Winning Strategy

Latinos in Bernie 2020

Political strategist Chuck Rocha has seen it all before. In decades of working on political campaigns, Rocha has heard candidates talk about the importance of Latino voters and having Latino staff, only to have them forget it later. But as Senior Advisor to the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, he sees something completely different this time around.

“In every campaign I’ve worked before, the Latino vote and the Latino staff have been an afterthought. On this campaign it’s the first thought,” he says. “I’ve watched campaigns not spend any money on Latinos, not hire any Latinos and just give it lip service. There are plenty of people hiring white males from Harvard but not many people putting three DREAMERs in a room and hiring talented people who are doing work that is outside the narrative of Latino content. That’s what makes this campaign truly different.”

Rocha, who is taking a leave from the Washington-based consulting firm Solidarity Strategies he founded ten years ago, is a straight-talking Texan and avid fisherman who began his career as a union worker and later became the National Political Director of the United Steelworkers of America. Usually donning his signature Stetson even in the most formal settings, such as appearing on cable news programs, Rocha has brought on board a slew of Latinos who staff important positions in Bernie 2020.

“In most campaigns you’ll have Latinos working on Latino outreach and engagement, or sprinkled around different departments. We took a different approach,” he says. “Latino outreach is a constant part of every department. A lot of campaigns will do paid Spanish-language media because that’s important, but how many will do it with the cultural competence of people all around them giving them unique perspectives of our community?”

The more than 70 Latino staffers on the Sanders campaign – both on the national and state level – trace their backgrounds to a variety of Latin American countries, including Argentina, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Mexico, and Venezuela. Several are DACA recipients, including Basilisa Alonso, the Deputy Constituency Director, who from an early age has been involved in immigrant rights campaigns and who has helped craft the immigration platform. “It started out with conversations and our input was taken seriously. I am working on issues that directly affect me and my family,” she says.

Another DACA recipient on the campaign, National Outreach Coordinator Luis Alcauter, adds, “It’s good to have Latinos in every department to make sure that the work that we’re doing makes sense. It’s not the same thing to talk to a Latino in California as to a Latino in Florida.”

“There’s a reason why we’re here,” says Latino Press Secretary Belén Sisa, another DACA recipient. “When we’re about to make a decision, we think things through a little bit more than the average person. We think about the people we know would be affected by the things that are going on. We’re not doing this for career moves. We’re doing this because we see that people we know are genuinely suffering and we want to change that. Our campaign is the only one that focuses on putting voices that have never been heard and given the platform to be at the forefront. We’re given the opportunity to be at the table when the decisions are made.

“What makes us stand out,” says Rocha, “is that none of these people outside of Belén is doing a ‘Latino’ department. We’re always seen as doing the Latino stuff. Here, we’re not doing just immigration policy, we’re doing all the policy.”

Alex Jacquez is a Senior Policy Advisor on the campaign, having previously served as a Capitol Hill staffer and in a variety of positions during the Obama administration. Jacquez says one of the reasons he was drawn to the Sanders campaign is that the issues Sanders cares about are also Latino issues. “When we’re crafting policy, it’s directly tied to the people working on the ground and the concerns of people across the country, such as Medicare for all or canceling student debt, and we’re making sure to take Bernie’s message and get it to the people on the ground,” he says.

Another campaign senior advisor, National Political Director Analilia Mejía, says she joined the campaign because Sanders walks the walk and talks the talk. Mejía has extensive experience in grassroots and labor organizing. The daughter of Colombian and Dominican immigrants with two young children, Mejía says Sanders’ commitment to family drew her in: “They’ve been open and accommodating to me as a working mother. I think about my mother’s generation and my grandmother’s generation and how this would have been so out of reach. The campaign takes great pains in letting us be fully human and fully engaged.”

Other Latino staffers at the national headquarters include National Surrogate Communications Coordinator Eileen García, Policy Associate Julia Santos, and Executive Assistant Amanda Arias. All of the national staff work in close coordination with staffers on the state level, and Latinos run the campaign in several key states, including Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, and California.

“Bernie has an education platform that was written by teachers. In California, community college is free for the first two years, and he is the one national leader who made that an issue across the country,” says State Director Rafael Navar. “He’s already delivered for us and is having more of a national impact.”

Colorado State Director Pilar Chapa adds that education is also a big issue among Latinos in the state. “There are many universities in Colorado, but they’re so expensive that they, in effect, disqualify communities of color.  Bernie’s proposals on access to education are really resonating with and motivating the community. We’ve had low voter turnout in the past, but people are starting to realize that they have a candidate, that, although he may not be Latino, has been proposing policies that would benefit the Latino community all along.”

The response to the Sanders campaign among Latinos in Iowa has been equally enthusiastic, says Deputy Political Director Oliver Hidalgo-Wohlleben. “Latinos are often hit hard. There are a lot of towns here with Latino populations and the response has been incredible.”

According to Susanna Cervantes, Field Director in Nevada, voters in the state – including the growing number of Latino voters – say that “immigration is a very important issue, and also access to healthcare, especially among the large number of contract workers and hourly workers. It’s a big issue and is playing a pivotal role.”

Senator Sanders himself considers having Latinos playing a significant role in the campaign to be a winning strategy. “I am proud we have Latinos at every level of this campaign from Senior Advisors to state staff to volunteers, and many of them DACA recipients,” he said in a statement. “At a time when Latinos in our country are being attacked and demonized, we will come together and defeat the most dangerous president in the history of this country. In a Sanders administration, Latinos will not only have a seat at the table, but they will be setting the agenda.”

For Rocha, the campaign strategy of Latinos playing key roles throughout the campaign is a win-win for all. “We all show up on paper as Latino, but every one of us is so unique, so Bernie gets to hear the different sides of the Latino community. It’s possible to build campaigns this way and succeed, and do it by not giving up our values,” he concludes.

By Patricia Guadalupe