A Conversation with Juan Sepulveda

Juan Sepulveda speaking on education reform. 

Following a flurry of immigration reform, from Pennsylvania’s Voter ID Bill to Arizona’s highly-publicized SB 1070, one of this past election’s big talking points has been the treatment of Latino Americans. Getting the opportunity to speak with Juan Sepulveda, the Democratic National Committee’s Senior Advisor for Hispanic Affairs, offers many insights into the state of affairs for Latino Americans, from education reform to the problem with Mitt Romney.

two.one.five magazine: How did you get your start in politics?

Juan Sepulveda: I was very fortunate. My first jump into politics was when I was sixteen year old. I grew up in Kansas and there was a young guy who was the Secretary of State of Kansas. His name was Jack Brier. He was in his early thirties, and really gave me a break, and for the the first time in the office’s history, hired someone who was in high school. He had always had graduate students and political science [majors]. We had met each other and he liked me. He didn’t know I was at high school at the time… He brought me in during the summer to interview for a job. [Year later] he told me that they had lied to me, because he told all his folks: ‘I met this Mexican kid, and he seems interesting. I want to give him a chance.’ And they said, “Well Jack he’s in high school.” And he said, “I don’t care. Let’s just lie to him and tell him we’ve got part-time work for him.” After a month they told me that they had full-time work, and I ended up working full-time for him when I was a sophomore in high school. I spent about five summers after that working in state politics with him, and his re-election campaign, and stepping in for him as a surrogate, and traveling all around the state. He really just took me under his wing and kind of showed me around the political world.

two.one.five: Where did your career go from there?

JS: I was very interested in politics… so when I got to college that’s what I ended up studying. I was very fortunate — I was the first one to go to college in my family — I ended up going to Harvard, which was great, and got introduced to a lot of the political stuff there. [I studied] in Cambridge, at the Institute of Politics, and in the Kennedy School at Harvard, there was just a lot of stuff going on around the campus… I kind of jumped into it there and met someone who was a Fellow at the Institute of Politics. He was the first Latino Fellow at the Institute of Politics, a man named Willie Velasquez, from San Antonio, Texas. He was the founder of the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project, which was a national nonprofit looking to get more Latinos involved, getting more registered to vote, running for office, getting elected to office, and litigation on the voting rights lawsuit side as well. So from Jack [Brier] I got introduced to the inside of politics in high school, and then with Willie [Velasquez] I got introduced to the community organizing approach. So those were my first two big jumps.

two.one.five: What is the single most important issue facing the Latino American communities within Philadelphia?

JS: I think the polling that we did internally in the campaign, and then also that was done externally in a lot of the battleground states… what we found was that the with top four issues for Latinos, jobs and the economy was by far the number one issues, and then you had education, and you had health care, and even immigration as a fourth issue. Now, what was interesting to us was that whether it was Philadelphia, Central Florida, New York City… places where the larger number of Hispanics and Latinos are not like the rest of the country — where the biggest percentage of Hispanics in the country are Mexican-American, like I am, and we make up [over] 65 percent of the Latino population — the Puerto Rican numbers in particular are a lot larger. The reason I mention that is that we were surprised in places like Philadelphia that immigration, which we expected to be a really big issue in [places like] Denver or Las Vegas… it was still seen as a very big issue, particularly for the Puerto Rican community. And so we asked a little bit more, because sometimes people don’t realize this, but Puerto Ricans are citizens. And so there’s really not an immigration question for Puerto Ricans.

So it was interesting to us as we found out: ‘Why is this issue important to you?’ And this is where the language and the stances that were being taken, in particular on the Republican side, both on the state level and at the Presidential level with Governor Romney as the nominee… their stances were so harsh on the immigration side that for groups like Puerto Rican voters — who are not impacted in a day-to-day way, in term of their citizenship status… that they saw immigration not solely as an immigration issue, but as an anti-Hispanic issue. Once again, even though they knew that they had nothing to worry about because they were citizens, they knew that they had something to worry about when they were out of their communities, and it was like: “Well we don’t know if you’re Puerto Rican, or Mexican, or Cuban or whatever you are. You’re just one of those brown folks.” So they were experiencing discrimination. I would hear all these stories about people saying, “Go back to your country,” and [the Puerto Ricans] would say, “Well, I’m in it.” We didn’t realize that it had become a pan-Hispanic issue. We thought it was still going to be pretty specific to the subgroups, in particular to… Mexican Americans.

Those four issues, throughout the campaign and even post-election, continue to be at the top of the list.

two.one.five: Now that the election is over, what will the Republican party have to do to include Hispanic American voters?

JS: I think you’re starting to see them understand that they messed up. When you look at the exit polls that were done, and when you look at some of the polling that we had done… one of the most interesting statistics that we saw was around a very simple question: We asked Latino voters, “Does the Romney campaign care about the Latino community, or is it hostile to the Latino community?” And [we asked] the same thing President Obama. And the numbers were just off the charts.  We get 75% of the vote as a record level for President Obama and Latino support and it was pushing about that same amount of people who saw from President Obama, here’s someone who cares about us. And it was the complete opposite on the Romney side.  Even smaller. I think he ended up getting 23% of the Latino votes.  But on that question of “Does he care about us? Is he hostile towards us?,” you know, the people who thought Governor Romney cared about the Latino community was at 14%.  So everyone knows that when you’re not even seen as respecting or caring about the community you can’t even have a conversation about the issues because the community says “you’re in opposition to us.”  We’re not really sure why you see us as the  problem to all of these issues that are taking place in the country but that also reinforces that kind of pan-Latino identity… that there was a real basic level of respect and caring that wasn’t there and made it difficult to enter into any sort of content around the issue areas.

two.one.five: Which is something that I believe that Bush didn’t have as much trouble with.  I mean, Bush was much more respected…

JS:  Yeah, and when you think about it, it makes sense.  There are a couple of things that I think about the Bush piece, and I come from Texas and so in my adult life I’ve moved to Texas. So one thing about Governor Bush [that] I always tell people is one, he was a border governor so he understood immigration in a different way, and he was trying to make comprehensive immigration reform work. A lot of times we talk about in some of these issues you have unlikely allies, people who don’t seem to be the usual ones who would come to be with you on a particular issue. And there’s no doubt that the Republican party was seen as an unlikely ally.  Now in the end, he couldn’t get it done because a bigger chunk of the party said “we’re not going down that path,” and so he and Karl Rove were ahead of the game and the Latino community understood that. There’s a chunk of people that said, “Hey wow he’s actually trying to work this out, he’s open to a path to citizenship. This guy actually isn’t that bad.” Now, we may have disagreements with him on other issues and so he still wasn’t able to get 50% of the votes but he was able to get in the low 40’s.

I always tell people that the other thing to remember about the equation was Governor Bush said it was distinct to Governor Bush, which I didn’t really learn until I lived in Texas, is that if you’re outside of Texas — if you’re in Philadelphia — if you ever show an ad for Texas in Pennsylvania trying to get people to come to Texas, I always tell people what’s the tag line: ‘Texas: It’s a whole other country.’ And people forget that at one point Texas literally was a country. They had an embassy in Washington, DC when they were the Republic of Texas. And so that Texas identity is this really deep thing, and I so the other plus that George Bush has is that he is seen as a Texan.  And you know, you can argue about whether or not he really lived on the East coast and was only in Texas during the summers but the family had roots in  Texas and so there’s no doubt. People ask “so how did he get 40%?” Well, part of it was he was a more moderate republican who understood these issues in particular immigration. But there’s no doubt, [since] Texas is second only to California in terms of the largest hispanic population, for Texans the fact that he was a Texan outweighed whether or not he was a Democrat or Republican, whether he was Anglo or Mexican; it was just, “Oh he’s one of ours, a Texan.”  So I think that is unique, in spite of his numbers a little bit.  I think another republican governor, I mean it could be someone else who also took a similar stance in immigration will probably get into the 30’s but the bump into the 40’s you’re going to need a little something else.

two.one.five: In Pennsylvania, there’s been a big deal recently with the Voter ID Bill. Where do you stand on this?

JS:  This was an interesting one for us because we obviously were very worries, since it wasn’t just in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania was an example of 30-plus states that were looking at changing the rules. We made sure that our voter protection strategy — challenging a lot of those pieces in court… getting some court decisions that we liked. But then at the end of the day we had to move from litigation to our organizers’ hats, saying, “I may not like this, but I now know that these are the rules. And so I now have to go prepare for this and do the best I can.” The most interesting thing to us on the Voter ID side was that… in a number of the states where they did polling of the Latino communities, and also with the African American communities, particularly in the deep South, there were high levels of support for the Voter ID Bill. So obviously our next question was, “Why? What’s behind this?And what we found was this distrust of the system. And so what you heard from Latino voters and African American voters who heavily supported Voter ID was, “I’m OK with this, because if I show up with my ID, and there’s no way to deny that I am who I say I am, you cannot mess with my vote.” So there was this notion of “I don’t completely trust the system… but if I show it, there’s no way they can deny me.”

And the leaders [of these communities] were opposed to this. So within the communities you would find the leaders saying, “We have to be careful here. Let’s do everything to make sure that this [bill] doesn’t happen.” But the bulk of the voters were on board, because they thought it would protect their vote.

Now we respect people’s take on the Voter ID Bill… But we still are big believers that this is the opposite of where we are as a country, and that what we really want to do is to be making it easier for folks to have access to vote. One of my favorite data points that we used to talk about all the time during the campaign is that there were more documented cases in the past few years of people around the country saying, “I saw a UFO” than there was voter fraud. So, it was pretty obvious that this was an issue that was being created. It was an answer to a problem that didn’t exist.

And that’s where we were thinking, ‘It shouldn’t be like this.’ Pennsylvania shouldn’t be moving toward these Voter ID things when there really are almost no documented cases of voter fraud. And we know that the lasting legacy of these pieces is going to be to see the results [from the election] as they continue to trickle in, whether it hurt or helped in these states. And I think the unfortunate thing we’ve seen so far is that in most of the states where the voter stuff was put in, there was a lower turnout than four years.

two.one.five: In terms of education, what steps must the federal government take to improve education for the Hispanic communities?

JS: Before I came onto the campaign, I was running a White House office that was focused on education and the Latino community, so this is near-and-dear to my heart. So there’s a couple things. First, when I was going to different communities all across the country, one of the questions I would ask was, “For every single dollar of government funding for education in the United States… how much of that comes from the federal level?” And in Pennsylvania, like so many other places, I would get answers like “75 cents” or “80 cents.” And in the end, when I had to tell them that we were so proud in the Obama administration that we were the first administration to crack double digits — it was about a nickel for every dollar when we came in, and now its up to ten cents. And so the reality is that while we’re doing a lot more from the Obama side, at the end of the day the biggest chunk of money is coming from the state capitol of local districts. So to really have an impact on the funding side of education, our folks have got to organize at the local and state level. That’s just the reality of the numbers.

Given that, the question becomes, ‘what can we do from the federal level?’ And I think President Obama has made education a top issue. I’ll never forget when we were going around the country talking to community leaders, there was a dad in San Diego who said, “Do not tell us what you believe, and do no tell us what is most important to you. Do not tell us what you value. Show us your budgets, and we will tell you what you value.” And I remember thinking, “Wow, you are so right.”

When you look at Pell Grants, President Bush did not raise them a penny in his eight years as President. We have doubled the amount going out to folks; there are now more than 700,000 new Latinos going to college, because they’re getting a little bit of help from the government through Pell Grants. So the President sees the education piece as being tied to the economy, and he has always said since the beginning that those countries who out-educate us today will be outcompeting us tomorrow. This is how we stay a global economic power.

So one thing that the President has done is to challenge state and local communities to step it up in terms of education. So he created a program called ‘Race to the Top.’ And the whole thinking behind Race to the Top is, ‘We’re going to give you the streams of funding that we’ve been giving, but we’re going to put in a new ton of money. But not every state gets it. We want you to dream.’ We’re going to make the states compete with each other, and whoever puts forth the most innovative, creative approaches to the challenges we see in the education system, we’re going to invest in them, and allow them to try some different things. What we were hoping would happen, and ended up happening, was that a large number of the states that did not win… they changed the way they do business because they said, “We’re not going to do this anymore.”

We also have money for ‘Turnaround Schools.’ To go hand-in-hand with the Race to the Top, we also have money that’s going to go through the K-12 system. But we are going to allocate the money differently. We are going to give the money to the toughest schools in the state, because we don’t have unlimited dollars, and we think that the schools that are struggling the most are the ones that need to be turned around. Unfortunately, a lot of times those schools are in the Latino community. So we are going to put more money into the schools where people have given up on them, because they need more help.

And the President has invested a record amount of money into the community college system. So we’ve now put Race to the Top on the early childhood side, to K-12 Race to the Top, to K-12 Turnaround, to community colleges, and then also on the Hispanic side, giving 1 billion dollars to Hispanic serving institutions. That kind of cradle-to-career thinking is something that I feel proud to have been a part of, and is going to continue to be at the top of the agenda for the President.