JEROME | Gabriella Gonzalez voted for the first time in her life last month, in a Jerome City Council election.
“I think, in my opinion, the people that are on the ballot are listeners,” she said.
Gonzalez, 25, who went to school in Jerome, started to pay more attention to the City Council after having a daughter. She wants to see the city’s leaders make education a priority.
"I have a child," she said. "Pretty much it's the future ... that's what I'm thinking of."
Gonzalez was among just 12 percent of registered voters in Jerome who cast a ballot on a day when the city was picking two Council members and deciding whether to create a cemetery district.
Voter turnout in local elections is low among people from all backgrounds. Turnout in Jerome County was just 14 percent in November. And even in state and national elections, turnout has been falling — staying below 50 percent in every gubernatorial race since 1994.
However, involvement is noticeably lower among Hispanics, and none of Jerome's elected city or county officials come from Hispanic backgrounds.
Jerome isn't unique in this — there are only a couple of Hispanic city council members in south-central Idaho. And most towns, including places like Rupert and Burley where the Hispanic share of the population is comparable to Jerome's, don’t have any at the moment.
The Magic Valley has no stories like Wilder's, the small rural-Idaho town that broke political barriers last month by electing its first fully Latino city council.
What's at stake? Not just council seats. If Hispanic people voted more, some say it could force Idaho politicians to look at immigration-related issues differently.
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Jerome Mayor Dave Davis has seen little Hispanic interest in local politics. Part of this, he said, is because many of Jerome's Hispanic residents are not U.S. citizens. But even some Hispanic friends of his who are citizens aren’t particularly interested.
“Personally, I feel it’s going to take a couple generations for their kids and their grandkids getting up to the point of, ‘Hey, we want to be involved,’” he said.
Part of it, Davis suggested, could be the general lack of interest in local politics among people from all backgrounds. A statewide poll done by Dan Jones and Associates a little before Election Day showed that three-quarters of Idaho adults have never thought about running for office and wouldn’t do it even if they did stop to think about it.
Davis himself didn't do more than vote until he ran for mayor in 2013, during a turbulent time in city government. A banker by profession, Davis campaigned on cutting spending and keeping taxes down and beat out the incumbent and two challengers in a four-way field.
“It took something for me to get involved, and here I am,” he said.
Jennifer Martinez, organizing director for the Idaho Community Action Network and a Wendell native, said there are a number of reasons Latinos are less politically involved, and ICAN has been working on increasing their engagement. One reason: The Hispanic community is younger — the median age of Hispanics in Idaho in 2010 was 22.5, a full 12 years younger than the state median. Another part of it, she said, is basic education on the American political process, and on how you can actually exert some influence on policies and on your elected officials here.
“A lot of people are coming from countries that run very differently,” Martinez said.
The lack of Latino officials perpetuates itself, she said. When you don’t see people running for office who look like you or talk about issues you care about, you’re less likely to vote or run for office. And elected officials and political parties often reach out only during elections.
"There isn't an ongoing effort every year to build that relationship and trust with the Latino community,” she said.
Joe Skaug, one of the losing candidates for Jerome mayor in 2013, talked about the need to do more to bring Hispanics into city government. Some of the 2015 City Council candidates talked about this as well as reaching out to the Hispanic business community downtown. Chris Barber, a former councilman who won back a Council seat in November, even suggested creating a Hispanic-themed district downtown similar to Boise’s Basque block.
On a state level, the 2014 campaign season did see efforts by some candidates to reach out to the Hispanic community specifically. Richard Stallings, a Democrat and former congressman who lost to U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, talked about immigration reform frequently on the campaign trail and made boosting Latino turnout part of his strategy. Stallings held a pro-immigration reform rally in Twin Falls and cut a radio ad in Spanish.
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How would Idaho politics look different if more Hispanics voted?
Martinez said elected officials would have to approach some issues differently or spend more time on them. For example, Martinez doubts Idaho would have joined the lawsuit against the Obama administration’s executive order to end deportation for undocumented immigrants who came here as children (commonly called DREAMers) and their parents. A federal appeals court has put the rules on hold, and the issue may go to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Also, she said, Idaho’s congressional delegation would have to make immigration reform a bigger priority.
Simpson, who represents the Magic Valley, opposes mass deportation of undocumented immigrants and supports a reform plan that would allow people who are here illegally to stay and work, and to apply for citizenship if they want it without having to leave the country to do so. However, new House Speaker Paul Ryan has said Congress won’t take up immigration reform during the Obama administration, which puts off any action until 2017 at the earliest if he sticks by this stance.
“I still believe that it’s something that we’ve got to do,” Simpson told the Times-News editorial board in November. “We need to do it sooner rather than later. And there’s a path forward that, I think, can work and can satisfy most people.”
U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador, who represents the northern and western parts of the state, was part of a bipartisan group of lawmakers trying to work out an immigration reform deal in 2013, but he walked away from the negotiations and has since been a strong opponent of Obama’s executive actions. Martinez believes he might have kept working on the issue if more Hispanic people voted and there were a greater risk of political consequences for inaction.
At the state level, Martinez said, issues such as letting DREAMers pay in-state tuition at state colleges (they have to pay out-of-state rates now) and letting undocumented immigrants get driver’s licenses would get more attention if Hispanic people were more involved.
About a dozen states issue driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, including three of Idaho’s neighbors — Nevada, Utah and Washington. ICAN lobbied for such a bill in Idaho during the 2015 session, talking to lawmakers and holding rallies. Supporters of such laws say they benefit everyone: Undocumented immigrants are driving anyway, so letting them get licenses would make sure they know the rules of the road and can get insurance.
Jeremy Pittard, a Burley lawyer who has practiced immigration law for six years, said allowing undocumented immigrants to get licenses would help people “tremendously” and relieve a backlog in the court system, because many undocumented immigrants get arrested for driving without a license.
ICAN is still trying to get more support for the measure from both sides of the aisle. In the 2016 legislative session, it hopes at least to get a bill introduced.
"I feel that we haven't shown our strength in numbers as Latinos,” Martinez said.
Opponents, though, counter that issuing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants rewards people who break the law and opens the gates to more document fraud. The chances of such a law passing in Idaho look slim at the moment.
House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said a driver’s license can be used as a “stepping-stone document,” and he has always opposed the idea when it came before the Legislature.
“I’m not supportive of giving or issuing … any state-based documents to illegal immigrants, period,” Bedke said.