LAS VEGAS — It’s 7:30 a.m. and Lucy Flores is already sweating through her blouse.
Her special burden is being young, telegenic and Latina in a critical presidential battleground that may be decided by Latino voters.
These circumstances have transformed her into an intensely sought-after surrogate for President Obama and other Democrats.
A few days before, Obama’s campaign had her in Florida debating a couple of balding Republicans on Univision. The next day, the team would send her to New York to talk up her use of social media, then fly her back to Nevada in time to introduce Interior Secretary Ken Salazar at a campaign stop.
A freshman member of the Nevada state assembly, Flores, 33, put herself in the hospital campaigning in the desert heat this summer and now, as Election Day approaches, she remains surprised that showing up when she says she will and doing whatever she is asked are in such high demand in politics.
“Most people know if I say I’m going to help in some way, I actually do it, which apparently is some sort of commodity,” she said. And so the phone keeps ringing.
There are 1,453 Latino elected officials representing millions of Latino voters in 13 states that will be key to the outcome of Tuesday’s election. They are school board members, mayors and state assembly members like Flores, according to an analysis of a database updated annually by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
The hours they put in, and the stories they tell, could be crucial to the ground game in key districts from Denver to Miami-Dade. Those efforts could be particularly critical in the race for president. Latino registered voters are leaning toward Obama by a margin of more than 3 to 1, according to the latest survey from the Pew Hispanic Center. But Latinos have lagged at the polls in the past. Although about 65 percent of eligible black voters and white voters cast ballots in 2008, according to Pew, just half of Latinos did so.
Flores was elected to the legislature in 2010 from a poor district centered in northeast Las Vegas, far from the glitz of the Strip. Her success has rested in part on the strength of a story of hardship and redemption that bestows a certain credibility among her constituents.
The story is now well-honed into an inspirational elevator pitch: She was abandoned by her mother when she was 9, and her father’s multiple jobs left her to care for her younger siblings. She turned to local gang members for support, was arrested driving a stolen car, and spent months in juvenile detention before finding guidance in a caring parole officer.
She dropped out of high school, bounced back to get her GED, was accepted at the University of Southern California, and graduated law school in Nevada the year she was elected to the legislature.
Her experiences then have sharpened her politics now.
“It’s about being able to identify with struggle, in whatever form, shape, way that that might be,” she said.
Nevada has led the nation in unemployment for more than two years, as the service and construction industries cratered. In September, the jobless rate was 11.8 percent. “The Latino community has been disproportionately affected by the recession because of the disproportionate representation of the Latino community in low-skilled jobs,” Flores said.
Obama is the better advocate for job retraining and educational opportunities that can change that picture, she said.
“When you think of folks like Mitt Romney, it’s not political rhetoric to say, ‘You have never experienced hunger. You have never experienced not having someone to watch your child so that you can go look for a job,’ ” Flores said. “He would want to run this country for the people who are like him.”
Flores’s Twitter bio reads, “Attorney by day, legislator by every other waking moment.” She dominated the primary and will face no opponent Tuesday, leaving her time for plenty of TV appearances and campaign-office openings.
On the shelf of her law office was a photo with Obama beside four hefty volumes of the “Statutes of Nevada.” There was a purple yoga mat, USC Trojans flair, a plastic ficus tree, and, in her e-mail box, a document headlined: “Assemblywoman Flores’ Talking Points.”
She was prepping for a noontime news conference for Rep. Shelley Berkley, who is seeking to replace Republican Sen. Dean Heller. Polling shows that Nevada’s Latino voters are less enthusiastic about Berkley’s candidacy than they are about Obama’s, which is where Flores comes in.
One of the first lessons of being a surrogate, Flores says: “Sometimes you have really great writers, and sometimes you don’t.” So she’s tweaking talking points. The ghostwriter would have her say that Berkley is on the side of the middle class. But that seems a little flat to Flores.
“ ‘Who’s on your side?’ ” she said. “That resonates more with people in my district.”
Flores also plugged words into WordReference.com to prime her brain with Spanish subtleties. “I wouldn’t translate pundit to Spanish. I’d say media,” she said.
Back in her law office, Flores was coordinating by phone another Nevada visit by an Obama Cabinet member, this time Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis.
“Just let me know exactly what you want me to do, and I’ll do it and I’ll keep it as short as you want me to,” she said before hanging up.
During a long day immersed in the radiant smiles, earnest glances and other mechanics of campaigning across Clark County, Flores would occasionally tear up while recalling her past. Her mother’s decision to leave the family figures prominently. “For a long time I didn’t want to have children, because I was so deathly afraid that I wouldn’t want those kids, either,” Flores said.
Her reaction was rebellion. Her most serious trouble with the law began with a beer run. She was 14 or 15, and “beer run” to her and her friends in a local gang meant go grab some beer at a store and run.
On this run, she drove a stolen car and when police spotted her, she took off. She eventually left the car on a darkened ranch property and gashed her nose on a fence before hiding out under an old trailer home, she recalled. Officers hunted her down.
“I remember a really heavy police officer jumping on me and cuffing me and then turning me over and realizing I was this small child, a small little girl. And he was, like, shocked, and so of course he immediately laid off of me,” Flores said.
She was detained for about nine months at the Caliente Youth Center north of Las Vegas, she said.
Asked to explain how she escaped being caught on the other side of the law, she responds: sheer luck.
Flores never had a gun or drugs with her when police arrested her, but she easily could have, she said. She now knows state law and the system, and the sentencing “enhancements” she could have faced.
“To a certain extent, my purpose in life is to ensure it’s not about luck for as many people as possible,” she said.
Flores had a crucial assist from her parole officer, Leslie Camp. At the time, Camp hung a tiny pair of golden handcuffs on her necklace as a reminder to Lucy and her other clients of where they might return.
“I just straight out told her, ‘You’re a good kid. I don’t know what your issues are. You’re a good kid trapped in a bad kid’s body,’ ” Camp said. “She had a good heart. She wasn’t really criminal-minded.”
Flores changed her life, and Camp has been impressed with her political work ethic. Still, Flores is wrong about Romney, said Camp, who has contributed to the Republican’s campaign and sports one of his stickers on her bumper. The former Massachusetts governor has had his struggles, including a wife with multiple sclerosis, and has proved uncommonly generous among fellow politicians, she said.
“I think he’s a good man. I think he would watch out for the less fortunate. And I think his charitable giving is an indicator of that,” Camp said.
Flores said she and Camp rarely discuss politics. “That’s probably why,” she said, laughing. “A lot of people probably agree with her sentiment. I do not.”
At the end of a long day, Flores’s schedule includes a house party and fundraiser for Steven Horsford, a fellow Democrat from the state legislature who is running for Congress and shares painful family roots with Flores. His mother was pregnant at 16 and later turned to drugs, and his father was fatally shot.
“We understand what needs to be done because we’ve been there,” Horsford said. “Lucy does this very well. We don’t hide our backgrounds.”
In her Mazda headed back across town, Flores acknowledged the difficulty of energizing her community, given the severe economic struggles many face.
“That is dangerous for us because it depresses turnout,” she said. “If you’re about to lose your home or you just got laid off or you’re on perpetual unemployment and you’ve been searching for a job high and low and left and right and you still haven’t been able to find anything, I understand, you know, it’s hard to get excited.”
But she also believes that what she has been doing all day means something. “It takes more energy, it takes persistence, it takes being out there as often as possible,” she said. “But it can be done. It absolutely can be done.”