A newly drawn legislative district in Prince George’s County is more than 60 percent Hispanic — thefirst and only majority-Latino district in Maryland — and was billed as a prime chance to increase the number of Latino lawmakers in Annapolis.
But that opportunity has spawned a bitter legal battle over whether a young woman named Natalie Cabrera is eligible to run in the Democratic Party primary against William A. Campos, a seasoned County Council member with deep ties to the political establishment.
Cabrera, 32, made some missteps when filing with the county Board of Elections just 49 minutes before the 9 p.m. deadline Feb. 25: She listed her father’s church as her residence, even though she did not move into a duplex on the property until weeks later; and she filed as a Democrat even though she had registered to vote years earlier as a Republican (she switched parties two days after filing her candidacy papers).
As a result, she has been kicked off the ballot, a decision she is appealing to the state’s highest court, which is scheduled to hear the case Wednesday.
Cabrera’s supporters — including her father, the Rev. Carlos Cabrera, pastor of the 600-
member Tabernaculo de la Fe — blame Campos and his political allies for her difficulties. They point out that the lawsuit outing Cabrera as a registered Republican was filed by a former county employee who describes herself as a supporter of both Campos and his political mentor, state Sen. Victor R. Ramirez (D-Prince George’s).
Carlos Cabrera said he received a call from Ramirez before his daughter was disqualified, offering her a job if she withdrew her candidacy. Days later, county inspectors showed up at the church and issued zoning citations. They were tipped off by a inquiry about Cabrera’s filing address, officials said.
Ramirez denied making the alleged phone call, and both he and Campos said they had no role in questioning Natalie Cabrera’s candidacy. But Carlos Cabrera said his daughter is paying a price for challenging the county’s Latino power structure — an important lesson, he said, for a new generation of leaders who must decide how to work with, or against, the generation that came before them.
“There have been political repercussions that are directly tied to her decision,” Carlos Cabrera said. “We believe that if it were not for her candidacy against Mr. Campos, we would have never been visited by county inspectors.”
Ramirez, who was elected to the state Senate in 2010, is the first Latino to serve in that chamber. He represents District 47, which until the end of this year is also represented by three members of the House of Delegates: Democrats Jolene Ivey, who is running for lieutenant governor this year, Michael G. Summers and Doyle L. Niemann.
A 2012 redistricting split 47 into two sub-districts to reflect the area’s changing demographics. Starting this year, voters in 47A, where most residents are black, will elect two delegates, and the smaller, majority-Latino 47B will elect a delegate of its own. Unless Cabrera succeeds in her appeal, that lawmaker will almost certainly be Campos, now the only candidate on the ballot.
The neighborhoods of the single-member district include a busy stretch of University Boulevard lined with pupuserias, cash-transfer shops and storefronts offering immigration services. The area has sparkling new housing near the once-neglected Prince George’s Plaza Metro station in West Hyattsville and clusters of old homes in Adelphi and Lewisdale.
The district borders Montgomery County, and the proposed Purple Line would run right through it, bringing both the promise of redevelopment and fear of displacement.
Under the rules of Maryland politics, state senators can assemble teams of candidates to run as a bloc for the state House and Senate seats in their districts. Ramirez is backing Campos, the first Latino on the County Council, who because of term limits could not seek reelection. In 47A, Ramirez is backing Summers and Diana Fennell, a Colmar Manor civic activist and former mayor.
Niemann, who ran on a team other than Ramirez’s in 2010, chose not to run in the redrawn 47th District. Instead, he set his sights on a County Council seat, the one that Campos must vacate.
And Niemann encouraged Natalie Cabrera to run against Campos in the 47B delegate’s race. During a community meeting that included Hispanic church leaders, she “was identified as someone who was interested in running,” Niemann said. He said the church leaders “were unhappy” with Campos and “did not want him to be handed the office on a platter.”
Natalie Cabrera’s parents immigrated to this country from El Salvador, and like Campos, she was the first in her family to graduate from college. She is married with an infant daughter, and she taught Spanish in Montgomery County public schools before taking a job at her father’s church. She said she wants to run on a platform of creating more youth intervention programs and to work with law enforcement to help immigrant women report domestic abuse.
“I’m a woman of integrity who cares and loves the community,” she said. “If the constituents have more options, what can be wrong about that?”
Preston Munguia, a spokesman for a group of Hispanic church leaders, said Natalie Cabrera is known throughout the district because of her ministry with her father’s church and would bring new energy and ideas to the State House in Annapolis.
“They have done a lot with the community, but it’s not enough for them to represent us again,” Munguia said of Campos and Ramirez. “We want to bring in fresh people.”
Natalie Cabrera was reluctant to discuss Campos or Ramirez. She said she did not want to bring any negative attention to herself or her church.
She did not offer a clear explanation for her decision to register as a Republican at age 18, but she said her values now are better aligned with the Democrats. She switched her party affiliation before her candidacy was challenged. As for the address discrepancy, she said she had always planned to move to church property by mid-March.
“I was naive,” she said.
Adelphi resident Cecilia Penate used to work for the county school system as a parent liaison to the Hispanic community. She votes regularly and has supported Campos and Ramirez in past elections.
In early March, she filed a lawsuit challenging Cabrera’s candidacy because of her party affiliation and filing address.
Her attorney is Bruce Marcus, one of the county’s top litigators and a former special counsel to the County Council. He and Penate declined to say how she learned about the discrepancies in Cabrera’s filing.
Circuit Court Judge Leo E. Green Jr. ruled that the address issue did not disqualify Cabrera — because she relocated within the allowable time — but that her party affiliation did. Cabrera’s attorney argued that the language describing deadlines for changing party affiliation is unclear, and Cabrera has asked the Maryland Court of Appeals to overturn the decision.
The address investigation triggered a visit to the church complex by county inspectors, who found many zoning “irregularities,” said an agency spokeswoman. The inspectors briefly shut down the sanctuary, an unusual move, according to Carlos Cabrera. Niemann said “it seems more than coincidental” that the shutdown coincided with the lawsuit challenging Natalie Cabrera’s candidacy.
For his part, Campos said he had nothing to do with the inspections and was genuinely disappointed at Cabrera’s disqualification.
“She seemed like a very good candidate,” Campos said. He added that he is proud to see more Hispanics running for office. In fact, he is actively supporting County Council candidate Deni Taveras, a Dominican American who used to work for Ramirez and is running against Niemann for the council seat.
Taveras, 41, said it’s important for Hispanics interested in public office to connect with the few leaders who have blazed the trail. Running outside the establishment, she said, can be “unwise and amateurish.”
“Anyone has the right to run,” she said. “But you also have to know how to work within the system. Because if you don’t, how effective are you going to be? You want to see how they can assist you.”