A nasty bout of COVID-19 in the pandemic’s early days in 2020 got Jerry Gonzalez thinking about the future. Not just his, but that of Georgia’s growing and increasingly influential Latino population.
“That spurred thinking about a succession planning process,” Gonzalez, the CEO and founder of GALEO, Georgia’s largest Latino voting rights and leadership development group, told Atlanta Civic Circle.
Gonzalez, 51, recovered and went on to see Georgia’s Latino community turn out in droves for the historic 2020 election when Georgia flipped from red to blue and elected a Democratic president and two senators over the incumbent Republicans.
Latino voters in Georgia and other swing states were a decisive factor, according to a UCLA Latino Policy & Politics Initiative report. Fully 54.8% of the state’s Latino voters turned out for the 2020 general election–higher than the statewide turnout rate of 47% for voters of color. And 78% of Latinos who voted in the Nov. 3 election returned to vote in Georgia’s two senate runoffs in January 2021, according to a GALEO report on election turnout.
“In Georgia, the Latino electorate has been outpacing the national Latino voter participation rate by several percentage points for several election cycles,” Gonzalez said.
To continue that momentum, GALEO has hired Alejandro Chavez, the grandson of legendary labor movement activist Cesar Chavez, as its deputy director. The 44-year-old Chavez brings extensive political and nonprofit experience to GALEO. He has worked as a political consultant on Democratic political campaigns and progressive issues such as March On For Voting Rights in Phoenix.
“The first step in the succession planning process is making sure we’ve got leadership from within that would be able to step in should anything happen to me,” Gonzalez said, adding that Chavez will serve as a “strategic top partner” to help him lead and grow GALEO.
GALEO, which is mostly funded by philanthropic funds and individuals, has expanded to a staff of 14 (including a large contingent of community organizers) since Gonzalez, whose background is in mechanical engineering and public administration, founded it in 2003 to organize Latino political power in Georgia.
At that time, there were only about 10,000 registered Latino voters statewide, and today there are over 385,000, making up roughly 4% of Georgia’s total voters. The state’s Latino electorate grew by a whopping 140,995 new voters–a 58% increase–from 2016 to 2020, according to GALEO’s Latino Voter Report. Nationally, one in 10 American voters is Latino, it noted.
GALEO has worked hard to educate, register and turn out Latino voters, Gonzalez said. This year the group wants to connect with over 1 million voters and potential voters through phone and text banking, in-person events and old-fashioned door-knocking.
“We take pride in the fact that we have helped shape where Georgia is today,” he added. ”As a Latino community and electorate, we are going to help shape the future of Georgia as well.”
There is still work to be done to get more Latinos into government, he said, adding that right now there are only about a dozen elected Latino officials in Georgia.
Gonzalez talked to Atlanta Civic Circle about the growing influence of Georgia’s Latino voters, immigration, and the recent mass shootings of people of color. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Tammy Joyner: In announcing Chavez’s hire last week, you mentioned GALEO 2.0. What is that?
Jerry Gonzalez: It’s the evolution of our organization to better meet the needs and increase power for the Latino community. When we started GALEO, the Latino electorate and community were not really well-respected. That’s a different story now. Georgia is a national battleground state. The context has changed, and so has the growth of the community.
What are Georgia Latino voters’ top concerns heading into the midterm?
They’re the same as everybody else. Inflation is a big issue and immigration still remains unresolved. Latino voters, particularly in Georgia, view immigration as a litmus test of whether a politician respects or doesn’t respect our community. Many within our community look at that like: ‘Do I even want to hear what they have to say? If what they’re saying about our community is negative, then I’m not going to bother listening to what their policy agenda can be outside of the issue of immigration.’
The issue of gun control and access to guns is another big one. There was a white supremacist terrorist attack against our community in El Paso. This carnage that recently happened in Uvalde brought home that issue.
What is GALEO doing to address those concerns directly?
We’re working to make sure immigration remains at the forefront of our policy and we get a rational response from elected officials and policy changes to make immigration better for our country. Given the supply chain issues and labor shortages, it makes sense for us to have a more robust immigration system to let more people in to help us with the economic challenges we’re facing as a country.
How confident are you that Georgia is moving in the right direction on its immigration policies?
Over the last several decades, the Georgia legislature has passed a ton of anti-immigrant initiatives. But in the last several years, because of the coalitions we’ve built with refugees, the African-American community [and other Americans], no anti-immigrant legislative initiatives have passed. Even Republicans are not comfortable with some of the initiatives being proposed within their own party. That, in and of itself, is progress.
We’ve built a multi-racial, multi-ethnic coalition to counter an issue that has traditionally been seen only as a Latino issue. Some within the Republican Party are not comfortable with that direction either.
Is the legislature doing anything that supports immigrant communities?
Absolutely. Former [Republican] state senator Tommie Williams started that process by supporting in-state tuition for DACA individuals. That’s one issue that has continued under Republican leadership, but unfortunately, it hasn’t moved forward yet.
Georgia is at a disadvantage. We’re losing young talents who are going to other states for their education–and then not coming back because of this issue. That’s led to the labor shortages we’re seeing now. It’s really a brain loss we can’t afford to lose in our state.
[DACA recipients, who arrived in the United States as children, are undocumented but have lawful immigration status. Even so, Georgia DACA residents are required to pay out-of-state tuition to attend public college, which can cost up to three times as much. They also are barred from attending the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, Georgia State University, Medical College of Georgia, and Georgia College & State University.
Rep. Kasey Carpenter (R-Dalton) introduced a bill for DACA residents to pay in-state tuition in the 2022 legislative session, but it died in chamber.]
How is the Latino community participating in Georgia’s political process during the midterm election cycle?
The Latino community has been paying close attention to better options in our political processes. We know that from the interest and engagement that we’ve seen as we continue to talk to our community. That’s face-to-face when we’re registering voters, knocking on doors and out in the community.
What are you hearing from voters? Are they optimistic? Disenchanted?
There were a lot of promises made in the last election that haven’t come through, which breeds a little bit of cynicism from the electorate. That said, the Latino community is generally very optimistic about the future and understands that it takes work to get to what we want to get to.
You’ve run GALEO for nearly 20 years. What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned?
Systems change is not a sprint. It’s a marathon. To make our state a better place requires a long-term view and making sure the community is with you along the way.
What’s been the biggest change you’ve seen in Georgia politics over the last 20 years?
The most amazing change I’ve seen has been the engagement of young people in the political policy process. Before, it was less than a handful of us who were engaged in this type of work. Now we have volumes of people engaged. We planted seeds early on and a lot of those seeds have grown and are flourishing and adding value to civic life in Georgia. And that’s a beautiful thing.