He set out to mobilize Latino voters. Then the virus hit.
GRAHAM, N.C (AP) — Like many Americans, Ricky Hurtado had different plans for his summer.
He formally announced his first bid for public office in March and expected to spend sweltering days knocking on doors, clenching glossy campaign literature and making his case directly to voters. This was the summer he was going prove that a 31-year-old son of Salvadoran immigrants could give Latinos a say — even in North Carolina, even in part of Donald Trump’s America.
But this is a story about waiting — and the detours on the path to power.
The novel coronavirus upended the Democrat’s campaign for statehouse in an exurban district. Hurtado stopped door-knocking. The closest he came to potential voters was standing 6 feet (1.8 meters) or more away while volunteering at food banks or a virus testing site. And, still, he contracted the virus himself.
Across the U.S., the coronavirus outbreak is disrupting Latinos’ long and difficult climb up the political ladder. The disease has disproportionately sickened Latinos, destabilized communities and impeded voter registration ahead of the November presidential election. In North Carolina, only 5,000 Latinos have been added to the voter rolls since mid-March, less than half the number added during the same period four years ago.
The virus and the economic fallout it triggered is crashing down on Latinos just as they hit an electoral milestone. For the first time, there will be more Latinos eligible to vote than any other minority group — 32 million, the Pew Research Center projects.
Latinos have long seemed on the cusp of realizing their potential at the ballot box, only to see their impact undermined by disappointing turnout and an Electoral College that favors heavily white states. In 2016, fewer than half of eligible Latinos cast ballots, as the country elected a president who promised to a build a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border and repeatedly used Latin American immigrants as a foil in the debate over it.
But if states such as California, Florida and Nevada were the proving grounds in elections past, North Carolina represents the future. The state has 1 million Latino residents, many immigrants being drawn to work in manufacturing and agriculture. Yet two-thirds are not eligible to vote because they are either under age 18 or not citizens — the second-highest rate in the nation, just behind neighboring Tennessee.
In Alamance County, among the housing tracts and thick forests reaching between Raleigh and Greensboro, there are three Latinos who cannot vote for every one who can.
For decades, those numbers meant one thing: Latinos’ growing population in the state didn’t translate into political power. Rather, it had the opposite effect of animating resentment and grievance, as politicians seized on immigration as a potent issue.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Americans are preparing to choose a leader and a path through a time of extraordinary division and turmoil. Associated Press journalists tell their stories in the series “America Disrupted.”
Now the children of immigrants are coming of age, finding their voice and their leaders. Hurtado and his generation are acutely aware of the weight demography and politics have placed on their shoulders.
“It really all depends on me,” said John Paul Garcia, a 20-year-old Hurtado campaign volunteer and the only member of his family of six who can vote. “I’m my sister’s voice, my brother’s voice, my parents’ voice.”
Trump won North Carolina by less than 4 percentage points. Hurtado’s Democratic predecessor lost the statehouse seat by 298 votes in 2018.
Hurtado knows it would be easier for him to focus on white voters, still the overwhelming majority in the district. But he wants his campaign to be about more than just winning the seat, flipping the legislature or even putting a Democrat in the White House.
“It’s actually engaging people,” he said this spring, as he drove his Volkswagen Jetta to knock on doors in one of the many trailer parks tucked behind auto body shops and in forested river bottoms across the county.
“I want the 21,000 Latinos in Alamance County to know they’re very much part of the conversation here.”
It would be the last time Hurtado door-knocked before the pandemic hit.
Hurtado’s parents arrived in the United States in the trunk of a car.
The two were fleeing the civil war in El Salvador in 1980 when they were driven across the Mexican border and into California. Hurtado was born in Los Angeles, but when he was 7 his family moved to rural North Carolina, hoping the cleaner air would be better for his asthma.
Hurtado’s mother worked at a chicken plant, and when he was in high school Hurtado would rub her sore hands after picking her up from the plant at the end of her shift, close to midnight.
The poultry-processing, agricultural and textile industries that were the traditional foundations of the state’s economy all recruited as far south as Mexico, trying to draw cheap labor to the state.
“1996-1998, those were the years that changed everything,” said Paul Cuadros, a professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, who wrote a book on Latino immigrants in a rural area near Alamance County. “Once the children started showing up, that’s when you had the backlash.”
Hurtado grew up in a mostly Black neighborhood and he was conscious he was viewed as different. He tried not to speak Spanish in public. He’ll never forget when a fellow seventh grader, a girl he considered a friend, called him “just another Mexican by the side of the road.”
“No somos ni de aquí, ni de alla,” is how he describes his feeling of alienation, using a common phrase that translates to: “We’re from neither here nor there.”
Hurtado was accepted at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. A high school calculus teacher lent him $2,000 to help him pay for a laptop. But it wasn’t until his senior year that he began to feel comfortable with his identity as a Southerner and a Latino.
Out of school, Hurtado went to work at a consulting firm focusing on racial equity. He won a scholarship and earned a master’s degree in public affairs from Princeton. He was ready to take a job in Oakland in 2014 when he abruptly decided California could wait.
North Carolina’s governor at the time, Republican Pat McCrory, was pressing the federal government to deport the thousands of unaccompanied children who were crossing the border to flee violence in Central America.
“I just felt like, ‘That’s not the North Carolina I know,”’ Hurtado said.
He moved back to the state and began running a program for first-generation students at his alma mater and plunged into the local activist scene, where he met Yazmin Garcia. They spent one of their first dates picketing a Trump rally.
After they married, Hurtado and Garcia settled in Alamance County in one of the commuter suburbs outside of Chapel Hill. But their neighborhood wasn’t far from the old industrial strips that are punctuated with Salvadoran food trucks and Mexican groceries. Hurtado moved his parents there, too.
“Help your parents buy a house — that’s the American dream, isn’t it?” Hurtado said. He now has a different way of describing his roots: “Soy de aquí y de alla.”
“I’m from both here and there.”
The work of finding Latino voters — the 1 in 4 — was always going to be difficult. Fear of immigration authorities is ever-present. Families members hold a patchwork of legal status. Doors don’t just open for anyone.
That’s partly due to the enduring power of Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson, a Republican who first came to office in 2002 when he ran TV ads that warned of “aliens” in the county and played music from the old TV series “The Twilight Zone.”
Johnson was the only sheriff in the country other than Arizona’s notorious Joe Arpaio to be sued by the Obama administration’s Justice Department for civil rights violations against immigrants.
A federal judge dismissed the case accusing Johnson’s agency of targeting Latinos in searches and seizures. But the sheriff’s department reached an out-of-court settlement with the federal government to avoid a government appeal.
Johnson believes the government merely “wanted a Southern sheriff to make an example out of,” he said in an interview in his office, lined with photos of his family and official travels, including one of a recent trip to the White House.
Johnson says he has no animus against immigrants. “I have several friends that own restaurants here that are here illegally,” he said. “I could care less as long as they follow laws of our land.”
Still, Johnson remains a menacing figure to many Latinos. His agency has an agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to house detained immigrants, which has drawn continued protests over the years. Just a reference to Johnson’s name can feel like a deportation threat to many Latinos. When a Latina clerk at cell phone store recently asked a white customer to put on a mask, the man said he was going to “call Terry Johnson” on her, said Tyra Duque, another clerk who witnessed the incident.
To be sure, Latinos in Alamance County and across the U.S. are politically diverse. About 3 out every 10 Latino voters supported Republicans in the 2018 congressional races, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of the electorate.
Omar Lugo, a 42-year-old Venezuelan immigrant, doesn’t blame Johnson for what he observes is a clear sense of fear in the county’s Latino community. He blames liberal activists. “By accusing the sheriff of being racist, that doesn’t take us anywhere,” Lugo said.
Lugo says he see evidence that Latinos in North Carolina are turning to the GOP in these turbulent times — particularly after the violence that accompanied protests over the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after being pinned to the ground by Minneapolis police. Latinos are repelled by scenes of chaotic demonstrations and the debate over defunding police departments, he said.
Other Republicans argue Hurtado isn’t the right person to represent Alamance County, where Johnson routinely runs for reelection unopposed and the GOP holds every county office. But the county’s politics are shifting. As North Carolina’s population has boomed in recent years with migrants from the north, attracted by cheaper housing and a growing technology and banking industry, Alamance County has seen an influx of suburbanites. Many are leaving liberal Chapel Hill in search of affordable housing.
Hurtado’s Democratic views will only change “the policies that attracted people to Alamance County to begin with,” said Stephen Wiley, political director for the North Carolina House Republican Caucus.
But the Democrat sees himself as a good match for Alamance. Round-faced and smooth-voiced, with black-framed glasses, Hurtado has a low-key, easy demeanor. He sees himself as a representative of a modern, diversifying North Carolina.
On Facebook, he sometimes confronts old high school friends who support Trump and post harsh anti-immigrant sentiments, gently reminding them they grew up together. He says the exchanges end amicably.
But Hurtado notes that hasn’t happened lately, not since the Floyd protests boiled over into a full-on debate over racial justice and identity.
At the center of a square in Graham, the county seat, stands a monument to the county’s fallen Confederate soldiers. Johnson’s deputies have watched the square since the national demonstrations started, forbidding protests without permits under a city law swiftly and emergency declarations by the mayor.
When Aranza Sosa, 22, went to the square holding Black Lives Matter signs in early June, Johnson’s deputies turned her away. She angrily began researching local politics, looking for help, and was stunned to find Hurtado was running for office against Stephen Ross, a Republican incumbent.
She called him in tears.
There have been a lot of tears for Sosa lately. Her uncle died of COVID-19 in late May, and her family members in North Carolina and Mexico regularly gather on video chat to say a rosary for him. She works in a retirement home that just had its first case. Some days her anxiety over catching the virus — and passing it onto vulnerable family members — is so intense she can’t go to work. On most days, Sosa goes in. She needs the money.
“My job, I’m lucky to have it, but under the circumstances it breaks a lot of people,” Sosa said. “It feels like I’m expendable, at this point, to the government.”
The Pew Hispanic Center found that 59% of Latinos say they or someone in their household has lost a job or wages due to the virus, well above the 43% of U.S. adults reporting the same.
The Latino unemployment rate was just under 13% in July, still well above the white rate. Disproportionately clustered in the service industry, Latinos are more likely to see their jobs eliminated because of dangers of face-to-face transmission and to be asked to go to work.
In Alamance County, where Latinos are 13% of the population, they account for 62% of the county’s 2,500 COVID cases.
It’s unclear whether the dual hardship of the virus and economy will leave Latinos too busy worrying about their survival to focus on the election or will galvanize them.
Antonio Arellano, whose group, JOLT, tries to expand Latino power in Texas, noted they regularly cite health care, not immigration, as its top issue in polls.
“We’re seeing our grandmothers, grandfathers and aunts and uncles die from lack of health care,” Arellano said. “We believe this pandemic has the potential to drive voter turnout more than ever before.”
Hurtado and his wife both know how disruptive the illness can be. In mid-June they came down with the virus. They were shocked at the news; they rarely left their house, they said. Hurtado’s asthma had made them terrified about the disease.
But their bout was relatively mild, high fevers and a few days of chest pain for Hurtado followed by several days of fatigue and exhaustion. They recovered by early July.
The pandemic has shut down the sort of face-to-face interactions that are especially critical among Latinos, who are less likely than African Americans and whites to be registered even when they are eligible to vote. With college campuses, street festivals and DMVs closed, registration plummeted 70% nationally during the first two months of the pandemic compared to 2016, according to a study from the Center for Election Innovation and Research.
While Republicans have revived some of their door-to-door canvassing, Democrats, including Hurtado, have largely refrained, arguing it’s too risky. Hurtado has turned to online meetings and fundraisers. Earlier this month he was one of dozens of candidates endorsed by former President Barack Obama.
Still, he knows he’s losing critical face-to-face encounters.
When he canvassed in the spring he often connected with the younger Latinos over shared experiences.
“I was the first in my family to go to college,” Hurtado told Evelyn Lara, 18, in the doorway of her trailer.
“I am, too,” Lara responded, proud, as her 7-year-old brother Iker leaned by her side, playing “Minecraft” on a portable device.
“You know how hard it can be,” Hurtado said. “When I go to Raleigh, I’m trying to make it easier for families like ours.”
Hurtado has been heartened by the influx of calls from young people like Sosa since the Black Lives Matter demonstrations began, which gives him hope Latinos will turn out despite all the obstacles in November.
But there’s another disappointment weighing down his household.
Garcia was nearing the end of the yearslong slog to become a U.S. citizen. She would joke about how she would be able to cast her first vote for her husband — if he earned it.
One of her final steps, an in-person interview, was postponed in March due to the pandemic.
Garcia may not be able to vote for her husband after all.
Associated Press writer Angeliki Kastanis in Los Angeles contributed to this report.