How a small-town election shows the power of the Latino vote

The small city of Wilder, Idaho just accomplished something that many border towns only dream of: They elected their first all-Latino city council, with a Latina mayor to boot.

And the Mayor-elect claims Wilder did it by bringing everyone together, not just by riding the Latino vote.

“I don’t think my votes came 100 percent from Hispanics; I’ve been here all my life and I’ve always been in everyone’s face,” Mayor-elect Alicia Almazan, a hairstylist and mother of five, told Fusion.

Almazan, whose mother migrated from Mexico to work in the Wilder fields in the 1960s, says she’s hopeful that she’ll set an example for other Latinos to get involved in local politics. She spent a good part of her childhood living in labor camps and farm shacks, and says she wants to build more bridges between the local white minority who mostly own the local farms and the Hispanics who provide the labor.

“Before this happened, I didn’t feel any tension, I didn’t feel discriminated,” Almazan said. “I’m very pale and I can even look White, everybody sees me as a person and I don’t want that to change and I also don’t want the remaining population to feel they are being overpowered by Mexicans.”

Outgoing Mayor John Bechtel, who backed Almazan’s candidacy, thinks the election results show the progressive spirit of Wilder’s farming community.

“We are all the same—we bleed the same color.”

- John Bechtel, Mayor of Wilder, Idaho

Bechtel says that when he arrived in Wilder 40 years ago, the demographic makeup of the city was already changing. When young men started leaving to fight in World War II, Mexicans and other communities came to bring in the harvest. That demographic shift continued even after the war and today Latinos account for 75 percent of the town’s population.

Bechtel, who’s not Latino but embraced the nickname Juan Pelón (bald John) after a child pointed out his hairless dome, says he officially proclaimed Wilder as a “Welcoming City” several years ago. And the title has stuck.

“If people come into this town, I don’t ask them if they are legal or illegal, I just made friends with them,” he said.

Bechtel thinks that Latino representation in local government is part of a larger national shift, even if it’s slow in the coming. A 2015 Pew Research report found that the number of Latinos in Congress has gone from 19 to 32 in the past 15 years.

Bechtel believes upcoming elections will increasingly suggest that those who are against immigration are on the wrong side of history.

“Republicans are shooting themselves in the foot when it comes to immigration,” he said.

Others, however, say it’s a bit premature to say whether Wilder’s experience is predictive of a larger national trend.

“The local victory won’t really factor into the national landscape, at least not now. However, it is an insight into the power of the ballot. When Latinos go out and vote, their voices are heard,” said Maria Fernandez, a local teacher and daughter of Texans whose grandson, Ismael, won a city council seat at age 19.

Fernandez says new generations of Latinos are getting more involved in city politics.

“There has always been a large Latino population in Wilder, but the older generation didn’t choose to get involved in running for office or anything like that,” she said. “They were busy with their own lives.”

Younger generations are changing that.

The Wilder High School government class put a candidate forum together so that the community could get to know the candidates and their stances on the issues,” Fernandez said. “They are looking toward the future and starting to get involved in the community.”

Smaller victories, like the one in Wilder, are also popping up in other states. In November, after the American Civil Liberties Union sued the city of Yakima, Washington to change the election system to level the playing field for Hispanic candidates, three Latinas were elected to city council.

Though voter abstention remains high in Wilder and nearby cities, Mayor-elect Almazan thinks positive change is coming.

“The fact that I was elected mayor and I’m Hispanic is going to make a huge difference,” she said. “I’m going to change those people who don’t vote because they think the people in office just don’t care.”