Published Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016 | 10:57 a.m.
Updated Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016 | 4:46 p.m.
Yvanna Cancela fought for laborers as the Culinary Union’s former political director. Now, she’ll be fighting for her constituents as the first Latina to serve in the state Senate.
The Clark County Commission voted unanimously today to appoint Cancela, executive director of the Citizenship Project, to fill the District 10 state Senate seat vacated by Democrat Ruben Kihuen, who was elected to Congress.
A group of Culinary members erupted in applause when commissioners selected Cancela, who said she hoped to “do them proud” in the Legislature.
“I will work my hardest and do my best to represent each and every one of (my constituents) as well as the rest of the state,” she said. “I think we have big work to do, and I look forward to working together.”
Cancela, considered in political circles as the most likely successor to Kihuen, was one of three applicants vying to assume the seat. All the candidates had to be registered Democrats, like Kihuen, to be considered for the vacancy.
The other applicants were Melissa Clary, a project manager for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and Justin Campese, director of marketing and technological services at a law firm.
In an interview Tuesday afternoon, Cancela said she plans to focus on legislation to protect immigrant families from unlawful deportations, improve health care quality and transparency and invest more in education. The latter, she said, involves reducing classroom sizes, valuing teachers and providing innovative curriculum for students.
Cancela said she’s excited for the opportunity to serve Nevada but admits she never expected to be entering a political office. The election changed her plans.
“When Trump won the presidency, and the aftermath of a really, really hate-filled election cycle, I felt I had a responsibility to step up and do my part to ensure that we continue to organize and work together,” she said.
Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani thanked Clary and Campese, but she said Cancela’s experience and background made her the best fit for the district, which covers an area from the Las Vegas Strip to where Boulder Highway crosses U.S. 95.
“I do believe this district is also a majority-minority district, and I think representation should reflect that as well, as long as the qualifications are there — and they are,” she said.
State Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford lauded the commission’s decision, calling Cancela a “passionate advocate for working people in our community.”
A Miami native, Cancela headed north for college. She graduated from Northwestern University in 2010 with a degree in communications studies and moved to Las Vegas to work as a field organizer for Sen. Harry Reid’s re-election campaign. Cancela went on to work for the Culinary Union, which represents 55,000 casino workers on the Strip and downtown.
The White House named her a Champion of Change in 2014 for her work regarding comprehensive immigration reform. In her new role with the local nonprofit Citizenship Project, she assists legal residents with the naturalization process.
“Yvanna will be an important voice in Carson City, particularly for underrepresented Nevadans,” Ford wrote in a statement. “With her leadership, we will continue to build a Nevada where everyone has a fair shot to succeed.”
Kihuen also praised the commission’s appointment, describing Cancela as a “friend and ally” and “a warmhearted and engaging leader” who will make a seamless transition to the state Senate.
Cancela will serve out the remainder of Kihuen’s term, which includes the 2017 Nevada legislative session. Voters will select a new representative in the November 2018 election.