Ruben Kihuen, 33, is used to winning. As a rising Mexican-American politician in Nevada—where Latinos have played a major role in deciding the last two U.S. presidential elections—Kihuen has attracted attention far outside his home state.
And with good reason: both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama courted him during their 2008 presidential campaigns, and Kihuen’s political mentor, U.S. Senator Harry Reid, has called him “a rising star in Nevada and the Democratic Party.” After winning two successive terms in the state assembly, Kihuen, a Democrat, became Nevada’s youngest state senator in 2010. This year, he served as senate majority whip and chairman of the Senate Revenue Committee.
Kihuen carved out a name for himself as soon as he entered politics. As a first-time assemblyman in 2007, he introduced a bill that would transfer the remaining balance on Nevadans’ expired gift cards from the state’s unclaimed property division to the State Treasury’s Educational Trust Fund. The bill’s success earned him “Co-Freshman of the Year” and granted him the political capital to tackle other challenges—like diversifying Nevada’s tourism and mining-dependent economy, passing an anti-bullying bill, and promoting comprehensive immigration reform.
Success also sharpened Kihuen’s frustration over his fellow Latinos’ lack of political representation. In the last census, approximately 27 percent of Nevada’s population identified as Hispanic, but only two of Nevada’s 63 state legislators were Hispanic in 2006. Motivated to change those statistics, Kihuen and Cuban-American State Senator Moises “Mo” Denis co-founded the Nevada Hispanic Legislative Caucus, helping six Latino candidates win state assembly seats in 2010.
Kihuen picked up his drive to succeed from his parents, who moved their family from Mexico in 1986 and labored long hours in the fields picking strawberries and cleaning homes to support him and his three siblings. At first, Kihuen enjoyed success in a different arena: at 18, he was selected “Nevada High Schools Soccer Player of the Year,” and was preparing to try out for Mexico’s Chivas de Guadalajara when he broke his foot. Searching for new worlds to conquer, he found work in Senator Reid’s 2004 reelection campaign.
Reid eventually offered him a job as a regional representative in Las Vegas. By then, Kihuen had caught the political bug. “I decided it’s not that difficult serving in office,” he jokes. With Reid’s blessing, Kihuen made his first run for office in 2006. He beat a well-funded incumbent to win 61 percent of the vote, becoming the first Latino immigrant elected to the Nevada legislature.
Last year, Kihuen experienced his first political setback. Originally planning to run for the U.S. House of Representatives, he stepped down in favor of fellow Democrat Dina Titus, who went on to win the seat. “It was going to cause a huge division in the party, and the district is heavily Democratic, so I decided to be a statesman and bow out of the race,” Kihuen explains. “My goal is still to get to Washington DC.”
In the meantime, Kihuen seeks to make his mark on Nevada politics. In April, Kihuen, who is Catholic and had previously opposed same-sex marriage, spoke out in favor of marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples after speaking with his constituents. “America’s changing,” Kihuen says. “If two people love each other, let them be.”
Though he is set on an eventual move to the nation’s capital, Kihuen still enjoys being a lawmaker in his home state. “Good legislation impacts 2.5 million people [in Nevada],” he says. “There’s no better reward than that.”