LAS VEGAS -- At first glance, Lucy Flores seems to have all the typical qualities of a young political rising star. She’s 31, bright, stylish, involved in the community and fresh out of law school.
In November she was elected to the Nevada State Assembly to represent the district where she grew up. But as a teenager, she was on a different track. She ran with a gang that broke into homes and stole cars.
"It got to the point where I ended up running away and committing enough crime to where I was sent to a long term juvenile detention facility," Flores said. "And I was on parole by the time I was 15 years old."
The daughter of Mexican immigrants, Flores grew up poor as one of 13 siblings.
"No one in my family had gone to college," Flores said. "Only one of my brothers actually graduated from high school. All of my sisters had become pregnant in their teens."
But with the guidance of her parole officer, Lucy Flores turned her life around. She got her GED, a college diploma, and then last year, a law degree. And now as an assembly member, one of her goals is to help at-risk young people make it to college.
"We have all of these kids who have the potential to become engaged citizens, or at the very least to live a decent life to be productive folks in society," she said. "And if we don’t make the investment, they are very likely to end up where I was headed."
Flores is part of a generation of Democratic Latinos in their 30’s and 40’s who are ascending Nevada’s political ladder.
One afternoon last December, Flores gathered with fellow Latino legislators to commemorate the formation of a formal Hispanic caucus — the first ever in Nevada state history. The group of nine stood in formation on a staircase, wearing suits and big smiles, as a photographer snapped pictures for the cover of the Latin Chamber of Commerce magazine. As civil rights advocate Tom Rodriguez oversaw the photo shoot, he told the group he had been waiting for this moment for 30 years.
"It is going to be amazing, really, because we have been that invisible minority for so long, and we are less invisible now," Rodriguez said.
Last November the number of Hispanic legislators tripled from three to nine. The state elected its first Hispanic governor, Republican Brian Sandoval. And in a year where elected Latinos saw a slight decline in states like California and New Mexico, Nevada was an exception.
"I think what is happening in Nevada is that that Latino population is coming of age," said Arturo Vargas, the executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
When it comes to Latino leadership, Nevada is a generation behind states like Texas and California, according to Vargas.
"What you have in Nevada is an electorate that is maturing, you’re developing candidates that can run not only in Latino areas but can be crossover candidates and be elected by a coalition of voters," he said.
But while Latinos may be a growing voting bloc in the Nevada legislature, it’s not yet clear how they will express this political clout in terms of public policy. Flores said the newly formed Latino caucus is significant.
"You need, and it's important for public policy purposes, to have input from everybody that is being affected by those particular decisions," the legislator said.
Still, the specific issues Flores plans to focus on -- like improving education and job creation -- transcend race and ethnicity. And when the legislature convenes, her social agenda will surely take a back seat to the main matter at hand: balancing a state budget deficit estimated in the billions of dollars.
Despite beginning her journey in Nevada politics during tough fiscal times, she’s not likely to forget where she came from anytime soon. Her jogging routine in Las Vegas takes her past the juvenile detention center where she was once locked up as a teenager. She remembers wearing an orange jumpsuit as she waited to be led into court.
"Fifteen years ago, I was sitting in one of those cell blocks," she said. "Shackled, from head to toe, literally shackled, legs shackled, waist shackled, wrists shackled."
Back then, Flores said, a career in government was the last thing on her mind.
"If someone had said: 'Lucy, in fifteen years you are going to be representing this area as one of the first Latinas elected to the state legislature with a law degree' and all these different things I’ve managed to now accomplish -- I obviously would have said: 'OK, you are using the drugs my friends are using because you are crazy,' " she said.
Lucy Flores will be sworn in as a new Nevada State legislator on February 7th.