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Philly has never elected a Latina citywide lawmaker. Could this year bring change?

Today, Latinos make up 15% of the city’s population, but hold just one of 17 Council seats. This year presents an opportunity for Philadelphia’s Latino community to increase its representation.

Mayoral candidate Maria Quiñones Sánchez answers a question during the “100th Mayor: Restoring Safety Forum" at WHYY’s Independence Mall headquarters in March.
Mayoral candidate Maria Quiñones Sánchez answers a question during the “100th Mayor: Restoring Safety Forum" at WHYY’s Independence Mall headquarters in March.Read moreElizabeth Robertson / Staff Photographer

For decades, one Latino lawmaker has been the norm for Philadelphia City Hall.

So much so that when former Councilmember Maria Quiñones Sánchez first ran to represent the city’s heavily Puerto Rican district on City Council in 1999 and then again in 2007, the Democratic Party twice backed a white man over her.

The rationale, she said, was that Democrats already had a Latino Council member.

“Politically, they felt like our population already had one person,” said Quiñones Sánchez, who served the 7th Council District from 2008 until she resigned last year to run for mayor. “Why did we need another?”

Today, Latinos make up 15% of the city’s population but hold just one of 17 Council seats. And the May 16 Democratic primary presents an opportunity for Philadelphia’s Latino community — and its women in particular — to finally increase their representation in City Hall.

While a record number of Latino candidates ran for Council in 2019, only Quiñones Sánchez won a seat. This year, she and two other Latina candidates are running in citywide races. They hope it could be the first time a Latina is elected citywide, and they say their campaigns highlight the growth of Philadelphia’s Latino population and resonate with women voters on issues such as public safety.

“It’s impacting the women so much, disrupting the family structure so much in communities,” Quiñones Sánchez said of the city’s gun violence crisis.

The candidates also hope their presence on the ballot can energize Latino voters in neighborhoods that historically have low turnout in municipal elections.

“There are a lot of Latinos now who don’t live in just one district in the city, and they’re lacking representation,” said Erika Almirón, 46, an immigration activist running for an at-large seat.

Quiñones Sánchez is the first Latina to run in the Democratic mayoral primary, while Almirón and Luz Colón are competing for five at-large seats in the Democratic primary. None have been endorsed by the city’s Democratic Party, though Almirón was among a handful of candidates “recommended” for one of the five at-large Council seats.

And Councilmember Quetcy Lozada, who won a special election last year to fill Quiñones Sánchez’s seat, is facing off with social worker Andrés Celin to represent the 7th District.

Philly’s Latino boom

An Inquirer analysis of census data found that the city’s Latino population that is eligible to vote grew from 10.5% in 2010 to 13.1% in 2020, and residents are increasingly settling outside of the community’s historic epicenter in North Philadelphia.

While Puerto Rican migration to Philadelphia dates back more than a century, the 1950s onward brought a mass influx to North Philadelphia. Latinos from other Caribbean and Central American areas have also settled across the city, combining to nearly double Philadelphia’s Latino population between 2000 and 2020.

The 7th Council District, which includes Kensington, Juniata Park, and Frankford, has long had Philadelphia’s densest Latino population.

As those communities have grown, they have moved farther into Northeast Philadelphia.

In 2010, the 7th Council District contained 43% of the city’s Latino population, per that district’s current boundaries. By 2020, it contained just 36%. Over the same decade, the neighboring 6th and 9th Districts, which lie to the north and east of the 7th, respectively, saw their Latino populations steadily rise.

The rise of Latina candidates

Angel Ortiz became the first Latino City Council member in 1984, and his victory in a citywide race was unprecedented. But Quiñones Sánchez helped blaze a separate path for Latina candidates, winning the 7th District Council race in 2008 as an insurgent Democrat. She maintained that seat despite clashing with Democratic officials.

Her name has been floated since her first term as a possible contender for mayor — and this year, at 54, she became the first Latina mayoral candidate in Philadelphia history. (Former city solicitor and Judge Nelson Díaz was the first Latino candidate in 2015.)

A recent survey found Latino residents share many of the same top-ticket concerns as Black residents, ranking violent crime, the opioid crisis, and improving public schools as top priorities. But the Latina candidates said women are especially energized about their campaigns around other quality-of-life issues such as combating illegal dumping and fixing broken streetlights.

Almirón said women hold political power in Latino communities, and can influence how their friends and family members vote.

“They’re the ones who are the most engaged and set the priorities,” she said.

Luz Colón, 43, who started her career working for Ortiz and more recently led the statewide Latino commission for former Gov. Tom Wolf, said issues of gender inequities resonated with women of all backgrounds.

“Having to be a single mother of two, I can tell you there’s a lot of things that we juggle,” Colón said, “and the idea that our base is only in the Latino community is a harmful stereotype.”

Council has never had a Latina at-large member, a fact that Almirón touts often on the campaign trail. But she also emphasizes that her platform — which includes progressive planks like housing for all and environmental reform — carries broad appeal with other voting blocs.

“I’m running for all areas of the city, not just Latinos,” Almirón said. “I just happen to be Latina.”

Could candidates juice the Latino voter turnout?

Political operatives are quick to note that voter turnout in the Latino-majority precincts is among the lowest in the city. Latino candidates are quicker to note that turnout for all demographics in Philadelphia is dismal. It’s “not just a Latino problem,” Colón said.

The median turnout in Democratic primaries in Philadelphia between 2015 and 2022 was just 28% of registered voters. But in divisions where Latinos made up a plurality of adults, the median was 13%.

All of this year’s Latina candidates are pushing campaign advertisements in English and Spanish.

Whether their messages will resonate with enough voters citywide remains to be seen.

This is Almirón’s second run for Council, after finishing in seventh place in 2019. (The top five finishers in the Democratic primary for at-large Council seats advance and typically go on to win in the general election.)

In 2015, Díaz lost the six-way 2015 mayoral race with under 4% of the vote as the city’s first Latino mayoral candidate.

That race also underscored decades of vicious infighting among the Latino political class. A faction of ward leaders abandoned Díaz’s mayoral campaign in a proxy war to oust Quiñones Sánchez in the 7th District. It was emblematic of the discord that some feel has only pushed voters further away.

No unanimous endorsements have been made by the city’s Latino ward leaders for mayor or City Council, but some said there’s a truce in the making to unite behind Latina candidates on the ballot.

“Everybody wants to see progress,” ward leader and State Rep. Danilo Burgos (D., Phila.) said. “We’re all in conversation about how best to move our community forward.”