Opinion: The Rising U.S. Electorate Needs Its Own Leaders

Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana addresses activists from America's political right at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington,  Saturday, Feb. 11, 2012.  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) (National Journal)

It's no coincidence that President Obama won eight out of 10 Asian-American, black, and Latino votes. He ran an unparalleled and technologically sophisticated campaign, curried favor with immigrant communities by providing deferred action for Dreamers, and had a lousy opponent in Mitt Romney, who struggled to shake off his "self-deportation" comment in the general election.

But, Obama was also called the first Asian-American president; his unique and compelling story resonates with the African, Asian and Latino American electorates. Democrats and Republicans alike are wondering which 2016 candidate could have similar appeal.

But, before we are swept up in the maelstrom of another presidential race, our attention should be focused on building a pipeline of diverse leaders for the 2013 municipal and 2014 state assembly elections. Given the dysfunction in Washington, it is at the state and local level where much of the important legislation that affects immigrant communities is being made. It is in these municipal and state assembly races where candidates can emerge from Latino and Asian-American communities, keep the "new demographic coalition" engaged, and build a pipeline of progressive immigrant leaders for higher office. It is also where the Republican Party has been focusing a lot of attention.

Despite jokes about the stagecraft at the Republican National Convention — the juxtaposition of immigrant faces on the stage and the sea of white delegates — the GOP has actually done a far better job of identifying and grooming minority leaders for political leadership positions. Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio's names have already been thrown in the ring as potential 2016 presidential contenders, for example. All four Asian-American and Latino governors in the country are Republicans, and at least one, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, is considered a presidential or vice-presidential contender.

Furthermore, the GOP is building a robust pipeline of minority leaders at the state and local level. In 2011, the Republican State Leadership Committee launched the Future Majority Project, with the specific purpose of cultivating Hispanic candidates for state legislative positions and creating a pipeline of minority leaders for the future. It has set a goal of recruiting 100 new Hispanic leaders and electing 30 new Hispanic legislators to statehouses across the country.

While the Future Majority Project is still quite small, with a budget of $3 million, it still dwarfs the efforts of the Democratic Party, which has no similar effort or infrastructure to cultivate Asian-American and Latino leaders. Not one Asian-American or Latino American in the Democratic Party holds a governorship, and 2016 presidential hopefuls include only white males and Hillary Clinton. That isn't to say that there are no Latino or Asian-American leaders in the party. There are far more, particularly at the state and local level, than in the GOP. But this is less a result of strategic leadership development by the party, and more a function of minority groups' historic allegiances to the Democratic Party. Far more can be done to establish a formal infrastructure within the party that can be used to identify, train, and elect more Asian and Latino leaders to local, state, and national posts.

Candidates from minority and immigrant communities are more likely to mobilize low-propensity and first-time voters in their communities, in much the same way the president has done. Engaging those voters is key, particularly in local, state, and non-presidential year elections, which have historically low turnout in general and more participation by high-propensity, established, typically older and white voters. In part because of increasing dysfunction in Washington, more legislation is being passed at the state and local level to affect minorities' and immigrants' day-to-day lives.

Just look at the spike in legislation related to immigrants proposed and passed in state legislatures over the last few years. In 2005, 300 bills were introduced and 39 enacted. By 2007, those numbers increased to 1,562 laws introduced and 240 passed, five and six times higher than just two years before. By 2011, 1,607 bills were introduced and 197 were passed.  Congress has failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform, and a new equilibrium has been established in state legislatures that answer to different constituencies than Congress does.

Whether or not immigration reform passes in Congress in 2013, the activity in local and state legislatures is more important for immigrants and minorities than it has been in the past. At these levels, policy about education, health care, housing, and the environment helps to determine access and equity. The more we engage with democracy at the local level, the more we can ensure those policies represent immigrant and minority interests. For the Congress of the future to be responsive to the policy concerns of all Americans regardless of race, ethnicity, or country of birth, we need to build a strong pipeline of progressive Asian and Latino leaders for the municipal and state legislatures of the present.

Sayu Bhojwani is the founding director of The New American Leaders Project.  She has worked on immigrant integration in various capacities for more than 15 years.