Last week, I had the opportunity to hear National Council of La Raza president and CEO Janet Murguía speak at a luncheon in Austin. (In my other life, I do communications work for the nonprofit that hosted her.) The 52-year-old University of Kansas Law School graduate and former aide to President Bill Clinton took over as NCLR’s leader in 2005 and has subsequently been on a slow and steady march toward national prominence. Since the 2008 elections, Murguía has built NCLR into one of the largest Hispanic voter registration organizations in the country—a direct result of her emphasis on strengthening the relationship between the group’s Washington D.C. headquarters and its local affiliates.
The media-savvy Murguía has also aggressively pursued a strategy of promoting “fair, accurate, and balanced portrayals of Latinos” in the public eye, according to her official bio. She is often remembered for debating former CNN host Lou Dobbs on his show over his anti-immigrant hate speech, was instrumental in his eventual resignation.
NCLR—not to be confused with La Raza Unida, the grassroots political party formed in the Chicano movement of the 1970s—is not a political party, though it leans Democratic. They work on civil rights issues affecting the Latino community in the U.S. through nearly 300 community-based affiliate organizations across America. The nearly 50-year-old organization is no fringe player—they’re funded by the Ford Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and staid corporations like Citigroup and Walmart. This year, Murguía said, they are on track to register nearly 100,000 new voters in time to vote in November.
Local NCLR affiliates in Texas will contribute thousands to that total, Murguía said. The meeting of Texas NCLR affiliates broke a record for attendance with more than 80 percent of its local groups represented. In short, NCLR is on the ground in Texas and mobilized to take control of this state’s political future.
Add to that the news that nearly 40 percent of Texans under 18 are Latino, and I have to wonder why most mainstream news outlets in Austin declined the chance to hear Murguía speak about how NCLR plans to harness that political power.
Maybe they should talk to people in California. “The DREAM Act is alive and well in California and it is because our folks came together,” Murguía told a crowd of about 100 Texas Latino dignitaries gathered in East Austin, including former state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, Austin’s first and only Latino Mayor Gus Garcia, and Consul General of Mexico in Austin Rosalba Ojeda.
Now, Murguía says, California legislators are coming to NCLR for help in gathering key support for legislation. According to Murguía, California Attorney General Kamala Harris asked for her affiliates’ help in passing the California Foreclosure Reduction Act, a bill that protects homeowners facing foreclosure—a huge problem for Latinos there—that Gov. Jerry Brown signed in July.
“We want to do the same thing right here in Austin,” she said, “and that’s what we’ve been talking about for the last two days.”
This fall, NCLR will launch the Texas NCLR Latino Leadership Institute, to teach community organizing, advocacy and campaign building. In February, they will re-launch their Texas Advocacy Day, modeled after the California event where leaders from local affiliates lobbied at the State Capitol in Sacramento.
Murguía said her organization will take on anti-immigrant legislation like Arizona S.B. 1070 copycat bills and voter ID laws in the Texas Legislature next year. “It’s also about enacting laws to help our community. We can’t be on defense anymore,” she said. “We need to be affirmatively passing laws that we know are going to help our community.”