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With reporting by Boyle Heights Beat staff
Two seasoned politicians – Kevin de León and Mónica García – have thrown their hats in the ring for Los Angeles City Council District Seat 14, which Councilman José Huízar will vacate in 2020, after serving 15 years. The election is more than one year away, but Boyle Heights Beat caught up with these two leading contenders shortly after they announced their candidacies.
The district encompasses Boyle Heights, El Sereno, Northeast Los Angeles and parts of downtown. Of the several candidates who have announced their candidacies, these two politicians are the most well known. Both have represented the neighborhood in various elected offices.
In 2006, de León won election to the California Assembly. In 2014, he became the first Latino state Senate president pro tempore and advocated for bills on renewable energy, clean air, the high speed rail project, health care, affirmative consent [relating to sexual activity] and gun control.
Last year, de León lost his challenge to Sen. Dianne Feinstein for the the U.S Senate.
De León was born in Los Angeles to immigrant parents from Guatemala. His mother raised him in San Diego, and he was the first in his family to graduate from high school. He attended University of California, Santa Barbara and transferred to Pitzer College in Claremont, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in political studies.
García has served as the Los Angeles Unified School Board president since 2006. She has emphasized her goal of “diplomas for all” to reach 100 percent graduation rates throughout LAUSD. She also supports charter schools.
Garcia was born and raised in East Los Angeles. She attended Sacred Heart High School and the University of California, Berkeley, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in Chicano studies and political science. She earned her master’s degree in social work from the University of Southern California.
Boyle Heights Beat spoke to each candidate separately about their experience and what they hope to bring to Council District 14 and the residents of Boyle Heights. The following interviews have been edited for space and clarity.
BHB: What made you decide to run for the District 14 Council position?
García: The [teacher] strike of January was probably the toughest seven days of my professional life. When it concluded, I realized everyone wants good schools. I realized that experience required all of us to do something different. For me, it solidified my desire to continue to serve in elected office because there was more to do. I felt like I had a responsibility. It’s the desire to serve, understanding of what we can do together, and understanding that there was more to do. My experience at LAUSD – where we have been successful in increasing graduation [rates], where we have had system change, I needed to offer that to the people of CD-14.
It’s a neighborhood that’s got the many ups and downs, many challenges on a whole variety of fronts, whether it’s housing, whether it’s crime, whether it’s public safety, whether it’s economic opportunity. It’s a neighborhood of people who are proud of who they are and where they come from. It’s a people proud to say that Boyle Heights matters…Kevin de León
De León: I’ve represented this area for the past 12 years. Local government is very important. I think that’s where the rubber hits the road in terms of getting things done. Boyle Heights is near and dear to my heart. I cut my teeth politically on the corner of Esperanza and Whittier boulevards at a non-profit organization at the time, called One Stop Immigration and Education Center, where I was a community rights organizer. So local government, I think, is going to lead the way for a lot of issues –- to improve the human condition for many of the people we care about. It’s an opportunity to give a voice and provide experience that I have accumulated during my time as assembly member and state senator in Sacramento.
What makes Boyle Heights unique is its relationship with diversity, with working class, with proximity to downtown. Boyle Heights has a history of struggle and a history of resilience that is very powerful and recognized worldwide. I also think there is culture here, which is alive and thriving.
BHB: What do you think makes Boyle Heights unique as a neighborhood in the district?
Garcia: The power of L.A. is all the individual neighborhoods. What makes Boyle Heights unique is its relationship with diversity, with working class, with proximity to downtown. Boyle Heights has a history of struggle and a history of resilience that is very powerful and recognized worldwide. I also think there is culture here, which is alive and thriving. While we can see demographics and see a lot of need, the Boyle Heights story is about people who won’t give up — generations of people, whether the Jewish community, the Japanese community or the Mexican-American community.
De León: It’s a neighborhood that’s got the many ups and downs, many challenges on a whole variety of fronts, whether it’s housing, whether it’s crime, whether it’s public safety, whether it’s economic opportunity. It’s a neighborhood of people who are proud of who they are and where they come from. It’s a people proud to say that Boyle Heights matters, that we matter, that our neighborhoods matter, that we should have a voice whether it’s in city hall, whether it’s in the state capital or in Washington D.C. We deserve to have a real voice to improve the human condition for all individuals.
BHB: In Boyle Heights, the search for affordable housing has been an ongoing struggle for local residents. Do you have any specific plans to help with this issue?
Garcia: We have to do three things: we need to build more housing; we need to preserve the housing we have; and we have to build the steps for people to be more self-sufficient. We have to be honest about who we are working for. Poverty isn’t the same everywhere. Part of the challenge is to align needs and services. How do we make the building of housing be a benefit to the people who are here?
De León: The very cumbersome governmental application process means many folks are not [aware] when a development goes up. So, if you live in Boyle Heights and you need access to affordable housing, oftentimes, you actually don’t benefit. I would like to work with my colleagues and perhaps introduce added criteria, not just be based on your income status, but also on your geographical location. If you live in and around a radius of Boyle Heights, I think you should have a way to form a system that adds points to your application. You’re from this community, and you should be able to benefit from an affordable housing complex being constructed in our neighborhood.
BHB: What is your reaction to the college scandal that has been the subject of much discussion? What impact do you think it has on District 14 students?
De León: Our kids in Boyle Heights are just as smart as any other kid from any other neighborhood in Los Angeles, but they haven’t been given the real opportunities to succeed. When the pool is so narrow for admissions now, they’re taking the highest GPAs. It may be unfair because you don’t have all the honors courses at your school. You don’t have all the AP courses. The system is already rigged. It’s always stratified. I’m really proud for young men and women in Boyle Heights who get an opportunity to go on to higher education. You have to be mindful about one thing –- your resilience. You work so hard and people don’t realize you work that much harder than anybody else to be admitted.
BHB: You have been a supporter of independent charter schools, which has put you at odds with United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA). There has been an influx of charter schools coming into Boyle Heights. Many residents do not support charter schools. How will you deal with this issue as a councilmember?
Garcia: As a board member for L.A. Unified, my commitment was to make sure every family had a chance to get to graduation. When L.A. Unified was super overcrowded, the charter policy of the district was go to where we are overcrowded and help us solve overcrowding. I think it’s interesting to think about charters as a symptom of the problem –- not the problem. We don’t tell parents, “You have to choose a charter.” We tell parents, “Your kid has to go to school.” We will continue to struggle together as long as the public sector struggles with quality. Because I think we should have excellence.
BHB: Boyle Heights’ air pollution is higher than recommended by state regulations. Six local schools are closer than the recommended distance to major highways. How do you plan to help fight for clean air in Boyle Heights?
Garcia: We have to be outraged. When they put freeways here in Boyle Heights, by design it was targeted in the low-income communities. We have to work with state partners and develop cross-jurisdictional solutions. We have to clean air in Boyle Heights faster than we’re doing it. We have to hold polluters accountable – companies like Exide. Cleaning it isn’t enough. You need to repair the harm. We have to implement the knowledge we are getting with science about where to put buildings. In Boyle Heights, we are surrounded by freeways. One idea is a tax that would benefit communities. We are the pathway for so many people that are not residents. I think it’s a collective action, not a one Saturday solution.
De León: Boyle Heights has the worst quality of air in the state. Seven of the top 10 most polluted cities in America are located here in the basin area of Los Angeles. Our children are breathing some of the dirtiest air. The number one reason for absenteeism in a public school system is due to asthma. In Boyle Heights, we have five major freeways. All these freeways that crisscross our district, and then we have the largest goods movement center in America with the ports of L.A. and Long Beach. What I want to do for Boyle Heights is to build up transportation electrification. I want charging stations. I want to educate families so we can get access to these types of technologies, the latest and most innovative clean energy technology.
BHB: We’ve heard from community members who are very distrustful of politicians, due in part to scandals at both the local and national levels. How do you plan on gaining the trust of Boyle Heights residents?
Garcia: I went to LAUSD to change it. What L.A. Unified has had to learn is that they have to include our community in the solution. We’re not interested in somebody coming to fix our lives or fix our problems. I will tell people they have a past experience with me. I have had to ask the voters to vote for me even though we had budget cuts, even though many of our kids were not at graduation line yet. I will also offer transparent accountable bold leadership.
De León: I think I already have a trust of Boyle Heights residents. I’m not going to speak to any particular controversy in regards to any individual at the state or federal level. I can only speak about who I am, what my values are and what I’ve done while being an elected official. I’m the author of the sanctuary state law [SB 54, which limits cooperation between state law enforcement and federal immigration authorities]. I’m the author of the 100 percent clean energy law [which mandates the state will obtain all its electricity from sources such as wind, solar and hydropower by 2045]. These are very polarizing issues that I rolled up my sleeves and dove right in to take on.