By RUSSELL CONTRERAS and SUZANNE GAMBOA
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - It is lunch hour at Barelas Coffee House, in the heart of one of Albuquerque's oldest Latino neighborhoods. Democratic House candidate Michelle Lujan Grisham weaves her way among the tables, searching for votes as waiters shuffle bowls of red chile and plates of enchiladas.
Lujan Grisham quickly finds Betty Minero, 88, who isn't bothered by the fact that Lujan Grisham, the daughter of a Mexican-American dentist and white mother, doesn't speak Spanish and worked for Gary Johnson, New Mexico's former Republican governor.
"She's going to make us proud," Minero says.
Lujan Grisham is part of the next generation of college-educated, middle-class Latino congressional candidates. Unlike many of their early predecessors, the new Latino candidates don't come from union or labor backgrounds, and some are seeking seats outside of predominantly Hispanic districts.
They are the beneficiaries of civil rights gains, demographic changes and new congressional seats created by recent redistricting. They include a former astronaut, a medical doctor with three degrees from Harvard, college professors, attorneys and children of immigrants and civil rights pioneers.
Together they have the potential to make history as the largest class of Latinos ever to enter Congress, in the largest increase in seats held by Latinos in a single election. Depending on how many win, their numbers in the House could bring the percentage of House seats held by Latinos nearly on par with their representation in the U.S. population. Latinos now number about 53 million in the U.S., about 17 percent of the population, with some 24 million eligible to vote.
While only about half of those eligible are expected to cast ballots, many are in battleground states that could help decide key races, including the race for the White House.
A total of 49 Latino candidates _ 32 Democrats, 16 Republicans and one without a declared party as allowed under a new California law _ are seeking House seats this year, according to the bipartisan National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. Those numbers don't include Latinos running in third parties.
At least 27 are likely to win on Nov. 6, including 22 incumbents or Latinos who would replace other Latinos, NALEO said, and if they prevail in four additional, competitive races, the total could rise to as many as 31.
"That diversity has been missing in Congress," said Lujan Grisham, 53, the granddaughter of the first Latino chief justice of New Mexico's Supreme Court and a distant relative of former New Mexico Republican Rep. Manuel Lujan, who held the seat she seeks. She also is a former county commissioner and state Cabinet secretary.
Lujan Grisham's election would give New Mexico a majority Latino House delegation _ the first time since 1988 when the state elected Manuel Lujan and Bill Richardson to Congress.
While campaigning, they not only speak of reforming immigration law, but also expanding college access, the future of Medicare, the economy and fighting terrorism.
"These are people who aren't political animals," said Arturo Vargas, NALEO's executive director. "They didn't start out in politics but instead, spent time in other professions after going to college at some of the nation's top universities."
Vargas said he thinks this crop of Latino candidates is less ideologically entrenched and ideally could help bridge some efforts at bipartisanship. Those who support immigration reform may make it easier to get an immigration bill passed.
Lujan Grisham faces former state Rep. Janice Arnold-Jones, a Republican, in New Mexico's 1st Congressional District. It was historically Republican until 2009. The incumbent, Rep. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat, is running for Senate.
"It's a generation on the rise," said Texas Democratic Rep. Charlie Gonzalez, retiring chairman of the Hispanic Congressional Caucus and son of the late Democratic Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez, one of the caucus' founders. "They are continuing what everyone before them started, but in their own way."
Gonzalez said when his father was in the House, between 1961 and 1999, Congress regularly had only a handful of Hispanics as representatives. "It would be amazing if we could get to 30, when there used to be only a few I could count on one hand," he said.
Juan Gomez-Quinones, a history professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, said previous generations of Latinos who were sent to Congress came mostly from the southwest and had trouble navigating East Coast-based power structures.
But population changes have meant more congressional seats in the southwest. "They're no longer outsiders," said Gomez-Quinones, author of "Chicano Politics 1940-1990."