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Latinos worry after losing longtime seat in the Indiana Statehouse

In the wake of this week’s sweeping GOP victories, some Latinos say they’ve lost an important voice in the Indiana Statehouse.

Indiana’s longest serving Latino state legislator, Democrat Mara Candelaria Reardon of Munster, was first elected to the Indiana House in 2006.

For years, she was the state’s only Latino lawmaker, but on Tuesday she lost a close election to her Republican opponent Bill Fine.

Reardon’s district, which once included heavily Hispanic areas like Hammond and East Chicago, shrunk over the last 8 years due to GOP-led redistricting.

Her seat had been held by a Latino for the last 32 years going back to when Jesse Villalpando Jr. was first elected to the seat.

“It’s changed drastically. It’s certainly gotten less and less Democratic and less and less Hispanic,” Reardon said. “It makes me sad that it’s not a Latina seat anymore.”

Reardon’s defeat leaves State Rep. Christina Hale, a Democrat from Indianapolis who is part-Cuban, as Indiana’s only Latino legislator.

At 5 percent, Indiana’s Latino population has steadily grown over the last decade, including areas like Fort Wayne and Indianapolis.

In Lake County, Indiana, which includes Reardon’s district, the Latino population is 12 percent. The history of the Hispanic community in Northwest Indiana dates back to the early 1900s when Mexicans began arriving in large numbers to work in the factories in East Chicago.

“I think it does help to have someone of a Latino background," Hale said. "And, I’m a firm believer that our state legislature and our government should reflect our community and right now it doesn’t.”

Hale entered the Indiana House in 2012, and on Tuesday won re-election in a Republican-leaning district.

She views Reardon as a mentor and someone who championed issues important to Latinos, such as education. She also points to Reardon’s fight against state laws that some viewed as being anti-immigrant.

“We do need more people of Latino descent, and more women, different age groups, different perspectives being reflected in our legislature,” Hale said. “Right now, it’s fairly homogeneous.”

Representative-elect Fine beat Reardon by 422 votes to win the seat. He lost to Reardon two years ago.

Fine says he’s aware of issues that may be important to Latinos, although the new district boundaries don’t include the predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods it once did.

Fine, who is a lawyer, says his son-in-law is Mexican-American, and he has several friends who are also Latino.

“There are all kinds of issues that are important to Hispanics,” Fine said. “I don’t think of it as a single-minded perspective, or single-minded issues. … And, not all Hispanics are in line with Democrats.”

Before the 12th House district was redrawn, it encompassed a wide area from the shores of Lake Michigan in Whiting to the town of Dyer about 15 miles south.

“Democrats benefited from the sense that it made it nearly impossible for a Republican to win,” Fine said.

The new boundaries for the 12th District include parts of Munster, Highland and Griffith, wealthier areas with few minorities.

Fine noted that the areas with large Hispanic populations, Hammond, East Chicago and Whiting, are represented by non-Latino, white or black Democrats, most of whom have been in office for years.

John Aguilera, who represented the 12th District for eight years and succeeded Villalpando, wasn’t surprised by Reardon’s loss to Fine.

“The way the district was lined up, I could see that coming,” Aguilera, of East Chicago, said.

But Aguilera does put some of the blame of Reardon’s loss on her fellow House Democrats.

“I was a little disturbed that other Democratic legislators didn’t accommodate her somewhat,” Aguilera said. “In Indiana, you can’t create a district for one particular nationality or race but you can create a district based on communities of interest. But the Hispanic community is an afterthought. They pay it lip service.”

For a time, Democrats Reardon and Hale found an ally in State Rep. Rebecca Kubacki, a Republican of Mexican descent, whose district included the City of Elkhart. But earlier this year Kubacki lost in the primary and won’t serve a second two-year term.

“It breaks my heart to think that this coming year that I will be the only one left,” Hale said. “It doesn’t seem right and doesn’t seem appropriate.”

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