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Latinas are making history by leading Utah’s legislative minority

Rep. Angela Romero and Sen. Luz Escamilla walk together for Escamilla’s nomination for mayor in the Glendale neighborhood of Salt Lake City on November 1, 2019. The two women were recently elected as minority leaders in the Utah House of Representatives and Senate. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s 65th Legislature will be a historic one, with Latinas holding both the minority leader positions in both the House of Representatives and the Senate for the first time in history.

Rep. Angela Romero is the first person of color and the second woman to serve as a minority leader in the Utah House. Sen. Luz Escamilla is the new Senate Minority Leader and was the first Latina elected to the Utah State Senate and the first immigrant elected to the Utah State Legislature. The Senate and House of Representatives each elected all-women minority leadership teams.

Both Romero and Escamilla have previously served in minority leadership and have more than two decades of legislative experience and a history of working together dating back to their days as students at the University of Utah.

“House and Senate Democrats, they elected us not just because we’re Latinas, but because we’re effective legislators, and that’s a very important role,” Escamilla said. “Because of our background, we are able to have a very unique perspective as we continue to discuss politics and make budgetary decisions that have long-term implications not only for our community but for the rest of the state.”

Romero was unavailable for comment but previously said she looks forward to taking the group forward.

“As Democrats, we have a vital role to play in standing up for working people and issues that affect our daily lives,” she said. “We will continue to advocate for good, data-driven policies that Utah residents want to enforce.”

Latino members of the state’s Democratic Party say the news is an exciting step in the political representation of Latinos in the state.

“How far have we come, from the old days when lobbyists and even co-legislators couldn’t keep names right among Latina lawmakers, to today,” said Ernie Gamonal, a longtime caucus member and political adviser. “These exemplary officers have earned their place in leadership and I expect them to do great things for all the people of Utah.”

Josie Valdez is a longtime player in Utah politics, whose career includes serving as first vice chair of the Democratic State Party’s Latina, running for lieutenant governor, and campaigning for her husband, Rep. Mark Wheatley. She said Romero and Escamilla’s elections to minority leadership reflect how Latinos’ involvement in politics has evolved over the years.

“We’ve been so busy getting representation over the years, period,” Valdez said. “Back then, that was the big thing: let’s get someone to vote.”

The members of the Latino states – namely Escamilla, Romero, Wheatley and Rep. Ashlee Matthews – were each re-elected. Valdez said that over time, these lawmakers have earned a reputation as experienced, professional, and reliable leaders. This is underpinned by a long list of accomplishments that Romero and Escamilla have amassed during their time in the legislature, including work to support survivors of sexual assault and missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

“It’s important that these Latina women, these leaders, are seen as leaders in the general community, not just (among) Latinos,” Valdez said. “The fact that they are Latinas is an improvement in their own professional skills. It’s a win for Latinas and a win for women, but it’s a win for the ability to lead. These women have that ability to lead, whether they are Latinas or women. This leadership ability has been recognized by their peers and will be recognized by the constituents they will serve.

Escamilla said she hoped her and Romero’s elections as minority leaders would open the door for additional representation.

“Hopefully it’s encouraging and sends a message in Utah that this is possible, right? It’s certainly a matter of representation,” Escamilla said. “If you’re representing families and communities in good public policy conversations, I think that’s important. And the more we have this diversity of cultural identities and different experiences, the richer and better our decisions and our policies are.”

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Sydnee Gonzalez is a multicultural reporter for KSL.com, covering the diversity of people and communities in Utah. Se habla espanol. You can find Sydnee at @sydnee_gonzalez on Twitter.

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