As the first Latina immigrants to run for Congress in Maryland, Democrats Ana Sol Gutiérrez and Joseline Peña-Melnyk are making history. But they also are struggling to mobilize Latino voters and donors in communities that have little experience with political campaigns at this level.
Both candidates are trying to leap from comfortable, longtime perches in the state legislature into larger and higher-stakes contests that white and African American voters historically have decided.
They know they must broaden their electoral appeal to do well, and they have discovered they can’t automatically count on Latino support.
“We are no longer a sleeping giant,” said Nestor Alvarenga, Latino outreach director for Montgomery County. “At the same time, we can’t take the Latino vote for granted, and we can’t just stay in a bubble. We have to reach out to all communities and work to be treated as part of something bigger.”
One recent evening in Hyattsville, Md., recruits from Casa in Action, the political arm of a nonprofit agency for Latino immigrants, spent several hours calling Latino registered voters and asking them in Spanish to support Peña-Melnyk and Gutiérrez.
Some people hung up. Some recruits stumbled over Peña-Melnyk’s hyphenated last name. Some voters said they had never heard of Gutiérrez.
“We’ve got to get our community involved in this election,” said David Montesinos, 73, a Bolivian immigrant and retired academic who was participating in his third political phone bank. “We’ve got to get more people voting, more people running. It just takes patience.”
The number of potential Latino voters is too small to be decisive in either of the crowded April 26 primary contests. According to an analysis by the firm GNP Van based on State Board of Elections data and additional indicators, slightly more than 31,000 Latino voters are registered in the 8th Congressional District, 19,000 of whom are Democrats, and 21,000 in the 4th Congressional District, including 13,000 Democrats (Gutiérrez is running in the 8th Congressional District, Peña-Melnyk in the 4th).
But Latino leaders hope each campaign will serve as a model of what is possible for relatively new immigrant populations with limited electoral rights and experience.
Gutiérrez and Peña-Melnyk are often described in similar shorthand: liberal Democrats who came to the United States as children, built careers and entered politics. But there are many differences between them, reflecting the enormous diversity that exists among Maryland’s half-million Hispanics.
Gutiérrez, 74, a state delegate from Montgomery County, was born in El Salvador, the privileged daughter of diplomats. Her family immigrated to the United States in the 1940s, and she grew up in Chevy Chase, Md., far from the violence and civil war that later engulfed her homeland. She earned degrees in chemistry and technology management, worked in the Clinton administration and served for eight years on the Montgomery school board.
Her political base is the flood of Salvadorans who fled the war as refugees and illegal immigrants and settled in suburban Maryland. On their behalf, she has pushed for driver’s licenses and deportation relief for undocumented immigrants as well as better-quality public education.
The 8th Congressional District, which includes parts of rural Frederick and Carroll counties, is only 18 percent Latino, and Gutiérrez is trailing her better-funded rivals, according to the few polls that have been done in the nine-person race to fill the seat being vacated by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D). But she believes the anti-immigrant rhetoric of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump will galvanize her supporters.
Salvadoran Americans “are coming of age,” she said. “I can’t have ads on every station and channel. But I am banking on the Latino vote.”
Peña-Melnyk, 49, a Dominican-born state delegate from Prince George’s County, has made a stronger showing in the six-way race to succeed outgoing Rep. Donna F. Edwards (D) in the 4th Congressional District, which also includes parts of Anne Arundel County. Overall, African Americans constitute the district’s largest voter group, and Peña-Melnyk’s campaign has stressed her Caribbean heritage as well as her record on broader-interest issues.
Peña-Melnyk was raised by a single mother who worked in garment factories in New York City. She was the first member of her family to go to college. She met her husband, Markian Melnyk, in law school. He is of Ukrainian descent.
To become a state delegate in Prince George’s, Peña-Melnyk said, she had to win over her district’s dominant African American voting population as well as whites, while not neglecting Latino voters. She supported the Dream Act, which would grant in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants, and was a co-founder of the Maryland Legislative Latino Caucus. But she also championed gun control and a higher minimum wage.
In the congressional race, Peña-Melnyk has courted Latino voters with Spanish-language radio appearances and a YouTube video. At the same time, she has cast a wide campaign net, from Muslim American teas in Bowie to African American churches in Fort Washington. When asked about her ethnicity, she politely insists on the description “Afro Latina.”
“Latinos are only a tiny percent of my district, and I won with the black and white vote,” Peña-Melnyk said, referring to her three delegate races.
“I look black, because I am, and some people didn’t think I was Latina enough,” she said with a laugh. “I want to relate to everyone, because we all have the same needs.”
Another Latina — Severna Park lawyer Yuripzy Morgan, 32, a U.S.-born woman with Salvadoran roots — is one of five Republicans vying for the nomination to challenge Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger in the 2nd Congressional District, which includes parts of Baltimore City and four counties. Morgan, the daughter of a war refugee and a graduate of the University of Maryland law school in 2014, has no political experience.)
Gutiérrez and Peña-Melnyk have been endorsed by numerous Latino groups and leaders, including Casa, but rejected by others, an issue that has caused some resentment.
Peña-Melnyk has strong ties with Dominican American groups and an enthusiastic fan club of younger Latina politicians. “She is the embodiment of the legislator I aspire to be every day,” said Del. Maricé I. Morales (D), 28, a first-term lawmaker who was born in Peru. “Her identity as an attorney and an immigrant just oozes out.”
The Latino Democratic Club of Montgomery County endorsed state Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D), another progressive, instead of Gutiérrez, after what club members described as a difficult but sincere debate. Several said they admired Gutiérrez but thought Raskin was better qualified for Congress.
“An election is not about making history. It is about voting for the person who you think will do the best job,” said Julio Cerón, a club officer. “I commend Ana Sol for her tireless efforts on behalf of Latinos, but Raskin is my state senator, and he has a wealth of experience. We need someone with a proven track record who can continue that in a deadlocked Congress that is in Republican hands.”
Gutiérrez’s highest-profile supporter is Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), a leading member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who drew an enthusiastic crowd at a fundraiser for her at a Rockville restaurant in March. In an interview later, he said Latinos in Maryland “know her and respect her and are really excited about the possibility of her coming to Congress — and so am I.”
But even that well-attended event did not raise more than a few thousand dollars, and the hosts said they were disappointed by the poor response from the area’s thriving Central American business community, which includes insurance agencies, supermarkets, cleaning services, restaurants and real estate firms.
Abel Nuñez, executive director of the Central American Resource Center in the District, said many Latino immigrants are still unsure where they fit in political life.
“Our community is young, and our generation is the first to exercise its political rights,” Nuñez said. “But just to have two Latinas running for office in areas with multiple constituencies bodes well for the future. It lays the groundwork. It educates the community. It is amazing.”