latinos who have already stepped up to challenge incumbents.

“The city of Allentown, yes, was given a third District. However, we gerrymandered the maps to not really give Latino representatives a real opportunity of winning,” Santiago said.

Enid Santiago will again go up against State Rep. Peter Schweyer, this time in different district. (Anthony Orozco/WITF)

She lost a close election for a central Allentown House district two years ago against incumbent Rep. Peter Shweyer.

Now she is running against him again in a White majority district where the Latino population is reduced by 17 percentage points from her last run.

While the areas remain mostly Democratic, and voting trends show Latinos largely lean left, advocates argue White voters are less likely to support Latino candidates.

With the redistricting process completed, voters in other opportunity districts in Lancaster have high hopes.

Another opportunity district is Lancaster’s new 49th, which covers Lancaster City. Latinos there now make up 40 percent of the population.

Spanish American Civic Association CEO Carlos Graupera says he’s watched the community build itself up.

“We are the largest group of homeowners, new homeowners in the city. We are the largest group of social entrepreneurs in the city,” Graupera said. “We have begun to elect as a community, people to council and city hall and city council and school board.”

Janet Diaz is one of them. She is the first Latina to win a seat on city council.

Janet Diaz.

She is now running for the new 49th House District, which is 38 percent Latino. It’s a neighborhood currently represented by Rep. Mike Sturla (D-Lancaster). But, he is campaigning to represent the new 96th district, which covers the northern half of Lancaster city, including Manheim Township and East Petersburg Borough.

Diaz has built support even though she has never received an endorsement from the Democratic Party.

“We need to elect somebody from the Latino community, “ Diaz said. “Sometimes Latinos don’t go to people because they don’t speak the language clearly, or they have an accent and they feel uncomfortable, but having me they’ll know that I’m approachable.”

Yesenia Rodriguez is gathering signatures to get on the ballot for House District 116 –a new vacant district that covers Hazleton city, which is 60% Latino. The new district will be 37% Hispanic.

She moved to the U.S. from the Dominican Republican when she was 14, and didn’t speak English. She’s running, she said, for the same reason opportunity zones were created – “believing that our community needs to be represented by somebody that understands their struggles.”

More choices vs splitting the vote

In the May primary, Diaz will face Ismail Smith-Wade-El, a young Black candidate favored by more progressive Democrats. He is also a city council member.

Kareena Rios, who’s on the School District of Lancaster’s board, has supported both candidates in the past.

“They’re both running to potentially represent me at the state level, which is really exciting. And for me, I think it’s, yeah, I never would have expected something like this,” Rios said.

Lancaster’s 49th District and Hazleton’s 116th are examples of new boundaries with  large Latino populations and no incumbent. It was drawn to open the field for newer candidates of color who might not be able to compete with an incumbent, according to the Legislative Reapportionment Commission.

Fernando Treviño is Pennsylvania Director of All on the Line, a redistricting advocacy group. He said with open districts like the 49th in place, Latino leaders have a big task ahead of them.

“Here the serious and complicated conversation Latino leadership will have is choosing a Latino candidate, so there’s no competition in the community,” Treviño said in Spanish.

He says that too many candidates in districts that were designed to be majority Latino may divide the vote and might make it easier for a non-Latino candidate to win.

The state Supreme Court upheld the new maps this month after they faced a number of legal challenges, which means the reshaped districts are here to stay.

The primary is slated for May 17. At least six candidates with Latino heritage are vying for seats in the state legislature to represent growing communities across the commonwealth. They are making a push to file their petitions by the 28th.

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