DENVER -- On the eve of a mayoral election, 9NEWS asked one of the city's most influential mayors to reflect on issues facing the Latino community all across Colorado.
Federico Peña, who served two terms as mayor from 1983 to 1991 before joining the Clinton administration, spoke on everything from education and income inequality to gentrification and the 2016 presidential election.
"Since 1983, the Hispanic population in Denver has essentially doubled. When I ran for mayor of Denver, the Hispanic population was about 18 percent of the city. Today it's 35 going or 40 percent. Statewide, that's also happening," Peña said. "So, Latinos are growing rapidly throughout the country, certainly in key states of the Southwest, we're seeing dramatic changes in population."
"Hispanic families, parents know that for their children to succeed, they have to have a very good education and hopefully go to college," Peña said. "One of the biggest barriers for Hispanics who may graduate at the top of their class is getting into their colleges of choice. The biggest barrier is cost."
The former mayor said more needs to be done to help young Latinos get through school financially.
"Scholarships, financial aid and, in some cases, tutoring for young Hispanics, particularly when they're freshman, so they can stay in college are all needed," he said. "I have seen a lot of Hispanics succeed extraordinarily in college and become doctors and scientists and engineers, filling all the professions that we have, whether it's lawyers or whatever it is. We've gotta be focused on this growing part of our population because if we don't, we will have a very large part of the US population which will be undereducated, underinvolved, underemployed, and frankly, will be a detriment to our economy and to our nation."
"Well the good news is that the housing market is booming. So if you own a home, your net worth, because a lot of your assets are in your own home, has gone up, but for those who don't own a home or who are renting, rents are going up, and for people who are trying to buy a home for the first time, it's very difficult," Peña said. "So what needs to happen? The City of Denver is trying to make sure that there's more affordable housing available in the city. So it's trying to require developers who may be developing a 200 unit, to have a portion of that for low-income or moderate-income individuals."
"I think if a number of people work together, government, the financial institutions, the federal government, you can craft a program that can help first-time home buyers and low-income people get into housing, but to do it in a sensible way to make sure that those individuals are able to finally pay off the mortgage and not lose their home five years later," he added.
Peña said that education and income levels are directly connected.
"The good news is that Denver, and the metro area, continues to attract very talented, young professionals. In fact, Denver has the second-highest per capita college-educated workforce in the country. It's called the 'Colorado Paradox,'" he said. We've got to find a way to grow and to make successful kids who are born and raised here. That's challenge No. 1. Challenge No. 2 is with better education, we know that those young people will be able to get better jobs. They'll have higher incomes, and if they have that, they'll be able to afford housing here in Denver or in the metro areas."
2016 Presidential Election
Peña said both Republicans and Democrats have candidates that could attract the Latino vote.
"Obviously Hillary Clinton -- when she ran the first time, she did have a lot of Latinos supporting her, particularly Hispanic women, but Latino's generally, and I think she has the ability to do that again," Peña said. "On the Republican side -- Jeb Bush is reaching out to the Hispanic community, he has the potential of doing it. Marco Rubio has the potential of doing it."
He said the main issue that has hurt Republican candidates in that last two elections has been immigration reform.
"It is absolutely correct that Latinos are fundamentally conservative, and if you look at the values, whether it's religious values, very conservative social values ... you would think that Latinos would vote more Republican," he said. "Many Latinos across the United States, one of the first litmus tests they'll apply to any candidate is where do you stand on immigration reform. So if you take a Ted Cruz, who is not very supportive of immigration reform, he will not get many Latino voters. Marco Rubio is beginning to craft a different position on immigration reform, which may help him. Jeb Bush has already written a book on immigration reform."
"Hillary Clinton is strongly supporting comprehensive immigration reform. So that's sort of the emotional issue, so once you get past that, then you get into more important issues, in my mind at least, which are education, healthcare, housing, jobs -- those are the real bedrock issues affecting the Latino community," he added. "Mr. Romney could not get past that emotional issue for Latinos. So that's really the first barrier or obstacle you got to jump in order to get people's attention, but once you do, then people will listen to your message as they did a George Bush, and who knows? Maybe another candidate might be able to do it this year."
Peña and his wife, Cindy, currently run the Latino Leadership Institute in a partnership with the Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver. The program, in part, trains young Latino professionals in how to advance their careers.