Some origin stories are tailor-made for a career in politics. Take Abraham Lincoln’s youthful exploits as “the Ol’ Rail Splitter” or Bill Clinton’s humble but auspicious birth in Hope, Arkansas.
Yet, such tales of hardscrabble beginnings aren’t merely the stuff of future presidents. They can have just as much of a punch for a prospective state legislator – as in the case with Ricky Hurtado, the incoming state representative for North Carolina’s 63rd House District.
The son of working-class immigrants from El Salvador, Hurtado was the first one in his family to attend college, and he went on to obtain degrees from both UNC-Chapel Hill and Princeton. Hurtado now serves as an adjunct instructor at UNC’s School of Education and is also the co-founder of LatinxEd, a nonprofit initiative that strives to “break down educational barriers” for the families of Latin American immigrants in North Carolina.
But the 32-year-old academic made no secret of his blue-collar roots when he began to campaign for the state house in the summer of 2019.
Hurtado ultimately embraced his background as the child of immigrants, who had left El Salvador during the ‘80s to escape the civil war that was tearing their nation apart at the time. Although he was born in Los Angeles, Hurtado could also relate to his future constituents through his upbringing in rural Lee County, North Carolina, where his family had relocated when he was 7 years old.
In the end, the future state representative and current Mebane resident found the voters of the 63rd surprisingly receptive to his personal accounts of hardship, struggle, and triumph over adversity.
“I grew up in an immigrant family that lived paycheck to paycheck, and voters saw that I had a level of empathy where I could relate to their experiences.”
–sTATE rEP.-eLECT rICKY hURTADO
“I grew up in an immigrant family that lived paycheck to paycheck,” Hurtado recalled in an interview with The Alamance News, “and voters saw that I had a level of empathy where I could relate to their experiences.”
A gripping life story may have been sufficient to snag the attention of voters. But it wasn’t necessarily enough to put Hurtado over the top during November’s general election.
In order to become the 63rd District’s new representative, Hurtado had to dislodge incumbent state legislator Steve Ross. A seasoned campaigner who had first won his seat in the General Assembly in 2012, Ross had a couple of things going for him in the race aside from the putative “incumbent advantage.”
One factor in Ross’ favor was his affiliation with the Republican Party, which had held a monopoly on Alamance County’s legislative delegation since 2013. The four-term state representative also had the benefit of having been born and bred in Burlington, which comprises a large chunk of the 63rd, along with portions of Mebane, Graham, and a swath of northeastern Alamance County.
Even before he joined the General Assembly, Ross had been a known quantity to many area residents due to his stints as Burlington’s mayor and as a regular member of its city council. Hurtado, on the other hand, was a complete novice to electoral politics. He was also a Democrat running in an increasingly “red” county, and he had lived in the 63rd District for barely three years – originally owing his local connection to his wife Yasmin, who had grown up in Alamance County.
“There are more things that bring people together than tear them apart. Whether you’re black, white, or Latino, once you’ve had those conversations, a lot of the differences will fade away.”
–sTATE rEP.-eLECT rICKY hURTADO
Although Hurtado seemed to have his work cut out for him in the matchup with Ross, he nevertheless found that his formative experiences in Lee County translated quite well to his new home in the 63rd District. Hurtado also discovered that he could get a warm response from the district’s voters simply by listening to their own thoughts and impressions.
“It was really more about asking voters what was important to them,” he recalled. “We were knocking on thousands of doors a month in the fall of 2019 and early 2020…We listened to a lot of people in Alamance County, and they were surprised that someone running for office was asking them these kinds of questions.”
Although Hurtado’s campaign also had an active social media presence, he acknowledged person-to-person interactions were at the heart of his strategy. The incoming state representative said that he and his supporters began pounding the pavement in the summer of 2019 – long before most legislative campaigns had cranked up their ground games. Hurtado went on to reach thousands of voters before the arrival of coronavirus pandemic put a damper on door-to-door canvassing – at which point, the campaign’s volunteers turned to the phones to continue making inroads with the local electorate.
“I think our success really was in building relationships,” he added. “I think our success was in actual conversations and interactions with people. What people are craving right now is a connection to their elected representatives.”
In his interactions with voters, Hurtado came across many people who shared his support for greater access to healthcare, his commitment to help entrepreneurs and small businesses, and his frustration with polices that he believes encourage gerrymandering and suppress voter turnout. An avid hiker, the future state legislator also met quite a few folks who echoed his concern for the natural environment. But Hurtado was especially pleased to hear voters reciprocate his emphasis on public education – given how instrumental education had been to his own personal success.
Aside from soliciting votes, Hurtado and his supporters also collected donations to cover the cost of the campaign’s operations. The legislator-elect recalled that these contributions were generally quite modest, although they added up to some serious scratch as the campaign started to gather momentum.
“It was really a grassroots campaign,” he added. “The average donation was about $47…as our campaign began to get a lot of attention statewide and nationally, and the donations, after a while, started rolling in.”
The widespread interest in Hurtado’s campaign may have had something to do with the story of his meteoric rise from a humble background. But he also owed much of this buzz to the fact that he’d be the first Latino Democrat ever elected to North Carolina’s General Assembly if he prevailed in November. Add to his trail-blazer status the excitement over this year’s Presidential election and the desire of Democrats to “flip” Republican-held offices, and the circumstances were ripe for Hurtado to whip up a perfect storm of support to sweep him into the state legislature.
The attention surrounding Hurtado’s campaign paid particularly high dividends on the fundraising front. According to his final campaign finance report before the election, the aspiring legislator had amassed just over $1 million during the course of the race – or more than three times the sum that Ross had managed to raise.
Although Hurtado’s receipts include nearly $293,000 from Political Action Committees like the North Carolina Democratic State House Caucus, the lion’s share of his funds ultimately came from individual donations. In fact, almost $143,000 of his revenue consisted of small contributions that fell below the $50 threshold for itemization.
Ross, for his part, relied on party committees and PACs for about three quarters of the $290,000-plus that he received throughout the campaign. The incumbent’s final pre-election report also listed just 98 receipts for the entire race, as opposed to the 26,790 receipts that Hurtado had logged in his own final report before the election.
Hurtado’s advantage wasn’t nearly as lopsided when it came to the actual vote count. He was nevertheless able to eke out a victory in spite of not having any previous experience running for office. According to the final tally, Hurtado won the race for the 63rd House District with 20,584 votes, or 50.59 percent of the total, while Ross had secured 20,107 votes, or 49.41 percent of those cast.
As the elation from Election Night has worn off, Hurtado has remained enthusiastic about his new role as a state representative, which he’ll officially assume when he’s sworn into office on January 1. The incoming legislator is also optimistic that he’ll be able to overcome the partisan divisions that have lately split the community.
“There are more things that bring people together than tear them apart,” Hurtado said. “Whether you’re black, white, or Latino, once you’ve had those conversations, a lot of the differences will fade away.
“The heart of our campaign was to ‘leave no voter behind,’” he added, “and I know people who were both Trump voters and Ricky Hurtado voters.”