A nasty bout of COVID-19 early on in the pandemic 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 mobilize for the 2020 elections, when Georgia flipped from red to blue, electing a Democratic president and two senators over the incumbent Republicans.
The state’s Latino voter turnout rate was 54.8% for the 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 from June 2021.
GALEO recently hired Alejandro Chavez, the grandson of legendary labor movement activist Cesar Chavez, as deputy director. Before joining GALEO, Chavez, 44, worked as a political consultant on Democratic political campaigns and progressive issues. He worked with March On For Voting Rights in Phoenix. He also worked to successfully get Prop 207 passed. It legalized recreational marijuana in Arizona.
“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.
Gonzalez said Chavez brings a lot of national political and nonprofit experience to GALEO.
“The No, 1 priority will be for him to be a strategic top partner with me and leading the organization and helping us over the next several years to … continue to be strong and continue to grow,” Gonzalez said.
GALEO, which is mostly funded by philanthropic funds and individuals, has expanded to a staff of 14 since Gonzalez founded it in 2003 to organize Latino political power in Georgia–with a large contingent of community organizers.
At that time, there were only about 10,000 registered Latino voters statewide. The group has worked hard to educate, register, and turn out Latino voters, he said, and today there are over 385,000, roughly 4% of Georgia’s total voters. This year GALEO wants to connect with over 1 million voters and potential voters through phone and text banking, in-person events, and old-fashioned door-knocking.
“In Georgia, the Latino electorate has been outpacing the national Latino voter participation rate by several percentage points for several election cycles,” Gonzalez said.
The Latino electorate in Georgia in 2020 grew by 140,995 new voters, up 58% since GALEO’s 2016 report. Nationally, one in 10 American voters is Latino, the report noted.
During the past year, GALEO staff and volunteers have participated in events at food banks, churches, and schools, where they provide information while assisting with free COVID-19 testing and food distribution. The organization also has distributed flyers at city events, supermarkets, and churches that target Latinos.
The GALEO Institute for Leadership (GIL) builds future leaders in the community, especially young Latinx. As of November 2021, the institute graduated over 700 future leaders from the program.
“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, however, to get more Latinos into government. Currently, there are only about a dozen elected Latino officials statewide at all levels of government, Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez, whose background is in mechanical engineering and public administration, talked 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: When we started GALEO, the Latino electorate and community were not really well-respected. That’s a different story now. The context has changed and so has the growth of the community.
Georgia is a national battleground state. We want to make sure we’re assessing and reviewing what we’re doing and what our community needs to serve our community and increase power for the Latino community. It’s the evolution of our organization to better meet the needs and increase power.
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 ask: ‘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 a 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 Galileo 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, Georgia has passed a ton of anti-immigrant initiatives in the legislature. But in the last several years, because of the coalition we’ve built with refugees, the American community members and the African-American community, no anti-immigrant legislative initiatives have passed in the Georgia legislature. 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.
Are the legislature or the state doing anything that supports immigrant communities in general?
Absolutely. Former Republican state senator Tommie Williams started that process by supporting in-state tuition for DACA individuals, who are students brought here as children. graduated from our schools and colleges to be able to pay. That’s one issue that has continued under Republican leadership to try to move that forward. Unfortunately, it hasn’t moved forward yet. (DACA recipients are entitled to the same k-12 public education as Georgians who were born in the U.S., but when they go to college, they are required to pay out-of-state tuition, which can be as much as three times higher than what their classmates pay.) 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.
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 by the number of interactions that we’ve had and by the interest and engagement that we’ve seen as we continue to talk to our community. That’s face-to-face at supermarkets when we’re registering voters, and we’re knocking on doors. So yes, the community is very much interested and engaged in the process.
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.