Two Latinas are some of the first to hold public office in Blaine County
Mayor Ned Burns kicked off a Bellevue City Council meeting this September by swearing in the newest member of the city council, Jennifer Rangel Muniz.
Rangel, 25, was appointed to the position in the small city about 30 minutes south of Sun Valley, after a longtime council member resigned and publicly recommended her for the job.
“As I got sworn in, it was very exciting, not only for myself, but I feel like for my family," she said. "As a first generation, I don’t think my parents saw me in the role that I now have and I don’t think I saw myself in the position, as well.”
Her parents couldn’t be there to watch — they were both working. Her dad is in masonry; her mom cleans houses. But, they watched the video together later.
Rangel was born in Jerome and grew up in the Wood River Valley. She recently graduated from the University of Idaho and moved back home during the pandemic.
Before she was sworn in, council members asked her what she could bring to the table. She said there’s the fact that she’d be the only Latina member of the council in a city that’s roughly 30% Hispanic. But that’s not all.
“It’s not only the fact that I’m this brown girl joining city council, but it’s also the fact that I have the bilingual skills to effectively communicate with other community members,” she said in an interview.
Then there’s her day job. Council members are paid $50 per month, and Rangel works full-time at the Bellevue-based Hunger Coalition. It’s a nonprofit that tackles food insecurity in Blaine County, which has Idaho’s highest median income, but also the highest level of inequality, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
It’s a Thursday, the big food distribution day at the Hunger Coalition. Rangel, who is petite and bubbly, is greeting people picking up their pre-ordered food boxes filled with fresh produce, milk, eggs and bread.
She puts the boxes on a red cart and tells people they can pick out some more canned and refrigerated items.
Rangel is a resource coordinator at the Hunger Coalition. That means people come to her to get their food for the first time, and also for help with their power bills or rental payments. She said more people need help during slack season, when the tourists aren’t around.
This job, she said, gives her an important lens into the issues the community is facing, from affordable housing to mental health.
“People have two or three mansions up in Sun Valley, but then the working class, I mean, us, we have to barely make it by," Rangel said. "That’s why a lot of people have difficulty reaching out to us, because it’s like 'I should be making it by, I have 2-3 jobs, why can’t I pay my bills, why can’t I afford healthy food?'”
In the back warehouse room, Blanca Romero Green is packing boxes of food and loading them into a van.
She’s another woman changing the face of elected positions in Blaine County as the first-ever Latina voted onto the board of the school district, where 44% of students are Hispanic or Latino. And she also works at the Hunger Coalition. She's a program manager, and organizes the weekly food distribution in Ketchum.
In last week's election, Romero garnered 95% of the vote in her district — a neighborhood south of Hailey, across from the airport. Her one opponent dropped out of the race.
Romero's kids are in grades 7 and 9. Like Rangel, her job is part of what inspired her to look into public office.
“Since I started at the Hunger Coalition, I feel like I really got more involved with the community itself, and I feel like I want to be an advocate for the people who are not feeling as represented," she said.
Later that afternoon at the Ketchum distribution, Romero's team is passing out food outside an elementary school. She’s gregarious and warm, though says she’s more of an introvert.
A woman picking up her food box gets out of her car and holds up a newspaper clipping of Romero's campaign advertisement.
"I wanted to vote for you, but I’m not in your district!" she said.
Before the Hunger Coalition, Romero worked overnights at the private airport terminal.
Being on the school board, even attending her kids' field trips wasn’t an option. She recognizes that’s still true for many parents, many of whom face language barriers and rely on their kids to translate.
“I also want to set an example for other Hispanic parents who feel like they should be doing this, but they don’t know how to get out there and actually do it,” she said.
It’s one factor contributing to the school district’s well-documented achievement gap between Hispanic and White students. It’s also something her daughters have seen first-hand, like in the 9th grader’s advanced classes.
“She has told me a couple time where she’s the only brown kid, or there might be another one and that’s it," she said. "And it’s stories I’ve heard from plenty of other students who are in those advanced classes.”
She said she wants to be a voice for other Hispanic parents. Getting into politics has been a challenge, but an exciting one. She went door knocking for the first time this fall and took a campaign course with Conservation Voters for Idaho.
The growing Hispanic community in Idaho is "recognizing its power in creating the policies that impact the community — from funding in schools to navigating decisions on local city councils," said Rialin Flores, the executive director of Conservation Voters for Idaho, which advocates for candidates and policies focused on protecting the environment.
Romero is excited to attend her first school board meeting, likely by Zoom, in January, and get to work.
The term Rangel was appointed to lasts until January 2023.
"I am hoping to have the opportunity to campaign this upcoming year," she said, when asked whether she'd want to run in the future.
In the meantime, she’s getting acquainted with topics like annexation and road infrastructure.
Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen
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