TURNOUT: Mexican-American Ruben Kihuen Hopes to Bring Progressive Work Ethic to Congress
Latin Post presents "Turnout," a series featuring leading politicians, government leaders and advocacy groups discussing the most important issues facing the Latino voting bloc.
Although born in Mexico, Ruben Kihuen actually has been living the American Dream, and he's currently campaigning to bring his progressive work ethic to the next level: Congress. If elected to Congress, he would be the first Latino from Nevada to serve in the federal bicameral legislature.
In March 2015, Kihuen became the first Democrat to announce his campaign for Nevada's 4th Congressional District. The 35 year old's political history, however, started during his senior year in high school.
Becoming Politically Active
Kihuen political journey started when he was a senior in high school. During 1998, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, was running in a competitive election against Republican John Ensign, and Kihuen was recruited as a campaign volunteer in exchange for extra credit. Kihuen admits he wanted to pass his class, so he went out to knock on doors and made phone calls on Reid's behalf. Reid would narrowly win the election with 401 votes ahead of Ensign.
"That was a defining moment because I realized that all of those doors that I knocked on, those phone calls that I made as a high school student, actually made an impact in a U.S. Senate race," Kihuen told Latin Post. "That was the first time where I've seen the ability that we have, as individuals, to make an impact in politics."
Although helping a campaign, Kihuen still did not see himself running for political office, but the experience provided him with the first-hand opportunity to see how campaigns function and how decisive engagements through phone calls and door knocking can play.
During his time in college, he continued to work for other campaigns -- this time, he was recruiting volunteers and mobilizing. In 2005, he recognized that the people who were in political office "were not necessarily any smarter or any better than anyone else."
He decided to run for office, namely for the Nevada Assembly's 11th District. At the time, he was 25 years old, just graduated college and "had nothing to lose," and continued campaigning despite comments that he was too young, lacked funding, didn't come from a political family, was born in Mexico and that an immigrant had never been elected in Nevada's history.
"All the odds were against me. I still decided to run and went out there and knocked on every single door at my district, three times, and we ended up winning the election with 61 percent of the vote in the primary," said Kihuen, who thanked his volunteers and the Culinary Workers Union who endorsed him.
Giving Back & Paving the Road for Latinos
"It began as an opportunity to give back to a state that has given my family and I so much -- that has allowed us with the opportunities to achieve the American Dream. Serving in office, especially being in the legislature, it's about leaving a legacy, being able to open the doors for others to be where I am," said Kihuen, explaining when he was first elected 2006 there was only one fellow Latino lawmaker -- Moises "Mo" Denis, a Cuban American who was then-serving the Nevada Assembly for the 28th District between 2004 and 2010.
When Kihuen assumed his Assembly office, he was the only Mexican-American serving in the entire Legislature. Denis and Kihuen would create the Nevada Hispanic Legislative Caucus. Although it started as a two-member caucus, Denis and Kihuen were determined to recruit more Latinos and Latinas to run for political office during the 2010 election. In 2010, both Kihuen and Denis each won State Senate seats for the 10th District and 2nd District, respectively, which opened opportunities for fellow Latinos to run for their Assembly seats.
Once Election Day 2010's result came in, six more Latinos and Latinas were elected to Nevada's Assembly, while Denis and Kihuen became the first Latinos to serve in the State Senate.
"It's not just about making it to the top but it's also about paving the way for others to be where you are because the more Latinos you have in office, that understand the needs of our community, the more that those needs are going to be addressed," said Kihuen, who has since become the first Latino to serve as Senate Majority Whip.
Having a Track Record
Taking pride in being a progressive Democrat, Kihuen said he's proud of legislations that have helped evolve the state's Legislature. Kihuen was presented the bill to increase Nevada's minimum wage to $15 an hour, co-authored the college affordability bill, which created need-based grants, and co-sponsored equal pay for equal work legislation for women.
"I have a track record of getting things done," said Kihuen, adding that there will be candidates who will speak about college affordability, wages and equal pay, but these are areas he's already helped present and champion in Nevada and now he wants to bring that same work to Congress.
He described Nevada's 4th Congressional District as the most diverse congressional district in the state. "Not only ethnically diverse, but geographically," Kihuen said, identifying the district as a microcosm of the state due to its mix of rural and urban areas with mix of Latinos, African Americans and Asian populations.
Kihuen didn't have a negative word to say about his congressional challengers, but noted two items: "I have a proven track record of getting things done and working on progressive causes. It's not just talking points, it's about actually having a record of having done these things. ... I have a proven track record of winning elections. Every election that I've had and won, I've won it with over 60 percent of the vote. I have a track record of getting people to the polls, and having the ability to be able to bring people to the polls matter."
As he continues campaigning, Kihuen has received the endorsements of several groups and individuals such as the Culinary Workers Union, Congressional Hispanic Caucus members Xavier Becerra, Tony Cardenas and Lucille Roybal-Allard and the senator he campaigned for in high school: Senate Minority Leader Reid.
The Latino Vote
Kihuen acknowledged that the Latino vote helped his election in 2006, and the electorate has been influential in subsequent elections, including Reid's 2010 reelection and President Barack Obama's 2012 reelection.
"The Latino vote has been and will be decisive in this election, and I'm not talking just in our congressional race but also at the presidential level, the U.S. Senate level and here, particularly in Nevada."
"[The Latino vote's] influence is only going to significantly grow as the Latino populations continues to not only grow but also get more educated in the political process," he added.
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