Dave Helling

Why hasn’t KC elected a Latino to the City Council in almost a generation?

I’m not very good at predictions, but I feel safe making this one: After Kansas City’s June election, the new City Council will have no Latino or Latina members.

That’s because no candidates left in the field claim a Latino heritage.

A one-time quirk? No. Community leaders say disgraced former councilman Michael Hernandez was the last Latino to serve at 12th and Oak, back in the 1990s.

This seems surprising, and wrong. More than 10 percent of Kansas City’s residents claim Hispanic backgrounds, yet no Latino has served or will serve in elected city government in almost a generation.

Imagine the reaction if African American candidates had been shut out over a similar time frame, or women candidates. Kansas City would be scandalized and probably in court. The lack of Hispanic representation, on the other hand, goes nearly unnoticed.

Well, except in the Latino political community, where powerlessness is discussed with frustration and dismay. Latinos have found places on appointed boards and commissions and remain active in nonprofit community improvement work, yet elective political influence appears beyond the community’s grasp.

Why would that be?

Part of the explanation lies in the way council districts were drawn after the last census. Two of the city’s six council districts were created to provide as much opportunity for African American candidates as possible.

But an attempt to draw a district that was likely to put a Hispanic candidate on the City Council fell short. That means Latino candidates have largely had to compete citywide, a difficult challenge for any minority group in Kansas City.

The new mayor and council will craft district maps after the 2020 census. There will be an intense discussion about creating more opportunities for Latino candidates, including district lines that enhance voting power on the west side and along Independence Avenue. That might include a new plan establishing nine in-district seats, instead of six.

Broadly, though, Latino leaders say poorly-drawn districts are just a part of the problem. Latinos, like all voters, have different views and interests. They live in neighborhoods across the city.

That diffusion has left the Latino community divided on candidates, issues and approach, I’m told. Fighting and disagreement. Problems with fundraising. A lack of consensus on strategy and message. A divided minority community almost always suffers at the polls.

Kansas City’s Latino leaders recognize the problem. They are worried about the lack of a voice at City Hall: African Americans fought to ensure inclusion on the Kansas City International Airport terminal project, for example, while Latino input was less visible.

For the record, everyone should be concerned. A strong Latino voice would bring needed perspective to an increasingly diverse community, particularly when immigration and assimilation are critical national issues.

In June, Kansas City voters will elect the next mayor: an African American man or an openly gay woman. Both represent progressive inclusiveness in local politics.

But there has never been a Latino mayor in Kansas City, and there hasn’t been a Latino council member in a long time. After the June election, the community must begin work to change that in 2023.

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