In an election year where Republicans nationally hope to make big waves among Latino voters and Democrats are trying to hold on to what has historically been a safe vote, both Gov. Kevin Stitt and challenger Joy Hofmeister are working hard to appeal to the community.

Stitt is running what is believed to be the first Spanish-language television ad by an Oklahoma gubernatorial candidate. He has attended a number of Latino community events across the state including a parade and a festival in Oklahoma City and a luncheon put on by members of the Hispanic business community.  At each event, he expresses what he says are his shared values of “faith, family and freedom” with the Latino community. 

Hofmeister has signs, shirts and placards in Spanish and is also attending cultural events and meeting with community members. She has another Hispanic community meet and greet on Saturday in Tulsa.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Joy Hofmeister’s signs and placards in Spanish. REESE GORMAN/The Frontier

Latinos and Hispanics are Oklahoma’s fastest-growing demographic and now make up nearly 12% of the population, growing by 42% since 2010, according to the most recent U.S. Census data.

Both candidates have focused their stump speeches at Latino community events on education policy, but with stark differences. Hofmeister pitched strengthening public education and Stitt campaigned on his private school voucher plan.

According to data from the districts, Hispanic and Latino students are the largest demographic at the state’s two biggest districts, making up nearly 60% of the students at Oklahoma City Public Schools and nearly 37% at Tulsa Public Schools.

Hofmeister supporter Brenda Hernandez, vice president and founder of the Oklahoma City-based Latino PR firm Tango Public Relations, said support for public education is vital.

“Being that we do have the largest percentage in our Oklahoma City public schools, I think it is important to support our public education,” Hernandez said. 

Before tacos were served at a meet-and-greet event for Hofmeister in south Oklahoma City on Oct. 21, Hofmeister spent time talking with voters about education.

“We know that it is critically important to have a strong education for all children and today, we have a governor that does not understand the connection between strengthening schools and the need to build a robust economy,” Hofmeister said in a stump speech at the event.

Meanwhile, Stitt has been advocating for school vouchers, a plan he thinks would benefit the Latino community by offering people more opportunities to choose the best schools for their children, he said in a brief interview at the Fiesta de las Americas, a cultural festival in South Oklahoma City. As he walked around the event he would introduce himself in Spanish and tried for as long as he could to hold the conversation, which was often only a couple sentences before he had to switch back to English.

“More school options is also important for the Hispanic community, because just like what I’ve been trying to promote across the state you shouldn’t just be forced into a poor school,” Stitt said in the interview. “If you’re in a ZIP code that has low graduation rates let’s bring that up, let’s give parents more options and let’s create competition in our school.”

At each of three Latino cultural events The Frontier attended with Stitt, he also touted his success in helping bring a Mexican Consulate to Oklahoma City, which is set to open in March 2023.

Gov. Kevin Stitt at the Hispanic Fiesta. REESE GORMAN/The Frontier

“I got a chance to listen and I heard you and I went to Mexico City and Monterrey and we’re bringing a consulate to Oklahoma City and it’s going to be coming early next year,” Stitt told the crowd at the Hispanic Fiesta at Scissortail Park on Oct. 7. 

But bringing a consulate to Oklahoma was not solely Stitt’s doing, the Mexican government, U.S. Department of State and other state entities were also instrumental in the project. 

Currently, the closest Mexican Consulate is in Arkansas, a long trek for Jose Martinez, a 52-year-old Stitt supporter who is originally from Mexico.

Jose Martinez at the Fiesta de las Americas. REESE GORMAN/The Frontier

“Normally we’d have to go to Arkansas to get a Mexican passport,” he said. “So I would have to go all the way over there. (But) bringing the consulate over here permanently is a very good thing for a lot of people.”

Victor Roman, a 40-year old Stitt supporter, said in his 15 years living in south Oklahoma City, he had never seen any governor visit his community before Stitt. Roman said Stitt’s appearance at the Fiesta de las Americas parade gave him “hope that things are going to turn around for the Hispanic community.”

“Just by him taking the leap of faith and being out here with the Hispanics, even though he doesn’t know a lot of Spanish, he’s trying and he gets an E for effort,” Roman said. 

Ozzy Castillo, 37, had been unsure if he was going to vote, but said he is now a Stitt supporter after he and his four children met the governor at the Fiesta de las Americas parade. 

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But some view such campaign appearances as little more than political pandering during an election year.

“We need a governor who acknowledges the people all the time versus just (doing so) when it’s election time,” said Arturo Delgado at the Latino community event in support of Hofmeister in south Oklahoma City. “What we’ve seen with (Stitt) is that he’s making his rounds and taking pictures but once the election time is over, you don’t see or hear from him again.”

Delgado, a local labor union leader who supports Hofmeister, said that he believes she will “find out what the community needs and stay engaged,” rather than just show up during election season.

The shift

As Republicans nationally hope to make big waves among the Latino community following a shift towards them back in 2020 — the party has even opened a Hispanic Community Center in Capitol Hill — Stitt hopes to do the same in Oklahoma. 

But, a recent poll from Oklahoma City-based consulting firm Amber Integrated found that 58% of Latino and Hispanic voters said they would vote for Hofmeister and just 30% said they plan on voting for Stitt. Despite this wide margin, Stitt still believes that the national trend will play out in Oklahoma. 

“We’re just sharing with them and making sure that they know that the Republican Party needs them and wants them,” Stitt said in the interview. “I think a lot of times the Democratic Party takes these minority groups for granted. But our policies in the Republican Party of freedom, safe communities, better schools for our kids and more parent choice is exactly what they believe in.”

Democrat State Representative-elect Arturo Alonso, who represents Oklahoma City’s mostly Latino Capitol Hill neighborhood, said the older generation skews more Republican while younger people are more liberal. With the economy struggling, Alonso said many Latinos have recognized that the Republican party might be stronger when it comes to economic policy, but the party’s rhetoric surrounding immigration is a turn-off for many.

“We’re not a monolith,” he said. “I’ve realized that a lot of people think that the Latino community votes one way and it doesn’t. You have conservative and liberal Latinos, veteran Latinos, Latinos who are teachers, doctors and more blue-collar workers as well. The Latino community is as diverse as it gets.”

Gov. Kevin Stitt and Arturo Alonso talking at the Hispanic Fiesta. REESE GORMAN/The Frontier

Alonso, who supports Hofmeister, said his community often sees candidates trying to appeal to Latino voters during election season who forget about them once elected. He points to the fact that despite the significant increase in the Latino population in Oklahoma over the past 10 years, there is still no way to vote or register to vote in Spanish, except in Texas County.

He hopes that he can change that in the Legislature but it is also up to the gubernatorial candidates, whoever wins. 

“I’m excited to see candidates recognizing just how much power we do have because we’ve been there for a while,” Alonso said. “But I would say definitely be intentional, don’t just be like ‘Oh, let me get their support because I want to stay in office,’ actually go in there and try to be intentional.”