Tom Perez and the Future of Latinos

(Photo Credit: Reuters/Chris Berry)

Many of the statistics used in this article come from a report issued by the Pew Research Center in 2014. While the numbers may have shifted slightly, I have seen no research to refute what Pew discovered three years ago. Rather than link to the same report in multiple locations, I link to it here and refer you to the data. All data comes from this report unless otherwise hyperlinked.

Tom Perez is the first Latino to be elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee. He is, effectively, the most powerful political operative on the left. He will lead the party as it devises a strategy for elected officials up and down the ticket, from Presidential elections to oft-ignored congressional districts. He will be key in rebuilding the party’s platform in the wake of the Democrats’ across-the-board losses in 2016, and he will play a large role in devising a plan to oppose the Trump regime from county to county, district to district.

He’s got a lot on his plate.

So am I excited that a Latino has finally been given the opportunity to lead a major political party?

Not yet.

In order for me to celebrate the rise of Tom Perez to the head of the DNC, I need to see him actually make a difference for Latinos in the United States of America. Here are a couple ways he can do that.

1. Center issues important to Latinos.

Latinos are growing ever more skeptical of the Democratic Party’s commitment to the issues that affect them. Rather than actively galvanizing Latino communities during the last election cycle, Democratic candidates expected Trump’s toxic rhetoric to torpedo his campaign and open Hillary Clinton’s path to the White House. Obviously that didn’t work.

It didn’t even make a dent in the Latino vote. Trump received at least as much support in 2016 as Romney did in 2012, which means Perez and the DNC leadership need to abandon any strategy that takes the Latino vote for granted.

Democrats must make a positive case to Latino voters if they hope to ensure the Latino vote. Issues that Latinos care about most must be centered by the Perez-run DNC. He cannot expect that the Trump administration’s executive orders and legal actions will guarantee a groundswell of Latino support for Democratic candidates.

The Obama Administration oversaw more deportations than did President Bush and both ICE and the Border Patrol saw a major increase in funding during President Obama’s tenure. The Border Patrol is an especially sore subject for many Latinos; their officers refer to immigrants as “wets,” an abbreviation of the racial slur “wetback,” and “tonks,” a name used to refer to the sound a flashlight makes as it strikes someone’s skull. These agents are all over the American side of our southern border and have been found guilty of abusing their authority, corruption, and in some cases they have even been accused of murder.

Latinos are scared. ICE and the Border Patrol have been emboldened by the Trump administration. Families are in danger of being torn apart. The President’s embrace of private prisons which double as detention centers signals a surge in deportations unlike anything we’ve seen. And even those who are here legally are in danger because, in the words of one ICE agent, “You weren’t born in this country.”

Latinos demand to have what other Americans can take for granted – a sense of safety. If Perez wants Latinos to vote for his candidates, he and the leadership need to stress the importance of compassionate immigration reform and advocate a thorough review of the activities of the agencies tasked with enforcing immigration policy.

2. Remember Latinos’ religious commitments.

Perhaps to the chagrin of many, the United States is a very religious nation and Latinos are no exception. In fact, when asked if religion was important in their daily lives, more than 80% of Latinos replied in the affirmative. While 63% of white evangelicals attend worship weekly, 71% of Latino evangelicals can say the same. And though it is true that younger Latinos do not claim Catholicism at the rates of previous generations, there are still more young Latinos in the Roman Catholic Church than their white counterparts.

Perez needs to keep this in mind as he plans for the Democratic party’s future. The narrative that Democrats are a threat to religious liberty has been fueled by careless remarks by both President Obama and Secretary Clinton. When Democrats attack closely held religious beliefs, they are not only demonizing white conservatives, but they are also insulting important members of their own constituency: Black and Latino voters.

But these religious commitments should do more than give Democratic candidates pause when they discuss matters of church and religion. Democrats should also recognize their need to moderate on a central plank of their party platform: abortion.

Latinos tend to be socially conservative and this is seen most clearly in regards to abortion laws. More Latinos want to see abortion restricted than any other ethnic group, including white evangelicals and Catholics (70% to 64% and 54% to 44% respectively).

Yet all the candidates for chair of the DNC, Perez included, vowed not to moderate but instead to align more closely to the progressive wing of the party. This seems counter-intuitive. Latinos were fully aware of then-Candidate Trump’s rhetoric, and yet after the party moved in a more progressive direction thanks to the influence of Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton still received less Latino votes than President Obama did in 2012.

The answer, then, is not to continue pushing toward a progressive agenda but to keep in mind a Latino constituency that will not follow the party in its radical, Hyde-repealing agenda. As much as I would like to see abortion disappear from the American landscape, this is not a call for the criminalization of abortion, but a plea for a more moderate approach that recognizes the religious commitments of Latinos that might get in the way of Democratic support.

If Perez is to be an advocate for Latinos, he must not ignore our religious commitments. There are some aspects of the progressive agenda that are fundamentally at odds with our faith.

3. Champion Latino candidates.

Of course, abortion is not the only “life” issue that Latinos care about. Health care, community policing, job creation, and education are issues that directly impact the quality of life for all people. Government aid in these areas, however, is especially important for poor Latinos who often face workplace discrimination, a language barrier, underfunded inner-city schools, and biased policing.

That means Latinos will be best served by candidates for public office that understand these issues, namely, Latinos. Who better to speak up for Latinos and the issues dear to our community than Latinos themselves.

Latinos make up 17% of the American population, but make up less than 10% of Congress and only 4% of the Senate. Only three states have Latino governors and there are only three Latino lieutenant governors. As Perez works with party leadership to strategically identify candidates for office up and down the ticket, he must take seriously the discrepancy between the Latino population and Latino representation in the halls of power. This will take a grassroots effort, something Perez has championed. Perez and the rest of the DNC leadership need to raise up Latino political leaders who will take seriously the concerns of Latinos.

Not only will representation ensure our ability to be heard on the issues we care about, but this representation will also inspire others to run for office on the local, state, and national levels. Perez has an opportunity to model Latino political action and should not do it alone. The more Latinos he can encourage into office, the more Latinos will consider public office in future generations.


I’m an independent. The success of the Democratic party isn’t really my concern. I am concerned, however, with the future of Latinos in the United States. We want to feel safe in our neighborhoods. We want to know that we enjoy the same protections under the law as any other American. And we want to be seen with the dignity we deserve not only as Americans but as human persons.

The election of Tom Perez to the chair of the DNC is a step forward for Latinos, yes. But before I can get excited about the possibility Perez represents, I need to see him take up the cause of the Latino peoples. We are tired of being patronized by the Democratic party, given enough promises to secure our votes and then forgotten when people get into office. I pray that Perez will be different. It’s just too early to tell.

Marcos Ortega

Marcos Ortega (MDiv, Westminster Theological Seminary) is an Assistant Pastor at Goodwill Church (Evangelical Presbyterian Church) and lives in the Hudson River Valley in New York with his wife and two daughters.

2 thoughts on “Tom Perez and the Future of Latinos

  • March 3, 2017 at 8:52 am

    Well said Marcos. Prayers for you as you continue to champion Latinos in this country.

    • March 3, 2017 at 8:57 am

      Thank you Holly! I need all the prayers I can get. Just trying to be faithful.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.