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It happened quietly in 1999. So quietly, that even appointee Ray Aguilar didn’t know about his first-and-only status.

Hmmm, OK, the Grand Island native thought after he was sworn in and the media began to headline it. So, I am the first Hispanic member of the Nebraska Legislature.

Aguilar’s been gone now for six sessions -- four election cycles -- and so far, the first-and-only status stands. No second.

A couple of Latino Nebraskans since then have tried and failed to make it to the Capitol, to see their names on the voting board in the Unicameral Legislature's chamber.

But the day is coming, researchers who study population and demographics believe. It must be. The numbers show Hispanics in the state are at 10 percent and growing -- fast.

“It’s going to be a considerable level of growth, and likewise you would expect that the voting and representation will change according to that,” said David Drozd, research coordinator at the University of Nebraska at Omaha Center for Public Affairs Research.

“There will be more candidates who run as it becomes a voting block, per se, in certain areas,” Drozd said.

Aguilar, a third-generation Nebraska Hispanic and a Republican, was appointed by Gov. Mike Johanns in 1999 to represent District 35, which includes Grand Island. He was elected in 2000 and re-elected in 2004.

“My reaction then was, I’m going to accept that as a sense of pride, you know, proud of the fact that I’m the first one, and work very hard to make sure that I’m representing everybody as well as I can across the board, and doing my heritage proud at the same time.”

Looking back after six years, Aguilar sees the benefit of being a Latino in the Legislature. One point of pride was co-sponsoring and providing his input on Nebraska's Dream Act (LB239), with Lincoln Sen. DiAnna Schimek, that provided resident university tuition for undocumented students who graduate from Nebraska high schools.

“I got to speak a lot on that and felt very good about it, because I was able to bring up some things that a lot of people weren’t aware of,” Aguilar said.

Two Latino Nebraskans, Rebecca Barrientos-Patlan in South Omaha’s District 5 and Luis Sotelo of Lexington in District 36, have since entered and lost legislative races.

Barrientos-Patlan, a Republican, lost to Democrat Heath Mello in 2008 in south Omaha’s District 5, where 28 percent of potential voters are Latino. She brought in 3,460 votes to Mello’s 7,041.

Sotelo, 25, was walloped by Sen.-elect Matt Williams, earning 2,148 votes compared to Williams’ 7,599.

"It was definitely a party-line vote," said Sotelo, who is a registered Democrat in the officially nonpartisan race.

The ratio of Republicans to Democrats in District 36 is 3-to-1, he said. But it's also one of the state's most diverse districts, with a 24 percent minority population -- about 20 percent Latinos.

Sotelo moved with his parents to Nebraska from a small village in Mexico, one of the first families that came in the wave of immigrants seeking work at the IBP meat processing plant. He was 5.

He became a high achiever, graduating from Lexington High School as valedictorian and then from Northwestern University in 2011. After college, he taught in Kansas City schools two years as part of Teach for America, then returned to Lexington.

In his run for the Legislature’s open seat, he emphasized education, including early childhood education, as a prime issue.

"For Latinos, education is so important because that really is our ability for social mobility," he said. "It's our way of being able to make do on that American dream."

Having Hispanic representatives at the statehouse is important for a number of reasons, candidates and leaders say.

"When you have people who don't understand what those needs are, it's harder to produce legislation that benefits those communities," Sotelo said.

Latino American Commission Executive Director Lazaro Spindola agreed that education is one of those important issues. The state Department of Education has failed to understand, he said, how to improve the academic performance of Latino children in high schools and middle schools.

But there are other issues, including poverty, the lack of health insurance and access to business opportunities.

With no Latino member in the Legislature, an important point of view is eliminated, Aguilar said.

Unless you’ve walked a mile in the shoes of Hispanic residents, he said, it’s hard to understand the differences, their experiences and the barriers they face.

What would it take to have a Latino senator, especially in the current political environment?

The numbers show that by 2020, Latinos of voting age are expected to rise to 10.6 percent of the Nebraska population. By 2030, their numbers will grow to 14.3 percent of the voting age population, according to UNO’s Center for Public Affairs Research.

By 2050, projections show Hispanics will make up about a fourth of the state’s overall population.

But growing numbers don’t ensure election of a Hispanic candidate.

Their young age, relatively low rates of U.S. citizenship and lack of political ability to transform numbers into registered and active voters might dilute their influence in future elections, said Lourdes Gouveia and Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado of the UNO Office of Latino/Latin American Studies.

Party politics also don’t help.

Hispanics in Nebraska are more likely to be independent voters, Spindola said.

"Sometimes they feel that one of the political parties basically antagonizes them and the other political party takes them for granted," he said.

In the western part of the state where districts cover a lot of territory, it’s hard for Hispanic candidates to win election, even with more Hispanic voters in some areas, like Sotelo's Dawson County.

"A Latino candidate would have to earn the heart and souls not only of the Latinos but also of other individuals," Spindola said.

And they would be competing against other candidates who usually have been neighbors of voters for a long time.

After the election, candidate Sotelo returned to his job as a bilingual college planning specialist for EducationQuest Foundation in Kearney. He has ideas about what political venture might be next but no plan.

Aguilar said the key to Latino representation is education, time and establishing trust. In most cases, it helps to start at the local level with city councils, county boards and school boards. He wishes more would.

“In Grand Island, we finally have one Hispanic member on the school board, but I think that’s been a long time coming,” Aguilar said.

UNO researchers agree local offices are where the impact of the Hispanic vote will increasingly be felt.

Spindola said getting another Latino statehouse representative will take ongoing efforts, but it's possible.

"We'll just keep working on it," he said.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSLegislature.

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State government reporter

JoAnne Young covers state government, including the Legislature and state agencies, and the people they serve.

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