Roughly 3 million people live in San Diego County, and nearly 900,000 of them are Latino—and exactly 12 of them are Latinos who currently occupy elected legislative office. That amounts to 12 percent of the 98 lawmakers in a county where, as of 2006, 30 percent of the residents were Latino. Four of those 12 serve in one place, National City, and another four serve in two others, Oceanside and Chula Vista. There are no Latinos serving as legislators in Carlsbad, Coronado, Del Mar, Encinitas, Escondido, Imperial Beach, Lemon Grove, Poway, San Marcos, Santee or Solana Beach, even though upwards of 123,000 Latinos live in those cities.Lorena Gonzalez, a Latina who heads the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council and ran unsuccessfully for San Diego City Council in 2005, was surprised to learn that the number of local Latino legislators was as high as 12 percent. “That's higher than I thought it would be,” she said.Gonzalez said the issue, particularly in North County cities, is twofold: Unlike in San Diego, some cities still elect lawmakers citywide, rather than district-by-district, so the Latino vote is diluted, and many Latinos are here illegally and aren't eligible to participate in elections.The result in the county's north-central area is a large Latino population with almost no lawmaking power. More than 44 percent of the people who live in Escondido, where the City Council has drawn national headlines for its hostility toward illegal immigrants, are Latino. In Vista, whose City Council has also tried to clamp down on undocumented immigrants, Latinos account for more than 43 percent of the population. In nearby San Marcos, that figure is higher than 37 percent. In those three cities combined, only one lawmaker is Latino: Vista Mayor Pro Tem Frank Lopez.Gonzalez has high hopes for Olga Diaz, a coffeehouse owner who ran unsuccessfully for Escondido City Council in 2006 and will try again in 2008.In an e-mail to CityBeat, Diaz, 32, the U.S.-born daughter of legal immigrants, appeared weary of the politics of ethnicity and said she'd prefer it to be all about merit.“I admit that Escondido has a racial charge in the air—and I'm either in the right or wrong place for this election cycle,” she said. “With lots of work and a little luck, winning the election in November will clear the air for folks who worry about what it might mean to have a Latina on the council—instead they can think about the prospects of having a young, educated, hard-working, articulate representative working for everyone in Escondido.”The other high concentration of Latinos in San Diego County is in the South Bay. Chula Vista is roughly 55 percent Latino. That number is about 60 percent in National City and approximately 40 percent in Imperial Beach. More than 27 percent of San Diegans are Latino, and many of them live in the city's southeast area, which is also considered part of the South Bay. Gonzalez believes the downfall of the Inzunza political family—brothers Ralph and Nick—hindered Latinos in the South Bay. Ralph Inzunza was a member of the San Diego City Council and had thoughts of running for the county Board of Supervisors until 2005, when he resigned from office after being indicted—and later convicted—on charges of essentially trading favors for campaign contributions. Nick Inzunza was mayor of National City and had begun a campaign for state Assembly when a 2005 Union-Tribune investigation revealed him to be something of a slumlord, ending his political career.“If you look back a few years ago,” Gonzalez said, “you had a higher percentage of Latino representation in those cities, largely because you had an infrastructure that was recruiting candidates, that was working with candidates, helping candidates get elected, and that got totally wiped out, and so it's kind of like starting from scratch.”Humberto Peraza, Congressmember Bob Filner's district chief of staff, agrees. “Say what you want about the Inzunzas—they did a pretty amazing job of recruiting and helping candidates to run,” Peraza said. “Now that they're gone, you see a huge vacuum that was left.”Elected officials are in the best position to recruit and mentor candidates—Latino or otherwise, Peraza said. They can help raise money, name recruits to boards and commissions and, perhaps most importantly, hire them as legislative aides so they can watch the political process up-close-and-personal and get in on the relationships, with everyone from neighborhood leaders to donors, that the elected officials have established—“and in the South Bay and other places,” Peraza said, “that just has not happened.“Sometimes what you have is elected officials, for good or bad, who are more interested in their own thing rather than helping others. Sometimes you'll see elected officials not wanting to recruit or really, really help because they're afraid [a recruit] might run against them.”Before he left the scene, Ralph Inzunza mentored Ben Hueso well enough to get him elected to Inzunza's District 8 City Council seat, which represents an area that includes San Ysidro, Barrio Logan and Logan Heights. And Hueso is perhaps an exception to what Peraza sees—Gonzalez mentioned a pair of Hueso's current staffers as potential up-and-coming Latino leaders: Alonso Gonzalez, who serves Hueso in the latter's role as a member of the state Coastal Commission and is on the board of the League of Conservation Voters San Diego, and Raquel Vasquez.Gonzalez also named Peraza, who was urged recently to run for Chula Vista City Council. But Peraza isn't sure he wants elected office. When you're young and enthusiastic about public service, he said, you're not a good candidate yet, and by the time you've learned the ropes, chances are you've established a family life. Peraza, 34, has a wife who's far outside the political realm and two young children. He also sounds somewhat disillusioned about what candidates and public officials have to go through. Enemies aren't satisfied with beating you, he said—sometimes it seems they're bent on total destruction.That's perhaps why many Latinos choose a different path. “One of the reasons there's a lack of really substantive Latino leadership in this city and in many other cities around the country,” said San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Ruben Navarrette Jr., “is because there are many other competing industries for talented people, and if they're very bright people who go into business for themselves or work for corporations or go into medicine or law, they're not going into politics.”Another up-and-comer Gonzalez mentioned is Albert Velasquez, a vice chair for the county Democratic Party and a community organizer for Service Employees International Union Local 1877, which represents workers such as commercial janitors, ushers and ticket-takers. In his role for the Democrats, Gonzalez is involved in party-building and recruitment in the South Bay. The campaign isn't necessarily targeting Latinos, but with such a high concentration of Latinos in the area, they'd naturally be a big part of it. In the past, the Democrats haven't done a terribly good job at developing a foundation. “For a long time, there were areas where the party had kind of let nature take its course and hasn't really integrated itself in the community,” Velasquez said, but with a little bit of attention and mentoring, community organizers can be turned into school-board candidates, for example.“These are long-term investments,” he said. “When you look at politics and when you look at elections, people tend to think of short-term gains. It's kind of analogous to an investor in the stock market. You have these day traders that just look for short-term gain, and then you have people that take the long view. In terms of political recruitment and political outreach, it definitely is a long-view-type investment, because you're spending time and building relationships in the community.”But do you have to be a Latino to adequately represent Latino constituents? The U-T's Navarrette says no. “I think Latinos can be represented by non-Latinos, and I also think the inverse is true—that Latinos should aspire to represent non-Latinos,” he said. “My concern is that we typically have thought about Latino leadership limited to Barrio Logan and not thought about electing Latinos from P.B. or from La Jolla or from wherever.” Gonzalez agrees. What's important, she said, is “to have people who come from the communities which they're serving. It takes no explanation to talk to [District 4 San Diego City Councilmember] Tony Young or Ben Hueso about working-family issues—issues that they know their constituents face every day. They come from these neighborhoods [and] they understand the need to make a basic living, to try to afford to buy a house, to try to put food on the table and get by.”Young, an African-American, represents a district heavy in Latinos but where the black churches have done a better job of getting their candidates elected. “They have a great amount of influence, which is a testament to their organization and a testament of their methods of political communication and getting people mobilized,” Velasquez said. “My hat's off to them because they have a really good model of energizing their electorate and getting them out there to vote for candidates that they've supported.”However, he added, District 4 “is an area where there's a large Latino demographic that, if harnessed, could change the political dynamic….”But even though you don't have to be a Latino to represent Latinos, as many believe is the case with Young, there's much to be said for looking up at your leaders and seeing someone who looks and sounds like you and shares your cultural experience.People come to the United States not only to work, Velasquez said, but “there's also a sense of: You work hard, you play by the rules, you can share in the prosperity of the country. You can succeed and move up. It's the upward mobility,” and elected office is an example of that.“On a personal level, of course I want Latinos to succeed and be good role models,” Gonzalez added. “It's kind of the Obama factor, right? I look at my daughter, who's mixed-race, and her whole thing about Obama becoming president is: See, I really could grow up to be president.” Have you something to say about this story? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.