Tuesday, June 11, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Sen. Mo Denis, who was the only Hispanic in the Legislature when he was elected in 2004, fought tears as Gov. Brian Sandoval signed into law a bill allowing immigrants here illegally to obtain a driver's privilege card.
More than once as he addressed the assembled crowd, he had to stop to control his emotions.
“I wasn’t sure this would happen in my legislative career,” he said at the bill signing last month.
But Nevada has changed since Denis was first elected, and yesterday's impossibility was today's inevitability. The bill never took off in 2006, but this time, it was a foregone conclusion because Sandoval had said he'd support it even before the Legislature convened in February.
The new driver privilege law marks only one of the achievements of a Hispanic legislative caucus that has begun to show its strength as its members have organized community support, maneuvered through the legislative process and passed a slate of bills they prioritized at the beginning of the legislative session.
While it's been well reported that Nevada's Hispanic population has grown in numbers and political clout at the ballot box, Denis said this is the first year that the demographic and political changes have transitioned into serious legislative influence.
“I would say this is historically the most successful legislative session that I know of,” Denis said. “The Hispanic community is starting to come of age.”
During the 2011 legislative session, Hispanic legislators largely touted their defensive ability to stymie “anti-immigrant legislation."
This year, many Hispanic legislators began their second term in the Assembly and all assumed leadership positions, taking them from defense to offense.
Denis became the state's first Hispanic Senate majority leader and, to his knowledge, conducted the prayer preceding Senate floor sessions in Spanish for the first time in Nevada history. The Legislature hosted its first “Latino Lobby Day” this year, as well.
Compared with the 2011 session, Republican legislators quieted their rhetoric regarding immigration, leading political observers to see a shift in the conversation about the Hispanic community.
“The tone of the session as it related to Latinos this year was not about how to harm or exclude Latinos but how do we help them and incorporate them in this state,” said Andres Ramirez, president of the political consulting firm the Ramirez Group. “It was a dramatic and tectonic shift that happened.”
Denis' legislation passed with 50 of the state's 63 legislators supporting it. Billing it as a public safety measure designed to make sure all Nevada motorists carry auto insurance, he also said it was about respect to the Hispanic community.
“This (sent) a big message to everyone,” he said. “If folks want to get elected and want to do things, they are going to have to take into consideration the Latino community.”
Denis also repeated throughout the legislative session what other studies have concluded: The largely Hispanic population of English-language learners in Nevada's schools is getting shortchanged. The state does not pay school districts any money to teach English to children who do not understand it well.
But that changed this year.
Sandoval and Denis worked together to pass a bill that funnels $50 million to school districts for the purpose of teaching English to students who are deficient in the language.
Ramirez said the passage of this bill and the driver authorization card bill prove the legislative rhetoric has changed this year.
“There was a complete change in direction in terms of how we talk about Latinos as part of our communities,” he said.
The legislative successes are part of the offensive strategy the Hispanic caucus developed after playing defense last legislative session against a bill that would have mirrored a controversial Arizona law that critics say encourages racial profiling.
Assemblywoman Irene Bustamante Adams, D-Las Vegas, helped develop that strategy as chairwoman of the legislative Hispanic caucus.
She said the Hispanic caucus had a strategic goal to get people involved in the legislative process by working the past two years to educate the community, planning bills they’d like to pass and working with Republicans to gain support.
“This session, we took a giant leap forward,” she said. “It went from not being able to crawl to being able to stand up and run.”
She echoed Denis when she said most people think that Hispanic issues are limited to immigration, but she said that people living in the communities and neighborhoods they represent bring to their attention a wide variety of issues, including economic development, education and judicial matters.
The Hispanic caucus also includes legislators who aren’t Hispanic — Assemblywoman Dina Neal, D-North Las Vegas, and Sen. Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas — but who represent districts with large Hispanic populations.
The Legislature has a variety of caucuses that meet from time to time to coordinate a legislative agenda. The Washoe County and Clark County legislators met often this year, as did the rural caucus. In the past, the Legislature has also hosted a cowboy caucus that addressed issues related to rural ranching communities.
In the same way, Denis said that he hopes the Hispanic caucus can help people understand that the Hispanic community cares about more than immigration.
“They are starting to see that Latinos aren’t any different than anyone else,” Denis said. “They want good jobs. They want a good education for their children. They don’t want a handout. They just want to be able to live their lives, take care of their families.”
Along with Neal, Segerblom, Denis and Bustamante Adams, the Hispanic caucus includes Sen. Ruben Kihuen; Assemblywomen Lucy Flores, Olivia Diaz and Teresa Benitez-Thompson; and Assemblyman Richard Carrillo, all Democrats from Las Vegas, with the exception of Benitez-Thompson, who is from Reno.
Neither the Senate nor the Assembly includes Hispanic legislators affiliated with the Republican Party.
Most of the legislators in the Hispanic caucus were elected in 2011, and legislative observers marked the arrival of four Hispanic women in the Assembly as a sign of the state’s changing population.
“This change is more apparent in the Legislature during the past several sessions,” said Lorne Malkiewich, former director of the Legislative Counsel Bureau and current lobbyist with R&R Partners. “It’s been particularly visible during the past two sessions.”
But visibility and strategy alone did not change the tone of the conversation in the Statehouse, Ramirez said.
He said it’s no secret that both the state’s Republican governor and its Republican legislators want to win more Hispanic votes in 2014, so they’ve quieted what he called the sometimes “xenophobic” rhetoric of certain Republicans in elected office.
“If any member of the Republican caucus is pushing aggressively anti-Latino stuff, it’ll taint the whole caucus,” he said.
All legislators in the state Assembly are up for re-election in 2014, as is the governor.
Political editor Anjeanette Damon contributed to this story.