Civil rights

Major Latin American civil rights organization in disarray after botched election

The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the nation’s oldest Hispanic civil rights organization, is working to serve its constituents amid an ongoing power struggle within its leadership ranks.

The fight stems from a postponed leadership election at the group’s annual national convention, held in July in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

At the convention, an eleventh-hour temporary restraining order was issued by a Texas judge blocking the election, where National President Domingo García faced long re-election chances in a house full of Juan supporters. Carlos Lizardi, his opponent.

“The next LULAC convention will not take place until the end of July 2023 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and so for us this is absolutely an unnecessary distraction from the work that needs to take place,” said the CEO of LULAC, Sindy Benavides.

García told The Hill that he intends to remain national president until the Albuquerque convention, where he will not seek re-election.

“I’m eligible to run for another year, but I’m not – I want to pass the torch of leadership to a new leader, hopefully dynamic and committed to the mission of civil rights for Latinos in the United States. States and Puerto Rico,” García said.

In the weeks following the fracas in San Juan, tensions have only grown, pitting García against Benavides, the board-appointed executive who manages the day-to-day operations of LULAC’s national office and the National Institute of LULAC, which are separate entities.

The two groups are touring their cars ahead of a hearing on Friday, where the Texas judge will outline the next steps when the temporary restraining order expires.

García argues that whistleblowers alerted to the use of “dirty” money from a pro-state political party in Puerto Rico “to attempt a hostile takeover of LULAC’s national board of directors” and that members of LULAC’s leadership, including Benavides, violated the court order to stop the agreement.

García’s opponents, some of whom have filed impeachment proceedings against him, claim he orchestrated the trial and restraining order that ended the San Juan convention.

García, a prominent trial attorney from Texas, is technically a defendant in this lawsuit, but articles of impeachment filed against him allege that “in order to remain in office, Domingo Garcia conspired with the plaintiffs to file a restraining order. Last Minute Temporary (TRO) to stop national elections in which he allegedly lost by a massive landslide.

“It’s just frivolous dismissals [proceedings] because I did not violate a court order. And by calling a meeting, I suspended those who did, it’s just totally frivolous. How do you call this? Sour grapes,” García told The Hill.

While open warfare has erupted since July, tensions between García and Benavides had been simmering for years.

For more than a year, the LULAC board has implemented rules to prevent García from meeting directly with Benavides without another board member present, following complaints about the treatment of Benavides by Garcia.

“They have always had, unfortunately, a conflicted relationship,” said Paul Martínez, national treasurer of LULAC.

“LULAC is more than a person, a personality and that’s really what keeps me going,” Benavides said.

“My good days and bad days, the days I’m walking through the valley, or the days I’m on top of a mountain, that’s the work our LULAC members do because they really are the ones who inspire me every day. These are the people who are on the ground, every day with our community,” she added.

Benavides has contracts to run both entities of the organization, which she signed under former president, Roger Rocha.

Early in his term, García created a number of committees within the national council, including an oversight committee, later chosen to act as a buffer between the two leaders.

The pad ran until the Puerto Rico convention.

As the convention approached, Lizardi supporters capitalized on their home advantage, lining up hundreds of so-called paper boards and giving Lizardi a massive lead over the delegates for the election.

LULAC, founded in 1929, operates under a delegate system similar to that used by the Democratic and Republican parties and similar to the delegate system abandoned by the Teamsters union in 1989 after a federal RICO lawsuit.

“These elections are conducted by delegates at a convention, which really limits the ability to have full democracy for LULAC,” said Joe Henry, political director for LULAC Iowa.

As a long-standing practice, candidates running for office at a convention routinely raise funds or invest their own money to create councils — groups of 10 or more members — that produce delegates.

Councils created specifically for the election are derisively called “paper councils”.

“I don’t believe in paper councils,” said Linda Chávez, LULAC National President for the Southwest, adding that candidates regularly form councils ahead of LULAC elections.

“But when it comes to voting, there are people who vote,” Chávez added.

Yet when Lizardi supporters showed up with overwhelming numbers of tips and delegates, García cried foul.

“In the past, candidates, individual candidates and people, created a council before an election to try to get votes. This was a huge and unprecedented number of tips – 350 in 70 days, we believe, according to the petition, an expenditure of nearly $1 million,” García said.

But García stepped up his accusation, saying the Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP), Puerto Rico’s main pro-state political party, funded Lizardi’s advice.

“It was essentially a hostile takeover by a…political party and its supporters,” he said.

The Hill contacted Lizardi several times to comment on this piece.

The accusation made waves both in the political landscape of Puerto Rico and within LULAC.

The secretary general of the PNP, local senator Carmelo Ríos, directly called on García to stop his attacks on the party.

“Mr. García, you must stop these continuous comments associating the PNP with irregular acts,” Ríos said earlier this month.

“The obsession with involving our group, which fights for equal civil rights for the American citizens of Puerto Rico, which should also be your cause, is for your own partisan political reasons,” he added.

Rios was referring to a meeting between García and members of the opposition, anti-state Partido Popular Democrático, shortly before the botched convention.

That meeting, and García’s subsequent anti-state turn, shocked observers within LULAC, an organization known for its unwavering support for the state of Puerto Rico.

The restraining order then stalled the election at the convention, a massive event with major sponsors and speakers including Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi – a nationwide Democrat, member of the PNP on the island – California Democratic Representatives Lucille Roybal-Allard and Linda Sánchez, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham (D), Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Following a mock poll at the convention, García stepped up, unilaterally suspending Benavides for “insubordination, attempted violation of a court order and possible conspiracy”.

Benavides was quickly reinstated by the board, but the move frayed García’s relationship with the board members.

“Recently since that national convention, he’s changed, he’s done things unilaterally without board approval,” said Martínez, who also chairs the oversight committee.

“We have to work together as a board,” he added.

Still, García said he supported reforming LULAC’s constitution to avoid similar situations in the future.

“I support the constitutional amendments according to which, for example, a council must be in good standing at least one year before the National Convention to vote in order to avoid people trying to buy the presidency of LULAC or of the National Council”, has said Garcia.

“And we have to make sure that we do everything we can to prevent what happened in Puerto Rico from happening again. There’s nothing stopping the Republican or Democratic Party from taking over the organization with the system. that we currently have,” he added.

But LULAC board members say they must first go through impeachment proceedings filed against García, and any reform of the delegate system will have to come at the next national convention.

“I will not let anyone violate the constitution of LULAC,” Chávez said.

“I believe we survived for 93 years because we followed this constitution. The minute you start lashing out and trying to violate that, that’s when you’re in trouble,” she added.

Updated 12:21 p.m.