Texas native Chuck Rocha knows a lot about how to reach Latino voters.
The former senior adviser for Bernie Sanders' 2020 campaign was pivotal in helping garner an unexpected amount of Latino support. That success has lead to him being seen within the political world as an expert in engaging Latino voters.
Rocha said his politics are entangled with his identity. His upbringing in the Lone Star state paved the way for his success in Latino outreach strategies.
He grew up in a mobile home on a 30-acre farm near Tyler, Texas. Rocha calls himself a “Mexican Redneck.”
“I thought I was such a unique story ... this ... big brown man who sounds like an old white man when I speak, and I wear my cowboy hat and belt buckle and my boots,” Rocha said. “But in an ocean of unique stories. We’re (Latinos) all so different.”
He didn’t have many Latinos around him growing up so he relied on his abuelita to learn about his Latinidad. He has fond memories of her food.
“You couldn’t walk into her house without your nose burning just a little bit because she had this rock bulk on a molcajete,” Rocha said. “She would make the peppers and she would grind them up and make salsa everyday.”
Rocha’s Mexican father left his white mother when he was 5 years old. They reconnected in his late teens and formed a bond when he became involved in a labor union while working in a factory with his father. Rocha became a union steward, which was one of his first entryways into political organizing.
In his new book, “Tío Bernie: The Inside Story of How Bernie Sanders Brought Latinos Into the Political Revolution,” Rocha shares how he engaged Latinos and tips on what future political campaigns do to mirror that success.
In his book he writes: “There’s whole generation of young Latinos, who have come of age, graduated college, and are raising families. They lived through the pandemic and were worried about their mothers or their jobs and now have lived in this racial strife and police brutality. It really brings to light what the revolution was about.”
Tip 1: Invest In Latinos By Making A Connection
While Rocha has worked for Democrats most of his political career, he said he doesn’t think the party’s ever done enough to reach Latino voters in Texas.
“The problem with Latinos in Texas, and the reason they are overwhelmingly more Republican than they are in other states, is because the Democratic party has not spent any money investing in that community to tell them what the Democrats stand for,” Rocha said.
According to the Pew Research, Latinos are projected to make up 30% of eligible voters in Texas this election, but in Rocha’s eyes no party should expect the Latino vote without investing real money to reach them.
“When you say to me, 'Why don’t Latinos vote at the same level as white people?' I say don’t expect us to show up at the same rate when you give us pitons,” Rocha said.
Rocha’s deep understanding of the Latino culture is what made his outreach strategies so successful for Bernie Sanders. Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, a political scientist and professor at The University of Texas’ LBJ school of Public Affairs, said political operatives should take note.
“He said, 'Let’s create generous approaches' rather than trying to shoehorn in campaign strategies that have worked for other populations, and then we kind of just repackage it and pump it out to the Latinos,” said DeFrancesco Soto.
The Sanders campaign’s first political ad geared toward Latinos made an authentic connection with Latino voters by focusing on the immigrant story. It started with Sanders talking about how his family got to America: “My father came to this country from Poland at the age of 17 — worked every day of his life. I grew up in Brooklyn. Many of the families are immigrants...” the ad said.
Rocha said this helped break barriers.
“To build some commonality between you and an old Jewish Democratic socialist from Vermont, and say, look, I don’t look like you but I come from the same place you come from and let’s have a conversation about how to make America better,” said Rocha.
Tip 2: Hiring Latino Campaign Staffers
The Sanders team hired over 200 Latinos — which Rocha said was more than any other presidential campaign during primary season.
“I hired the campaign manager. I decided where the budget was going to be spent. I was the person in the chair," Rocha said. "So guess what never got cut? The Latino budget never got cut.”
Rocha emphasizes that if you’re looking to reach Latinos who you hire matters. He created the political consulting firm called Solidarity Strategies, which he describes as a place where people of color can own their identity and make their mark in Washington, D.C. He’s mentored many Latinos over the 30-plus years he’s been working in politics.
“If you’ve talked to Chuck, you’ll know there’s not a lot of representation in upper management and senior management for campaigns,” said David Sanchez, a Chicano from the Rio Grande Valley, one of the young Latinos Rocha’s helped get involved in politics.
Sanchez also runs a political consulting firm called Our Poder that helps Democratic campaigns reach Latino voters. He first got involved in politics at The University of North Texas and worked with Rocha during Sanders' first presidential run.
Sanchez says presidential hopeful Joe Biden’s campaign has hired some Latinos, which he sees as a smart move.
“Whenever I started looking at their campaign infrastructure you start looking at lot of like people like Cristóbal Alex, who’s from El Paso. Jackie Uresti..The state director for Biden is Latina,” Sanchez said. “I would say those kinds of things very few jobs get to go to Latinos.”
Chuck Rocha believes, going forward in Texas, campaigns will need to do an even better job of this.
Tip 3: Focus On Younger Voters
Speaking directly to young voters, especially Latino voters, is a theme Sanders hammered during his presidential run. In March, exit polls showed Sanders receiving 70% of Latino voters under the age of 30, and about half of Latino voters over all.
“We know that because we are a disproportionately young population that reaching the youth is very important," said DeFrancesco Soto. "You want to reach all young folks, but when it comes to the Latino population this is really where it is at.”
Rocha said that if Democrats hope to turn Texas blue or Republicans want to keep it red, the goal is to get to young voters before the other guy does.
“There’s nobody talking to a newly registered Latina in San Antonio..." Rocha said. "She feels strongly about Black Lives Matter, but there is no person making that connection with the movement and the party.”
Right now, he doesn't think anyone is really inspiring Latino voters. Not Donald Trump. Not Joe Biden.
Next election cycle, Rocha says, campaigns can't settle for the bare minimum.
This story is part of a series called “Unlocking the Latino Vote.” See more stories from the series and get election news from around the state at TXdecides.org.
Got a tip? Alejandra Martinez is a Report For America corps member and writes about the economic impact of COVID-19 on marginalized communities for KERA News. Email Alejandra at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow Alejandra on Twitter @_martinez_ale.
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