Lucy Flores talks to her father on the phone after a long day of campaign and… (Michael Laris/The Washington…)
LAS VEGAS — It’s 7:30 a.m. and Lucy Flores is already sweating through her blouse.
Her special burden is being young, telegenic and Latina in a critical presidential battleground that may be decided by Latino voters.
These circumstances have transformed her into an intensely sought-after surrogate for President Obama and other Democrats.
A few days before, Obama’s campaign had her in Florida debating a couple of balding Republicans on Univision. The next day, the team would send her to New York to talk up her use of social media, then fly her back to Nevada in time to introduce Interior Secretary Ken Salazar at a campaign stop.
A freshman member of the Nevada state assembly, Flores, 33, put herself in the hospital campaigning in the desert heat this summer and now, as Election Day approaches, she remains surprised that showing up when she says she will and doing whatever she is asked are in such high demand in politics.
“Most people know if I say I’m going to help in some way, I actually do it, which apparently is some sort of commodity,” she said. And so the phone keeps ringing.
There are 1,453 Latino elected officials representing millions of Latino voters in 13 states that will be key to the outcome of Tuesday’s election. They are school board members, mayors and state assembly members like Flores, according to an analysis of a database updated annually by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
The hours they put in, and the stories they tell, could be crucial to the ground game in key districts from Denver to Miami-Dade. Those efforts could be particularly critical in the race for president. Latino registered voters are leaning toward Obama by a margin of more than 3 to 1, according to the latest survey from the Pew Hispanic Center. But Latinos have lagged at the polls in the past. Although about 65 percent of eligible black voters and white voters cast ballots in 2008, according to Pew, just half of Latinos did so.
Flores was elected to the legislature in 2010 from a poor district centered in northeast Las Vegas, far from the glitz of the Strip. Her success has rested in part on the strength of a story of hardship and redemption that bestows a certain credibility among her constituents.
The story is now well-honed into an inspirational elevator pitch: She was abandoned by her mother when she was 9, and her father’s multiple jobs left her to care for her younger siblings. She turned to local gang members for support, was arrested driving a stolen car, and spent months in juvenile detention before finding guidance in a caring parole officer.
She dropped out of high school, bounced back to get her GED, was accepted at the University of Southern California, and graduated law school in Nevada the year she was elected to the legislature.
Her experiences then have sharpened her politics now.
“It’s about being able to identify with struggle, in whatever form, shape, way that that might be,” she said.
Nevada has led the nation in unemployment for more than two years, as the service and construction industries cratered. In September, the jobless rate was 11.8 percent. “The Latino community has been disproportionately affected by the recession because of the disproportionate representation of the Latino community in low-skilled jobs,” Flores said.
Obama is the better advocate for job retraining and educational opportunities that can change that picture, she said.
“When you think of folks like Mitt Romney, it’s not political rhetoric to say, ‘You have never experienced hunger. You have never experienced not having someone to watch your child so that you can go look for a job,’ ” Flores said. “He would want to run this country for the people who are like him.”
Flores’s Twitter bio reads, “Attorney by day, legislator by every other waking moment.” She dominated the primary and will face no opponent Tuesday, leaving her time for plenty of TV appearances and campaign-office openings.
On the shelf of her law office was a photo with Obama beside four hefty volumes of the “Statutes of Nevada.” There was a purple yoga mat, USC Trojans flair, a plastic ficus tree, and, in her e-mail box, a document headlined: “Assemblywoman Flores’ Talking Points.”
She was prepping for a noontime news conference for Rep. Shelley Berkley, who is seeking to replace Republican Sen. Dean Heller. Polling shows that Nevada’s Latino voters are less enthusiastic about Berkley’s candidacy than they are about Obama’s, which is where Flores comes in.
One of the first lessons of being a surrogate, Flores says: “Sometimes you have really great writers, and sometimes you don’t.” So she’s tweaking talking points. The ghostwriter would have her say that Berkley is on the side of the middle class. But that seems a little flat to Flores.
“ ‘Who’s on your side?’ ” she said. “That resonates more with people in my district.”