Some of N.H.'s State Reps Of Color Reflect On Their Role In A Tumultuous Year
Iz Piedra once thought being a state representative was a goal he’d accomplish as a retiree, not as a 28-year-old attorney.
But in 2018, Piedra got his chance to do that for Manchester. A local Democratic leader asked if he would consider running.
“And I went with it,” he said.
Piedra says, growing up, his family benefitted from state and federal programs that helped them pursue educational opportunities and get good jobs.
But he says it’s becoming much harder for families like his to put down roots in the state.
“For working class folks or younger folks there’s a very high barrier to entry as far as homeownership, as far as finding a school district that’s adequately funded and buying a house there and finding a good paying job,” Piedra said.
Manny Espitia, who represents Nashua’s fourth ward, says his family experiences have also shaped his politics.
“I know what a block of cheddar looks like,” Espitia said. “I know a big jug of peanut butter that has a white label. I know what it’s like to grow up on food stamps.
He keeps that in mind when he’s at the State House, arguing for better state support for families in Nashua.
“My district has the second highest number of SNAP benefits in the state, and my district has lowest educational attainment in the state. I’ve been there. I’ve seen it, ” he said. “I will fight for these people so that we won’t be last, so that we can move up, and we can get equitable opportunities in the state.”
Espitia says that this perspective - from young people, and people of color - is needed at the State House,in committee meetings, on the House floor, and in conversations with other legislators as policies get hammered out.
“When you’re there, you see what happens when there aren’t people representing the interests of your constituents,” Espitia said.
He says his constituents interests aren’t always taken into consideration in conversations on education funding or health care - or other issues that affect them.
It’s one reason Latha Mangipudi, who’s running for her fifth term in office, cherishes having a seat at the table.
“It’s not the power,” she said. “It’s the position, and to be the conduit, be the connector for the people who need that voice.”
She says for the most part she’s found New Hampshire’s State House to be collegial, a place she could be herself and share her Indian heritage.
But Mangipudi says after Donald Trump was elected, her experience in the State House changed.
Before that, she’d always brought a traditional snack on a Sankranti, a Hindu festival, to share with all 400 reps.
“We make a trail mix with sesame seeds, lentils, coconut, sugar cube,” she said. “The sesame signifies friendship, surcharged with love and harmony.”
Mangipudi says this trail mix is shared with neighbors, family and friends to “build the community and build harmony and friendship and love together.”
She said it had been well received since she started in the State House in 2014. But in January of 2017, several lawmakers gave her a hard time about it.
“Somebody shouted out, ‘Why do we have to follow your thing?’”
Since then, she’s stopped sharing this part of her culture. Mangipudi says she feels her identity is now scrutinized, rather than appreciated.
“I’m a woman. I’m brown. I’m a first generation immigrant, and I’m very vocal,” she said. “These used to be my strengths; now it’s used against me. I get harassed. They go for my jugular on a daily basis.”
She says she’s worn down by the environment in Concord, but decided to run again so she could continue to represent and listen to folks who might not have an advocate elsewhere.
All of these reps say the events of this year - COVID-19, protests for racial justice, judicial nominations -- have brought into focus the weight of their role.
Espitia, from Nashua says, that in these moments, state legislatures can get overlooked, as people wait for the federal government to act.
“It’s just a slow slog. And so we as a legislature have the ability to make those changes,” he said.
But sometimes making those changes can be hard, when there are institutional barriers for young representatives, Espitia and Piedra, the two first term reps, say getting paid $100 dollars a year, while balancing a full time job, makes it hard to find the time to spearhead pieces of legislation.
“We have colleagues that can carry that ball, and can make that process start and happen and we can support them,” says Piedra, who’s from Manchester.
Piedra says he and others did think about not running again this year, but one reason he decided to is so he can be a mentor to other young lawmakers.
“I think it would have been a shame for me to not have taken advantage of the experience I have as an incumbent to try to continue that work, and continue the momentum of more equitable representation,” he said.
New Hampshire is becoming more diverse, and Piedra says the state’s lawmakers should better reflect the state they serve.