March 7, 2011 | Washington Examiner | Original Article

D.C.'s Hispanic population has a new political voice

Seeking relief from the scent of scandal permeating the Wilson Building these days, I high-tailed it for the streets. Treat me to some clean air. Show me a fresh face. Give me a reason to hope!

I found solace on a sunny afternoon, walking the neighborhoods of Columbia Heights, campaigning with Joshua Lopez. He's a long shot to win the at-large council seat vacated when Kwame Brown moved up to chairman. He's worth a look -- and more.

In a city that's had a rising Hispanic population for the past decade, Lopez is the first serious Latino candidate for public office. The Census Bureau reports Hispanics make up nearly 10 percent of the city's 550,000 residents. That's about 50,000 people who have never had an elected official who was a native speaker of their language, who could understand their predicament, who could advocate for them.

"We have never mounted a strong effort to rally around our issues and get behind a candidate," Lopez says. "Now we are starting to focus."

Even if Lopez, 27, doesn't win the April 26 special election, he's fulfilling a basic public service by showing up, walking the streets, encouraging people to participate.

Lopez stops a man riding a bicycle along Spring Street toward 14th Street, a few blocks north of the big-box stores at Park Road. Signs in the storefronts here are in Spanish. Pollomio is a Peruvian charcoal chicken joint, next to the Salon de Belleza and Susanna's Pupusaria, a great little restaurant.

"Estas registrado para votar?" he asks.

"No," the man responds.

Herein lies Lopez's basic problems: Many Hispanic residents of the nation's capital are not prepared to vote, because they are not legal residents, or they are not registered.

The bike rider, Felipe Gonzalez, comes from Guatemala, as does Lopez. The candidate leaves him with the papers to register. Will he?

Lopez bears the jaunty look and fit demeanor of his political mentor, Adrian Fenty. Like Fenty, he's a D.C. native. His mother settled here in 1976. She worked as a housekeeper and sent her son to Janney Elementary, Edmund Burke School and Maya Angelou Public Charter. He graduated from the University of the District of Columbia with a history degree.

Lopez "bugged Fenty" until he hired him onto his council staff in 2004. He worked on legislation and constituent services. He also won election to an Advisory Neighborhood Commission in Ward 4, so he has both elective and policy experience.

"Naturally," he says, "most people who support Fenty support me."

That's a stretch. And Lopez can't count on Hispanic voters to give him the victory margin against 10 other declared candidates. There simply are too few. He will have to convince voters of all kinds, from all wards, that he's ready to represent them. Lord knows they should be ready for an alternative to the crew that's stinking up city hall these days.

"Time for a new generation of leaders," he says.

Perhaps a Hispanic one.