Nevadans with immigrant ties learn skills to run for office

Nearly 30 Nevadans with immigrant backgrounds gathered Saturday in Las Vegas to learn how to run for office from industry veterans, including politicians, campaign organizers and political activists.

They were taking part in the American Dream Project training offered by progressive political groups Latino Victory Fund and NextGen America., California billionaire Tom Steyer’s organization, The groups are holding the events in five cities nationwide to pinpoint 25 locals with immigrant ties to run for an office in their locations.

Las Vegas was the third stop, after events in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles earlier this year.

“Understanding that this particular community is one that is most targeted by the (President Donald) Trump administration, we felt now more than ever it is important to deliberately recruit candidates with immigrant backgrounds,” said Mayra Macias, national political director for Latino Victory Fund and coordinator of Saturday’s event at the Asian Community Development Council offices.

Nevada, she said, was identified by the organization as a state with high Latino voter turnout, but low Latino representation in elected positions. Advocates fear that if Latino voters aren’t engaged in political action between elections, they’ll be discouraged and won’t vote a second time, Macias said.

And then, the backgrounds of elected officials won’t represent population distribution, she said. About 1-in-5 Nevadans are foreign-born, and Latinos make up 28 percent of the population, according to census data.

But campaigning without the necessary tools can be difficult, Macias said. At Saturday’s daylong training, Nevadans learned how to push past obstacles, fundraise and talk to reporters.

In the first information session, wannabe candidates heard from Assemblyman Nelson Araujo, D-Las Vegas, who first ran at age 26, and state Sen. Yvanna Cancela, D-Las Vegas, who was appointed to her seat in District 10 in 2016 and is now running her first campaign seeking re-election.

“I had worked in government, I’d worked in nonprofits, I’d been out in the community (and) started getting involved at a young age,” Araujo said, telling Saturday morning’s crowd about his youth living on 28th Street with his Salvadoran mom and sister. “Folks in this room, we grew up … asking ourselves, ‘When will our time come?’”

Araujo continued: “And so in 2014, I finally got the guts to say someone needs to be able to tell my mom’s story.”

Araujo said there’s no magic sauce to winning. He said he spent weekends with friends, family and high school volunteers canvassing for votes.

For Araujo, it worked. He won the District 3 seat twice and is campaigning for secretary of state in the 2018 election. For others, such as Washoe County Democratic Party Executive Director Denise Lopez, discrimination issues got in the way during her run for Sparks City Council, Ward 1 in Northern Nevada.

Cancela said that as the Nevada Senate’s first Latina senator, she has a responsibility to make sure she’s not the last.

“The beauty of having a citizen legislature is we bring our experiences … and we use those to inform our policy making,” Cancela said. “As our state’s immigrant population, Latino population in particular, continues to grow, I think it’s important that that’s represented in Carson City.”

Susan Martinez, 51, agrees. She’s running for Assembly in District 12 after a 30-year stint working front desk at the Flamingo.

“Things have shifted now. I think I’m now feeling stronger where I feel like I can take a step in front,” Martinez said.

Some of the training attendees won’t be ready to run for office yet, but might be better placed as a campaign volunteer, Macias said.

For the 25 candidates the project staff chooses to help through their campaign journeys, one-on-one training and webinars will be offered in the coming months.

Project staff will visit Orlando and Atlanta before identifying people ready to run for election in 2018.

Contact Jessie Bekker at or 702-380-4563. Follow @jessiebekks on Twitter.

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