Latinas make history by leading Utah's legislative minority

Rep. Angela Romero and Sen. Luz Escamilla walk together campaigning for Escamilla's mayoral run in the Glendale neighborhood in Salt Lake City on Nov. 1, 2019. The two women were recently elected as minority leaders in the Utah House and Senate.

Rep. Angela Romero and Sen. Luz Escamilla walk together campaigning for Escamilla's mayoral run in the Glendale neighborhood in Salt Lake City on Nov. 1, 2019. The two women were recently elected as minority leaders in the Utah House and Senate. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

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

Rep. Angela Romero is the first person of color and the second woman to serve as Utah House minority leader. 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 each elected all-female minority leadership teams.

Both Romero and Escamilla have previously served in minority leadership and have over two decades of legislative experience between them, as well as a history of working together dating back to their time as students at the University of Utah.

"House and Senate Democrats, they elected us not only because we're Latinas, but also because we are effective legislators and that's a very important role," Escamilla said. "Because of our backgrounds, we can have a very unique perspective as we continue to discuss policy and make decisions on the budget that have a long-term impact not only for our community but for the rest of the state."

Romero was not available for comment but previously said she is excited to lead the caucus forward.

"As Democrats, we have a critical role in standing up for working people and issues that impact our everyday lives," she said. "We will continue to champion good, data-driven policies that Utahns want passed."

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

"How far we have come, from the old days when lobbyists and even fellow legislators couldn't keep the names straight among the Latina legislators, to today," said Ernie Gamonal, a longtime caucus member and political consultant. "These exemplary public servants have earned their spots in leadership and I expect them to do great things for all of the people of Utah."

Josie Valdez is a long-time player in Utah politics whose career has included serving as Democratic State Party's first Latina vice chair, running for lieutenant governor, and managing the campaign of her husband, Rep. Mark Wheatley. She said Romero and Escamilla's elections to minority leadership reflect how Latino involvement in politics has developed over the years.

"We were so busy over the years just getting representation, period," Valdez said. "In those days, that was the big deal: Let's get someone elected."

Latino state legislators — namely Escamilla, Romero, Wheatley and Rep. Ashlee Matthews — have each been reelected. Valdez said over time, those lawmakers have established reputations as experienced, professional and reliable leaders. That's backed up by a long list of accomplishments Romero and Escamilla have accumulated during their time in the Legislature, including work to help sexual assault survivors and missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

"It's important for these Latina women, these leaders, to be seen as leaders in the general community, not just (among) Latinos," Valdez said. "The fact that they are Latinas is an enhancement to their own professional capacity. It's a victory for Latinas and it's a victory for women, but it's a victory for the capacity to lead. These women have that capacity to lead, regardless of whether they're Latinas or whether they're women. That capacity to lead has been recognized by their peers and will be recognized by the constituents whom they will be serving."

Escamilla said she hopes her and Romero's elections as minority leaders open the door for additional representation.

"It's hopefully empowering and sends a message in Utah that this is possible, right? It's certainly an issue of representation," Escamilla said. "When you're representing families and communities in conversations of good public policy, I think that's important. And the more we have that diversity of cultural identities and the different experiences, the richer and the better our decisions and our policy."

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Sydnee Chapman Gonzalez is a reporter and recent Utah transplant. She works at the Utah Investigative Journalism Project and was previously at and the Wenatchee World in Washington. Her reporting has focused on marginalized communities, homelessness and local government. She grew up in Arizona and has lived in various parts of Mexico. During her free time, she enjoys hiking, traveling, rock climbing and embroidery.


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