Mr. Alejo Goes to Sacramento
Armed with a handful of university degrees and driven by his family’s farmworker past, Luis Alejo went from the Watsonville council to the state Assembly in under three years.
Thursday, February 24, 2011
Bobby Kennedy gives a thumbs-up from behind the open door of Assemblyman Luis Alejo’s new office in the State Capitol annex.
Assuming the photo could see, it would catch a glimpse of each lobbyist popping in on Jan. 4, the second day of the freshman assemblyman’s first regular legislative session.
“I just wanted to drop off an invitation to our reception,” says the umpteenth lobbyist who comes through the door that day.
Hilda Escobar, Alejo’s executive secretary, makes a note of the visit. “He’s a very popular guy right now.”
Last June, Alejo, the 36-year-old former Watsonville mayor, handily beat Salinas City Councilwoman Janet Barnes in a Democratic primary fight that turned startlingly ugly, even for local politics. He then trounced Republican opponent Robert Bernosky in November.
Just before the start of the legislative session, Assembly Speaker John Perez appointed him to Assembly committees on budget, rules and labor, among others.
Perez also named him vice-chair of the local government committee at a time when Gov. Jerry Brown is working to rejigger state and local government finances by siphoning more city money into state coffers.
Brown and Alejo are playing for the same team. Brown is pushing to bridge the deficit with $12.5 billion in proposed budget cuts, tied to a referendum that would extend higher taxes that are set to expire. Republicans are pushing back for an all-cuts budget, and Assembly Democrats last week passed a modified version of Brown’s budget without GOP support.
Business interests eschewed Alejo during the campaign, favoring the more business-friendly Barnes in the primary. Now business players have found a friend in Alejo as they try to preserve enterprise-zone tax breaks that Brown wants to eliminate; Alejo backs the zones as a source of job creation.
Alejo used the day of his swearing-in to introduce his first bill: AB 10, which would raise the state minimum wage and index it to inflation. The bill has managed to annoy the business community before it’s even addressed in session; everyone from the California Chamber of Commerce to Hollister City Councilman Victor Gomez - owner of a local pizza place - have opposed it.
So “popular guy” is kind of an understatement, but “controversial” (despite his best intentions), is too. And as the 2011 session shapes up, it seems like everybody wants a chance to put a word in Alejo’s ear. And Alejo wants to listen, particularly to the voices in his 28th District. He’s set up an office in Salinas, the biggest population center in his sprawling territory, where he was barely known a year ago. He’s made efforts to find common ground with some of the people who opposed him during the primary. He’s visited local officials worried about the continuing budget machinations, and plans a series of town-hall meetings on the state spending plan, even a road show at shopping malls.
Brown is building a case for extending temporary taxes and making painful service cuts in the spirit of shared sacrifice. But Alejo wants the final budget to reflect his constituents’ concerns. “Democracy is about public input,” he says. “I’ve got to be able to say I heard what they have to say.”
Inside Alejo’s office, opposite from a second picture of Bobby Kennedy, hangs a photo of César Chávez. Each represents an ideal that led Alejo to the Capitol - Kennedy, the Harvard-educated lawyer and Democratic Party insider with a passion for civil rights and social justice, and Chávez, the community organizer who helped forge migrant farmworkers into a force for change.
“It is important to me to remember those who have served the public before me,” Alejo says of the photos. “They are an inspiration to me, and I reflect upon their service and lessons daily.”
While his mentors are historical, his challenges in Sacramento are decidedly modern. In less than three years, he went from representing about 4,000 people in the 5.9-square-mile city of Watsonville to more than 400,000 in an Assembly district that sprawls 150 miles across four counties, from Bay Area suburbs and gang-plagued cities to garlic fields and military bases. The entire Watsonville city budget amounts to a rounding error in the state’s General Fund.
So how will Alejo handle those challenges? His early answer: “Significant hours, and probably very little sleep.”
Alejo’s interest in agriculture, farm workers, organized labor, immigration issues and social justice can be traced straight back to his roots.
His father’s father, Tomas Alejo Sr., came to the Salinas Valley in the 1950s to work in the fields as part of the U.S. government’s Mexican Farm Labor Program, more commonly known as the Bracero Program. When César Chávez and Dolores Huerta brought the United Farm Workers campaign to town, Alejo says, his grandparents were among the first to join them in 1970.
“When César came to Watsonville, they saw him as someone who really understood what farm workers had gone through,” he says.
Alejo also spent childhood years along the Rio Grande. His father, Tom Alejo, had an active ministry as Luis, the second of five siblings, was growing up. The family spent Luis’s first- through sixth-grade years in south Texas, helping build churches and aid families along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The whole family got involved in activist causes over the years. Young Luis spent time at UFW marches and visited the group’s headquarters in Delano.
“I see it now as a major sacrifice to help people in one of the poorest areas of the United States,” Alejo says of his father. “He gave up everything to do that work.”
Alejo’s parents also spent years in the fields, working on farms and mostly picking strawberries. His mother, Marylou, also worked in local canneries before NAFTA sent many of those jobs to Mexico. Tom Alejo, a Vietnam veteran, studied auto body repair after his military service and earned a teaching credential; he spent two decades teaching the trade, and his pupils included inmates at the county jail. Marylou taught Sunday school and became a nurse.
Their hard work wasn’t lost on Alejo, but his subsequent involvement in higher education, law and party politics might come as a surprise to those who lost track of him after his 1992 graduation from Watsonville High.
At 18, he was ticketed for reckless driving, a citation prominently featured in attack ads during the primary. Though he captained the wrestling team and was a two-time county champion, he admits he didn’t take school as seriously as he should and got into fights. “One more discipline problem at school and I would have been expelled,” he says.
He started turning his life around at Gilroy’s Gavilan Community College, his choice - largely because it had a wrestling team - after he couldn’t land financial aid from Fresno State. A Chicano studies course helped wake him up: “Here I was, a young guy causing harm to my community.” He decided to redirect his energy.
“A lot of my close friends from when I was growing up are in prison, and I look at them and say, ‘That could have been me,’” Alejo says.
Alejo got involved in the Gavilan student senate and threw himself into community organizing. After gang-related slayings of 9-year-old Jessica Cortez and her 16-year-old brother Jorge, who were gunned down as they walked to a Pajaro bakery in 1994, Alejo helped organize the first Peace and Unity Rally, now one of the signature events of the Watsonville Brown Berets.
That same year, Alejo started classes at UC Berkeley, where in 1997 he graduated with honors with a bachelor’s degree in political science and Chicano studies. After a stint teaching at an alternative high school, he earned a law degree from UC Davis and took on a fellowship at the Capitol with Assemblyman Manny Diaz (D-San Jose). In 2003 he earned a master’s in education at Harvard University.
Then he headed home to California.
Alejo joined California Rural Legal Assistance as a staff attorney, and later took a job in legal aid with the Monterey County Superior Court at the court’s self-help center, helping litigants represent themselves in court.
He got more involved in Democratic Party politics, served on various city, county and federal commissions, then plunged into electoral politics: In 2008, after serving as an Obama delegate to the Democratic National Convention, he won election to the Watsonville City Council.
He never lost touch with those he knew at Gavilan. His classmates and fellow organizers watched jobs flee the region in the 1990s and saw many promising young people leave the area for school and never return. “There were a lot of good opportunities elsewhere, but I came back home,” Alejo said. “A lot of the people that we were working with then, they have come back. They’re teachers, they’re union organizers.”
Some were in the crowd when Alejo was sworn in at the Capitol in December. So were his mother, his brother, Tomas, and more than a dozen of the union members and high school students who helped him win a nasty primary fight.
“It got ugly,” said Ignacio Ornelas, a teacher with Salinas Union High School District who served as communications director for the Alejo campaign, “and it got even uglier toward the end.”
Assembly District 28 is long and narrow, and the three contenders for the Democratic nomination each had a power base in a different part of it.
Alejo was well known in and around Watsonville and among party and labor types, but it took less than 600 votes to cement his victory in the Watsonville City Council race.
His biggest threat in the primary was Barnes, a fifth-grade teacher and then City Council member in Salinas. She’s considered a moderate Democrat, friendly with business and agricultural interests.
Also in the running was Francisco Dominguez, a board member with Gilroy Unified School District. “Each of us had our strengths in our local areas,” Dominguez says. “None of us was well known across the district.”
Alejo’s party connections helped him lock down early support. Sergio Sanchez, a Salinas City Council member who worked with Tom Alejo for the UFW, had known of Luis since the mid-1990s. Some backers approached Sanchez about running for the Assembly seat, but instead he signed on to manage Alejo’s field campaign. “There were some good candidates, but no one as good as Luis as far as his ability to hit the ground running,” Sanchez says.
Poll numbers started shifting in Alejo’s favor.
“Luis had an incredible army of union workers on his side,” Barnes says.
Of the campaign, Sanchez says volunteers made close to 60,000 phone calls to get out the vote in Alejo’s favor.
“We were in the field months before her, having conversations with the voters,” Sanchez says.
“I walked every single city in my district,” Alejo adds, “and I think it paid off.”
The candidates kept things fairly civil within their own campaigns, but the race attracted hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside spending.
The California Alliance, which describes itself as “a coalition of consumer attorneys, conservationists and nurses,” spent at least $96,000 to support Alejo or oppose Barnes, according to state campaign finance records. Opportunity PAC, representing teachers and other public employees, put up more than $144,000 on his behalf. Deeper still were the pockets supporting Barnes. At least $420,000 came from a group with major funding from EdVoice, an educational nonprofit co-founded by failed Republican gubernatorial candidate Steve Poizner, and the California Farm Bureau Federation.
The TV ads and mailers were venemous.
Some branded Barnes as in the pocket of big oil and insurance companies; one all but accused her of being responsible for murders in Salinas because of cuts to the police budget on her watch.
Those targeting Alejo portrayed him as the Marlboro man (falsely claiming he was a tool of Big Tobacco), flogged his driving record with a caricature of him behind the wheel of a careening car, took a shot at him over violent crimes that occurred in Watsonville while he was campaigning - and even attacked him over the short sale of his father’s house.
“This was one of those tactics that backfired,” Alejo says. “People saw [the foreclosure ad] and said, ‘My family’s going through that.’ They could really relate.”
Alejo won the primary by nearly 20 percent of the vote, and breezed to victory in November with 63 percent. Although the state budget mess demands his immediate attention, he still hopes to introduce some of the bills he talked about during the campaign. He and his staff are working on measures that would give preference in state contracts to California workers, and to help Californians clear bad credit caused by home foreclosures and short sales.
But he’s still a rookie in a high-stakes realm where political opponents take few prisoners. He’s working within a two-year term, and though he’s in a district that’s predominately Democratic for now, redistricting and open primaries could dramatically change the electoral landscape by 2012.
His legislative goals are also likely to draw sharp notice from political heavyweights. He had barely been sworn in when he introduced AB 10 to raise the minimum wage and tie it to inflation, never a popular notion with business interests. (Thirteen business and trade groups have already lined up to oppose it, including CalChamber and the Farm Bureau Federation.) He’s co-author with Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) on two bills that would allow some undocumented immigrants in California to receive college financial aid, provided they’ve applied to become legal residents.
And with a background that includes teaching, the UFW and the Brown Berets, Alejo expects to encounter a fair number of people who think they already know who he is and what he stands for. He’d like to talk to them about that.
“As soon as I won the primary, I knew that it didn’t serve anyone to hold a grudge,” he says.
He’s already been in touch with Francisco Dominguez, an opponent in the primary, and has introduced bills they have discussed that could be used to increase penalties for graffiti vandalism. He also sent Barnes a letter of rapprochement after their race, which she says she appreciated.
Members of the Salinas Chamber of Commerce say they were pleased to hear Alejo report in December that, although he supports a higher minimum wage and card-check voting - a procedure for workers to organize into a labor union - he’s willing to amend those measures to lessen the impact on business, according to Kristina Chavez Wyatt, the chamber’s vice chair for government and community relations.
Alejo’s efforts to reach out to attorney Jeff Gilles, of the Salinas law firm Lombardo & Gilles, is particularly notable because Gilles was treasurer of the Alliance to Get California Working PAC - which backed Barnes in the primary. “I thought that was remarkable,” Gilles says. “He seems to be tireless. He reminds me of Bill Lockyer from the standpoint of energy.”
Gilles says despite Alejo’s liberal bent, he admits Alejo appears willing to find ways to amend bills to make them workable and less onerous for business.
“Bills start in Sacramento, and they can be loaded with unintended consequences,” Gilles says.
Some critics call Alejo too liberal, although now that he’s at the Capital few if any will go on the record to criticize him. “I think they’re going to understand that he’ll be principled,” says Sanchez, now director of Alejo’s district office in Salinas and satellite offices in Hollister and Watsonville. “He does not refuse to meet with anybody.”
Alejo, the longtime student organizer, is hoping students can help. Dozens of high school and college students volunteered during the campaign, and Alejo and Sanchez have launched a “young Assembly members” intern program that has students working in the district office.
“All that young talent is going to be incorporated,” Alejo says, “and I hope one day they’ll come back” to the area.
Francisco Estrada and his brother Ricardo worked on the Alejo campaign and now help at the Salinas office. Francisco, 24, a student at Hartnell Community College, says “I was really interested in Luis because one of his main focuses is on education and local power,” he says.
He says Alejo helped him understand the correlation between school dropout rates and youth crime. At least two students have been killed near Alisal High, his alma mater, in the past two years.
Ricardo, 16, is still at Alisal and hopes to eventually attend UCLA, earn a law degree and come back to work in Salinas. Francisco’s goal? To earn a college degree and ultimately “become the youngest mayor of Salinas.”