A Conversation with Cisco Aguilar, Nevada Secretary of State Candidate

Cisco Aguilar Embraces a Tough Fight

25 mins read

Cisco Aguilar, a Nevadan for 20 years, has built an impressive resume in law, sports, business, education and service. Probably best known for his work on the Nevada Athletic Commission, which brought some of the largest sporting events in the world to Las Vegas, Cisco worked doggedly to root out the use of performance-enhancing drugs and clean up many officiating and safety problems, while building a reputation as a man of principle and backbone. 

Proud of his heritage, his accomplishments, and his community, Cisco is now running to be Nevada’s next secretary of state, perhaps his highest stakes fight yet. His opponent, well-known election denier, “alternate elector” and America Firster, Jim Marchant, has proposed decertifying voting machines and pushed for the hand counting of paper ballots and has said he would have refused to certify the 2020 election had he been in office. 

We spoke honestly about being Latino and how that informs Cisco’s candidacy.

CS: I’m named Francisco, after my grandfather on my mother’s side who was a union leader in the mines in Arizona. On my father’s side, again we are a Latino family of Mexican descent. It’s a longtime family that was in the Tucson area even prior to the moving of the border between Arizona and Mexico. It’s fascinating because they were actually “adopted” by an Irishman who came through Mexico to the United States.

VL: You know, I find that in the process of immigration and migration, a lot of families make bonds with each other. You see this overlapping of different ethnicities that are really supporting each other because of that empathy about what it feels like to move to a new place and to shape a new family and community.

CA: Well, that’s exactly how my mom grew up. Her first language was Spanish, even though she was born in Arizona–that’s how they communicated. When she moved from the mining town to Tucson, that’s when she started to learn English. When she went to school, if she would speak Spanish, they would spank her.

VL: Yes, that is one of the great ironies that confounds messages about who belongs here. For some, losing one’s language feels necessary, whereas it really doesn’t limit  your identity, just makes it richer, more complex, more American. Obviously in Europe many people speak multiple languages and it doesn’t make the Swiss any less Swiss.

CA: Not at all, and it’s incredible, because also, you know, spending the year I lived in Germany, the language I probably used the most was Spanish in the beginning. 

VL: So let’s talk about the last election and disinformation, because much of it was targeted against Latino voters, and it had a suppressive effect on the vote. About 36% of eligible Latinos in Nevada are expected to turn out in 2022. Even though Latinos make up about 17% of the state’s total eligible voters, the percentage of Latinos voting in Nevada elections hasn’t  increased much since 2014. How important do you think it is for Latinos to vote? 

CA: It’s critical! It’s critical to who we are as a community. It’s critical to making sure that our priorities are being met, to us having a voice. I think if we aggregate our voices and use that power, we can be significant. We can be a strong force to make sure that we’re holding people accountable for what they say they’re going to do for our community. 

I think Latinos are frustrated because, you know, we’re a friendly bunch. We love engagement, we love our community; we’re proud of it. And that’s how we operate. So when somebody makes a promise to us, we take them at their word and believe that they’re actually going to deliver. And then we’re disappointed when four years later, it hasn’t happened. We must change that dynamic, because we’re going to determine who is making the decisions that are important to us like: What are we investing in education for our kids? It’s about our jobs: How are we going to have an economy that can support our families moving into the future? Can I build my small business? Can I continue to grow that business so that I can become independent? So I can hire those members of my community to be the hard workers that we are?

VL: Yes, if we don’t vote, we won’t have any say.

CA: But also to make sure that when we do vote, that we get what we are promised.

VL: How do you see your role as secretary of state in helping to inspire more Latinos to get to the polls?

CA: The secretary of state function in Nevada has two big responsibilities. One is to be your regulator of elections. And the second big responsibility of the secretary of state is to be the  administrator of business and corporate filings.

We must make elections accessible to individuals, we must make sure that early voting continues because it is critical to our working class people, not just Latinos, but everybody.  7 am to 7 pm, on the first Tuesday of November, isn’t the right answer anymore. We’ve changed, our economy has evolved. Nevada is a 24/7 economy, people work 7 am to 7 pm, they work a single shift at 12 hours. Imagine if we take away early voting, how long the lines would be at 6:45 when somebody’s rushing to get home or get to the polls from work from those longer shifts. There’s a lot of things the secretary of state’s office can do to be more responsive.

VL: And families too, it’s hard to bring young kids to the polls when it’s going to be hours and hours. It really becomes a barrier to everything else. So I, I wanted to ask you what, given the situation in the last election where things were so tense, a lot of people were making claims of voter fraud from the sidelines. If they heard some people speaking Spanish, they would automatically start saying, “Oh, they’re illegals voting in our election.”

CA: That’s just ignorance, complete ignorance. It’s not respecting the fact that Nevada is different. We are one of the most diverse states. And the reason is because of the Strip—it needed a workforce for growth. Vegas was built on the backs of Latinos. We didn’t have the capital to be the investors, but we gave it our hearts, we gave it our hard work, we gave it our muscle. I think people have to recognize that Las Vegas exists because of that workforce. And when those comments are made, they’re completely ignorant. And they’re wrong. Because everybody in Nevada has benefited from the Latino workers.

So that connects to the other important work of the secretary of state. The office touches every business in the state, and a lot of those are small businesses. You know, MGM and the Wynn, they’re going to be fine. But small businesses sometimes need a little help. It comes down to access to capital. What are we doing to give small business owners in our Latino community access to that capital? If they’re not compliant, they can’t open a bank account, they’re not going to get to that capital. As secretary of state, my office would make that process as efficient, as accessible and as relevant as they need moving forward. 

For example, 12 years ago I was able to convince Chicanos Por La Casa (CPLC), the largest community development organization in the country, to come to Nevada because there was a huge, huge lack of capital for small business owners. They’re putting that capital out into our community. But if we’re not making sure that the secretary of state’s office is doing what we need to do for small business owners, CPLC can’t distribute that capital.

VL: Especially first-time business owners, and we know Latinos like to have our own negocios

CA: Yes, I read in Axios that 50% of all new small businesses are Latino. It really hit me in the stomach to say, man, what are we doing to amplify this, we need to make this even better, we need to make it stronger. Because you look at our community, we’re resilient. We’d like to be independent but also support our community where we can. We aren’t looking for things to be given to us. We want to earn it, because then we feel proud about it. It’s about our history, it’s about our culture and what it has taught us. 

VL: That’s a great point. Latinos have participated as much in the growth of the state as anyone, maybe not from the capital, but certainly through the work.

CA: We’ve failed to recognize how we have evolved as a state, as a community, and recognizing those communities that are super impactful. I mean, so many communities. Look at our Black community, they were extremely important in the building of Hoover Dam and establishing the city of Las Vegas. The Mormon community was also significant to our growth. 

VL: How about the north, Cisco? I know you’re from Vegas, but you know, the north is a little bit different from the south and Latinos are here, too. 

CA: Yes, in western northern Nevada, Latinos are working in the service industry, too, but there’s a lot of miners as well. Look, we are many things. My grandfather was a miner. He was a steel worker. He wrote, he worked for the Union. He represented union workers at a time when Latinos were being recruited to work in the mines. Because again, they were going to do the jobs nobody else wanted to do. Right? And he was there to fight to protect their safety, because at that time OSHA didn’t exist. Somebody had to fight to make sure that when they were going down into a pi, or they were going down into a cave, that they were going to know if they were going to come out alive and be compensated fairly for that work. Look at Elko County in the north for example, a majority of those miners have migrated there from other communities. I know there’s a significant population of people from Tucson, when the mines shut down in southern Arizona, they immediately moved there to be able to continue the work that they do. 

VL: What are your thoughts on vote by mail?

CA: I am a big proponent of it. I know it’s new; it’s gonna take a few cycles to have people fully understand how it works. I think if you look at the last election cycle, you see the majority of the veterans use mail-in ballots to exercise that fundamental right to vote. When anything is new, people are going to have questions, and we have to be responsive. The secretary of state’s office has a responsibility to educate people on how the system works, why it is secure, why there’s integrity in what we’re doing, we need to be transparent and honest. 

It’s also going to be the responsibility of the next secretary of state to look at these processes and say, what can we do better to make sure Nevadans are comfortable with where we are going? Like any business executive constantly looking at their processes and their systems and their flows, we need to ask what can be better to make sure we’re meeting the expectations of our investors and our customers. It’s no different in government. We need to continually have the mindset to ask: How do we improve?

VL: One of the ironies is that even before the last election, we already had a lot of people voting by mail in Nevada:, it was just  a different demographic—older and more conservative. Now that we made it universal, suddenly it’s become suspect. What can you say to reassure people about vote by mail?

CA: Well, I think it’s just time. When you institute something new, it puts people in an uncomfortable situation. They don’t fully understand all the mechanics or how it is secure. I think the more we go through these cycles, people become more comfortable. It’s just market adoption. Some people are early adopters. I think we’re in those stages like any startup company. It’s not absolutely new, because as you said, people could request it before. But I note Oregon has been doing this for 30 years, Arizona has been doing this for a long time. We’re catching up. And we’re starting to figure out ways to make voting more accessible for everybody in our community, not just Republicans, not just Democrats, not independents, but it’s all Nevadans to make sure that we get participation, because we are a democracy where the majority rules.

VL: About that, the counties have different procedures, different complications, staffing budget, some counties have a registrar, some counties have a clerk, that’s a lot for an SOS to manage, when not every jigsaw puzzle piece on your board is the same size. What are your thoughts on how to approach this to guarantee some sense of uniformity and fairness across the state?

CA: I like to explain it in terms of sports. There are 17 counties in Nevada, you have 17 county commissioners that are going to determine how to execute their elections. It’s the secretary of state’s role, just like a referee, to say: These are the rules of the game. This is what every county needs to follow. We’re going to ensure that all counties are playing within these rules. And once you start to test the rules, or you go outside of the rules, the secretary of state is immediately going to come in and engage and try to understand what occurred and why. The secretary of state must act in a neutral position to say: We are here to serve all Nevadans and what is the interest of all Nevadans in this situation? And hold those counties accountable if they decide to go outside those boundaries, because that doesn’t help anybody. It doesn’t help our state. So the secretary of state is a referee. They set the rules. They send those down to the county, and then they say, “follow the rules.” And if you don’t, we’re going to hold you accountable. Those rules are going through the legislature and through the regulation process, to get passed and incorporated. It’s not like they’re just coming out of the blue. 

VL: You’re running as a Democrat. How would you reassure all Nevadans given that the tensions are so high and, that regardless of how the results turn out, that everyone entitled to vote in our state will be able to do so and that their vote will be counted, and that the results will be accurate?

CA: I go back again to our current secretary of state, she’s done a phenomenal job to put party aside and said, “I am going to be here to be working in the best interest of all Nevadans and making sure that anytime there is no question about the integrity of a vote.” She has engaged in a neutral independent investigation and then released the findings so that people know she’s taking things seriously. 

The other part is to engage with the attorney general to do this systematically, correctly, and fairly, and that we’re also reassuring people that we are on top of it and to make sure we have the right resources to be able to do these investigations. I also like audits, doing it on our own, even before there is a complaint to make sure the systems are tested and that they’re bulletproof to any type of interference.

VL: I think communication about what exactly was happening also was an important piece. We were vulnerable to confusion. The SOS was doing things internally to verify the results, but people did not know about them so this allowed wild fictions to spread.

CA: It just starts at the national level. We are subjected to those conversations and that’s unfortunate. But again, I think Nevada is a strong, independent state. We are gritty, we are hardworking, and it’s understanding that what we do in Nevada is in the best interest of Nevada.

VL: Having started the conversation with you about your heritage, what do you think your ancestors, coming from Mexico would think of their great grandson, running for secretary of state?

CA: You know, it’s not even that it goes back to the neighborhood in the community I grew up in, which is a very Latino heavy, the west side of town in Tucson. I think looking at how we grew up, I didn’t realize as a child that I lacked for anything. It’s when you finally venture out into the world and you start to see things you realize, holy smokes, my parents really worked hard to give us what we had. I know it’s an honor to be doing this, a kid from the west side of Tucson should not be here, right? 

But then also going back to my grandfather, whose name I bear. He was a strong leader. He fought for people. He understood when people struggled and what they needed to live a better life. I carry his name. It’s an honor to know that I’m carrying on his legacy. It goes back to that basic principle of having empathy for the people in your community. I’m proud of my culture and that part of my heritage. Being Latino means certain things to me. It means being hardworking. It means being humble. It means going out there and doing what you can to make life better for everybody else, but also to at the same time finding joy in what I am doing. I’m running for this office to help people, to give them the tools to lift themselves to a better life, and that’s all about what Nevada’s history is.

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Vivian is a writer and activist. The daughter and wife of Cuban immigrants, she grew up in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She lives in the beautiful mountains of Reno, Nevada. Vivian is committed to giving voice to humanitarian principles and working to hear them reflected in law and in the larger state and national dialogue. She has lived with multiple sclerosis for 20 years.

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