As he leaves, he passes a utility console on the corner, across the street from the Court. On it is a poster commemorating Representative John Lewis, the civil rights hero turned legislator who died in 2020. “My dear friends,” it reads, weaving some words from an address to the Democratic National Convention that Lewis delivered in 2012 into a little verse,
your VOTE is
Precious, almost SACRED it is
The most powerful TOOL we have
To make a more better UNION
Kumar leads me across First Street NE to the grounds of the U.S. Capitol. Babies are being wheeled in strollers, and the first pink blossoms are pale on the trees. At the height of the pandemic, Kumar came to the Capitol lawn, with her two kids, now nine and eight, to play on the grass—one of the few parks open. She was born in Colombia, but when she was four her family came to California for a better life. From the time she was naturalized, five years later, U.S. institutions seemed to her part of the promise of equal access and fair opportunity. “There was always a period where we were asked what we were thankful for, right before we kicked off the class, and I raised my hand and said I was thankful for becoming an American citizen,” she says as we settle onto a shady concrete bench facing the Capitol. “It meant something.”
As Kumar grew older, though, in Northern California’s Sonoma County, she became aware that U.S. opportunity was not distributed as promised. Pete Wilson, the state’s Republican governor through the ’90s, championed Proposition 187, which set up a screening system to prevent undocumented immigrants from accessing social services. “It was devastating,” Kumar says. “The land that accepted me all of a sudden was turning neighbors against neighbors and racially profiling us—in progressive, liberal Sonoma! I remember coming home from college and telling my grandmother and my uncles and my aunts to become U.S. citizens, because things were off.” Kumar, despite being told by some teachers not to aim higher than community college, made it to the UC system and then to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a career in policy on the Hill. She regards the Wilson constraints as a rallying moment, not only among Latinx Californians but nationally. “People often say, ‘Where’s the Latino vote?’ Well, without California becoming solidly blue, there would not be a progressive party,” she says.
In 2004, drawing funding from her own credit cards, Kumar helped launch Voto Latino. National immigration policy was tightening under President George W. Bush; it seemed to her a moment when Latinx voters were at risk of losing voice. “We were building this in the backdrop of the first immigration rallies, in 2006,” she recalls. The American Family Survey of 2003 had noted that Latinos were the second-largest ethnic demographic in the U.S. Kumar realized she was looking at a vast, under-voiced political force.
In 2007, Voto Latino undertook its first large organizing operation, in Colorado, sensing the state’s potential before most national Democratic leaders, Kumar says. “We already had an operation there, because we knew the sensibilities of Latino voters, and we saw that it could turn blue.” Nevada, Arizona, Georgia, and Pennsylvania followed. From the start, Kumar had gone against the standing organizing wisdom, aiming not for traditional canvassing but for digital scale. (“Nike doesn’t go door-to-door to sell their shoes,” she notes.) Voto Latino did advertising and outreach through social media, radio, and what we’d now call viral culture, a strategy that proved crucial during the 2020 presidential election, at the height of COVID-19. “We entered the pandemic with 80,000 registered voters,” Kumar says. “We finished with 600,000.”