Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials
When State Sen. Sam Zamarripa made Georgia history as one of the first three Latinos ever elected to the General Assembly in 2002, he said it hit home for him that a new era was beginning in state politics, one that required the Latino community to think anew about how it hopes to shape its future.
"Latinos have been involved at the local level for some time, but it wasn't until [state Rep.] Pedro Marin and [state Rep.] David Casas and I were elected that there was a state-level political awareness," he says. "In Georgia, what's been interesting is that every few years there's been a substantive change in the population, that asks more of leadership groups and requires that we establish something else."
'Along with DeKalb County Judge Tony del Campo, Zamarripa and Marin developed the idea over the next year, and in November 2003 they introduced what is known today as the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials (GALEO). A non-partisan nonprofit, the group aims to encourage and develop qualified Latino candidates for office and serve as a forum for the issues facing the state's Latino community.
"My feeling is that we're just a puppy today," Zamarripa adds. "But I hope in the next 10 years that GALEO becomes very much a household name in politics, just like GABEO [the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials] is today - we want to become a conduit for research and the development of ideas."
Executive director Jerry Gonzalez says that even though the 200-member organization has been in existence for only two years, it has already begun notching early successes with programs like LeadershipPlenty, a leadership development training program specifically tailored to Latino issues.
"The program provides Latino community people from all walks of life with the basic tools on how to do more in their own communities," Gonzalez says. "To help them address the issues in their own communities, focusing also very much on voter education, registration issues."
As the state's Latino population grows - jumping from 5.3 percent in 2000 to 6.7 percent in 2004, according to the U.S. Census Bureau - it is becoming increasingly active in state and local government, he added. In 2004, voter registration among Latinos grew 75 percent over the previous year, dwarfing Georgia's overall voter registration growth rate of 10 percent.
GALEO also plans to sponsor a series of "town hall"-style meetings through the end of February, Gonzalez adds, focusing on the issues surrounding immigration reform. "Instead of waiting for the due course of time, we want to have the Latino community truly engaged in the democratic process of this state," he says. "The Latino community wants to be an integral part of the Georgia community."