Opportunity in the 8th: Latinos welcome chance to pick a new representative in Northern Colorado
Greeley resident Stacy Suniga says she has always felt like she was living in a poorly drawn congressional district.
Until this year, Colorado’s 4th Congressional District stretched from Greeley all the way south to Castle Rock.
“It seemed gerrymandered,” she said as she walked around downtown Greeley in early December. “Who draws a map like that? What kind of interests do people who work here or live here, who work in the fields or work at a beef plant, have with the Castle Rock community, you know, a foothills community? There was nothing, you know?”
Suniga is a former Greeley City Council member who leads the Latino Coalition of Weld County. She says she started the group partly because it’s been hard for Latinos, including herself, to win political races here, even for local seats.
She says she’s been targeted by negative TV ads in non-partisan races and has had to condemn racist comments during elections.
“When we complain that we don’t have anybody on council that looks like us or on the school board, everybody is white, they say, ‘Well, you have the opportunities to run, people, you know, they just need to get out and run,’” Suniga said. “That's not true. You know, it's not the same opportunities because we get money thrown against us that we don't have. I don't know anybody who I could go to to get that kind of money to be able to run a clean race.”
Suniga says Ken Buck, her current congressperson, has not been representing her community’s interests as much as she’d like.
“He doesn't represent all the BIPOC community. He just doesn't, you know, he votes against things that can help people of color,” she said.
Her biggest complaint was how Buck handled last year’s COVID-19 outbreak at the JBS meatpacking plant in Greeley.
“We were as a group, protesting outside. And people were wearing one mask for like two weeks, you know, they wouldn't hand out fresh ones, still working shoulder to shoulder,” she said.
Buck joined other lawmakers from Colorado to keep the plant running during the pandemic. But Suniga says she and other residents pleaded for help to improve safety at the facility.
“And nobody, nobody, not the Weld County commissioners, not Ken Buck, not the City Council. Nobody paid any attention to that out there,” she said. “And so that's an example of why we want a representative that will see that and care about it and say something or try to do something.”
That’s why Suniga says she is excited to now live in the brand new 8th Congressional District, one that includes 38.9% Latino voters and already has two members of that community running to represent it.
Suniga sees it as a fresh start.
“I'm hopeful,” she said. “You know, I want to see more opportunities for all.”
And this opportunity comes as Colorado’s Latino population has increased to 22% of the state’s population over the last decade, with some of the biggest increases inside the 8th Congressional District.
Adams County, for example, added almost 60,000 Latino residents since the last census.
Meanwhile, they are starting to build a broader and more vocal political coalition.
That was on display this fall, when Metro State University in Denver hosted the first Latino Policy Agenda, an event called to reveal the results of a political survey of Latinos statewide.
“We started off with a basic question about policy priorities at the federal level,” MSU political science professor Rob Preuhs said. “We can see the top four priorities for the federal level were immigration, jobs and the economy, just discrimination and racial justice and dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.”
And while Latinos on the Western Slope indicated their top priority was getting businesses back open during the pandemic, Preuhs said those living in the new 8th Congressional District say providing more affordable housing is their top priority.
Many also want a Latino representative, or one who will engage with them directly on policy issues important to their community.
Meanwhile, many Latinos in Northern Colorado are not waiting for candidates to come to them in next year’s elections.
More than 60 Latino residents attended a virtual meeting this month to start a new chamber of commerce representing businesses in Greeley, Fort Collins and Windsor.
Jose Luis Ramos is a bilingual business specialist in Fort Collins who is helping organize the new chamber.
“It's growing,” he said of the Latino business community. “I think over the last year, I have helped at least 52 new companies get started because it's people that got laid off during COVID and they didn't know what to do and they had to do something. So they say, ‘I want to start my own company.’”
And Ramos says many of those new business owners told him they did not have enough support during the pandemic.
“They told me, ‘We didn't know where to go. We didn't know what to do.’ And even if we got the email or the message saying, there is this grant or this loan that you can apply to, you know, I couldn't do it because I didn't have my paperwork in place,” he said. “And talking to them about it, the idea came out to say, ‘OK, so if we were to have a Chamber of Commerce, a Latino Chamber of Commerce, things would be different because then we will have a body that will have one voice.”
Back in Greeley, Stacy Suniga says she’s also growing her Latino advocacy group, with recent events including vaccine clinics and candidate forums for local issues. But she says she will be looking to a new congressperson to solve things she can’t, like focusing on providing aid to low-income workers.
“I want the new representative to understand that we are a community that's different than the Denver metro or Boulder or Fort Collins,” she said. “It's (a) true melting pot and a lot of these workers, you know, are working in hard, hard conditions. And I would hope that this 8th District representative would recognize the needs of the community they represent.”