Hispanics make up the majority of people in three southwest Kansas counties: Ford, Finney and Seward. If you add up all the county commission seats -- as well as the city commission seats in Dodge City, Garden City and Liberal -- you come up with 28 elected positions. White people hold all but one of those seats. So why isn't the Hispanic majority playing a larger role in running local government? High Plains Public Radio's Corinne Boyer filed this report for the Kansas News Service.
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration involving Kansas Public Radio and other public media outlets, dedicated to covering health, education and politics across the state.
These Kansas Counties are Mostly Hispanic, But their Elected Officials Mostly are Not
By Corinne Boyer, High Plains Public Radio / Kansas News Service
GARDEN CITY — In the 1940s and ’50s, people of color couldn’t use the public swimming pool here. If they went to the movie theater in Garden City, Hispanic patrons could only sit in the balcony.
A few generations later, Garden City School Board member Tim Cruz served on the city commission and as mayor. He played a role in dealing with leaks in the city’s swimming pool, known as The Big Pool.
“I had aunts and uncles that, when they were little and lived in Garden City, they couldn’t even swim at The Big Pool,” Cruz said. “So it was an opportunity for me to really feel that we were doing something for the community as a whole when we took on that issue.”
Decades since official segregation policies ended, Hispanic residents now make up more than half the population in Ford, Finney and Seward counties.
But you’ll find just one Hispanic elected official, in Liberal, on the commissions running the three largest counties in southwest Kansas or their three largest cities. The other 27 are white.
Some local groups want to make a shift by recruiting more Hispanic candidates in hopes that those who govern will look more like those they govern.
Why aren’t more Latino Candidates Running for Office?
Today, Cruz says time and money stand as the two biggest barriers to running for local office.
“You work all day and then you’re out campaigning when you’re not working,” he said.
Because some meetings take place in the middle of the day, Cruz says it’s important to have a flexible employer.
Although expenses and time may prevent some people from running for office, first-generation Hispanic Americans may face a different set of challenges.
John Mendoza is a past state director for the League of United Latin American Citizens.
John Mendoza, past state director for the League of United Latin American Citizens, says understanding why Latinos don’t hold more public offices begins with understanding Latino culture, “which includes understanding our religion and our fear of authorities that we’ve had to grow up with.”
“I'm a first-generation American,” he said. “My parents were always afraid of the person knocking at the door that it could be someone from immigration ready to take them or us away.”
Mendoza says culture plays a part. He said Hispanic families long relied on religious fate to solve problems, and that that created a passiveness when it came to public life. Only in the 1980s and ’90s, he said, did change happen.
“We started to understand the impact of non-participation,” he said. “If we weren’t there … then we shouldn’t expect change unless we advocated for ourselves.”
But Fort Hays State University political science professor Christopher Olds cites alternative reasons why Latino residents don’t seek office — and which candidates win Latino votes.
“It could be, in part, a leadership vacuum and that there’s no leadership present to bring Latinos together, foster closer bonds together, and lead people to take specific actions, like engaging in the community or advocating for policy concerns with local government,” he said.
The presence of a large Latino community doesn’t necessarily equal more Latino officials winning elections.
“That’s not the case, because a lot of Latino voters do not factor the identity of the candidate in their decision,” Olds said.
Hispanic Voter Turnouts Increasing
A new Pew Research study shows that Latino voter turnout nationally out almost doubled from the previous midterm election year in 2014 — from 6.8 million to 11.6 million voters in 2018.
In Kansas, 11,000 more Hispanics voted in 2018 than four years before.
The Liberal (Kansas) Area Coalition for Families is leading one effort to boost civic engagement in Seward County. Kay Burtzloff is president of the coalition. She also chairs the Seward County Democrats. The coalition received a grant that aims to get more community members involved in the political process, and elected to office.
The organization registered 500 new voters in 2015.
Now, Burtzloff says, the group is looking “at the leadership of our community.”
“We’re looking at the city commission and the board of education,” she said. “Is our community being represented by these boards?”
Last month, Ford County Democratic Party Chair Johnny Dunlap presented voter turnout data at a statewide meeting of the League of Latin Americans, or LULAC, in Dodge City. The numbers showed Latino voters cast ballots early and turned out in larger numbers.
Hispanic voter turnout in Ford County increased from nearly 13% in 2014 to 35.29% in 2018.
Credit Corinne Boyer / Kansas News Service
In 2014, turnout for Hispanic voters was just under 13%.
“But then in 2018,” he said, “that tripled to just shy of 36%.”
LULAC Liberal President Karem Gallo said the nonprofit assisted with voter registration during Liberal’s Cinco De Mayo celebration. She said Latino residents may not feel like they have support to run for office.
“That’s one of the things that we have been working on,” she said, “to let our community know that we are there to help them.”
The League of United Latin American Citizens chapters from Topeka, Dodge City, Liberal, Garden City and Manhattan met in Dodge City for their annual meeting.
Credit Corinne Boyer / Kansas News Service
With local elections around the corner, so far only two candidates have filed to run in Ford County — one for a seat on the Dodge City Community College Board and the other candidate is running for a school board seat — according to County Clerk Debbie Cox.
Doreen Vargas, of La Raza Community Services in Dodge City, walks eligible residents through the citizenship process. Vargas meets with the Ford County Democratic Party once a month and says it’s hard to pinpoint reasons why Hispanic candidates aren’t running for office.
“It’s just hard to understand why. So many people, they’re just so busy, you know, and then a lot of them work at the (local meatpacking) plant and they’re so tired,” she said. “It’s so hard to participate in community activities, especially if they have a family.”
William Clifford is a county commissioner and chair of the Finney County Republican party. He says the party could be doing more to recruit young people.
“We’ve failed as a party to bring immigrant groups, for instance, into our party,” he said. “These are hardworking people. They certainly deserve representation.”
Corinne Boyer is a reporter based in Garden City for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of Kansas Public Radio, KCUR Radio, KMUW Radio and High Plains Public Radio -- dedicated to covering health, education and politics. Follow her on Twitter @Corinne_Boyer.