Alex Padilla’s story reads like a chapter out of the American book of dreams.
His parents emigrated from Mexico and settled in the working class community of Pacoima in Southern California. His father worked as a short-order cook and his mother cleaned houses. He attended local public schools, went on to the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he earned a degree in mechanical engineering and, at age 40, has been an elected official for 13 years. Padilla, a Democrat, currently serves as a state Senator representing the 20th District.
Termed out next year, Padilla has announced his running for Secretary of State in 2014. No one believes that his aspirations end there.
To get to know the man behind the story, Capitol Weekly sat down with the Senator recently for a long talk. We asked him to discuss his early life.
“My dad is from Puerto Vallarta, which is probably where I get my love of the ocean, and my mom is from Chihuahua. They met in Los Angeles. “My dad was a short order cook in diners throughout the San Fernando Valley and for 30 years he worked at Du-par’s Restaurants, best known for their pancakes. My mom cleaned houses in the wealthier neighborhoods of the San Fernando Valley, mainly in Studio City and Sherman Oaks. As a kid, after school I would sometimes ride my bike to help her finish up. Today, I represent these neighborhoods in the Senate.
“We were definitely working class. We lived in a modest home in Pacoima. Our neighborhood was rough back then. Drugs and prostitution were commonplace. My parents along with many neighbors got organized and things began to improve. And my parents gave us plenty of love and discipline and they constantly emphasized the importance of getting a good education. I was able to afford MIT through a combination of scholarships, student loans, work-study and entrepreneurship.”
Following a stint working for Hughes Aircraft, Padilla was accepted into the Coro Fellows Program in Leadership and Public Affairs, a nine-month, graduate-level experiential leadership training program that prepares individuals for effective and ethical leadership in the public affairs arena. Just 64 Fellows are selected nationally each year following a highly competitive process. He was also selected by his alma mater to serve on its governing board.
Padilla was elected to the L.A. City Council at the age of 26, and two years later he became the first Latino and the youngest person elected Council president. He also worked with U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, Assembly Member Tony Cardenas and the Los Angeles Building and Safety Commission. The San Francisco Chronicle included him on its list of 20 Latino political rising stars.
“I ran for Los Angeles City Council because I thought our community would benefit from some homegrown leadership. I believed that if someone from Pacoima was on the council, there would be greater focus on the problems we faced. As a council member, I made police and fire service a priority and focused city resources on basic infrastructure improvements like paving streets and alleys, installing sidewalks, curbs and gutters so kids didn’t have to walk through mud to get to school. I also focused on installing streetlights, so that women wouldn’t have to walk home from the bus stop in the dark. When I became President of the council, I asked our police chief, William Bratton, to assign the department’s best captain to run the Pacoima division. By the time I left the council, Pacoima had the lowest crime rate in the city.”
During that same period he became the first Latino President of the League of California Cities. That accolade was accompanied by an appointment as President of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials that numbers a membership of 6,000.
In 2006, Padilla stepped up to the State Senate, then was re-elected in 2010, winning nearly 70% of the vote in a district with just 54% Democratic registration, confirming his broad appeal. He quickly established himself as an effective legislator with a diverse agenda.
Of his legislative committee appointments, Padilla says his “most important assignment has been as Chair of the Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee. As a former engineer, chairing a committee that oversees energy, utilities, and telecommunications policy is a perfect fit. In the years I have been chair we have moved deliberately in a direction that increases our use of renewable energy, maintains the stability and reliability of our electrical grid, and places greater focus on energy efficiency.
“During my first two years in the legislature I also served on the Senate Rules Committee. There is no better way to learn about the internal problems, failures and challenges within state departments, agencies and commissions. For example, it was during the confirmation hearing of top Department of Corrections officials that I initiated my efforts to crack down on contraband cell phones in our state prisons. Confirmation hearings are a unique venue where important questions are answered in public.”
The reference to cell phones relates to the thousands of cell phones that were being smuggled into prisons and used to direct criminal gang activity. Padilla authored the law that criminalizes the transfer, sale or possession of illicit cell phones in prison. He also wrote the law that prohibits violent felons from possessing, buying or transferring body armor.
Public health got Padilla’s attention early on. “My mom was diagnosed with diabetes when I was a member of the LA City Council. It not only affected her, but our whole family. All of us had to change our lifestyles to support her. When I became a senator, I worked with the American Heart Association, the Center for Public Health Advocacy and the Cancer Society to address obesity and diabetes by helping the public have more information about the nutritional content of food. This bill combats obesity in California by requiring restaurant chains with 20 or more locations to provide nutritional information directly on their menus and menu boards for each standard menu item.”
The bill was passed despite strong initial opposition from industry and then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, though a persistent three-year consensus-building effort by Padilla and provided a model that was later incorporated into the Affordable Healthcare Act.
Padilla also wrote California’s first smoke-free housing law and increased enforcement and penalties for illegal tobacco sales to minors. He also authored the law that banned caffeine-spiked alcoholic beverages like 4LOKO in California.
To protect patients from being exposed to excess radiation he established new safety and reporting standards at California medical facilities and a reliable funding stream to establish pediatric trauma care centers throughout the state.
Other important bills authored by Padilla that have been signed into law are one establishing safety and performance standards for driverless automobiles, one which prohibits discrimination on the basis of genetic information, and another which expands voter registration and brings California into full compliance with the Voter Registration Act of 1993 by requiring online voter registration under approved conditions. Others promote job creation through a green manufacturing tax exemption provision and the deployment of smart grid technology which, in turn, advances the state’s clean energy policies.
When asked about his run for Secretary of State, Padilla is thoughtful.
“Well, the Secretary of State is California’s chief elections officer. For me, that means protecting our citizens’ fundamental right to vote, increasing voter participation, and ensuring that every vote is counted and accounted for.
“California prides itself on being a national leader on many fronts — environmental protection, energy policy, technology and innovation, worker rights and marriage equality. But we tend not to apply the same ambition to civic participation.
“Last November more than 10 million Californians did not vote. Half were Californians who were otherwise eligible to vote but did not register. The other half were Californians who are registered to vote, but did not vote. I’m running for Secretary of State to change that…”
And why public service as a career?
“I was brought up in a community service environment. My mom’s way was to help others. Church, family and neighbors, even strangers. And her attitude kind of fixed it for me. She taught me that it’s important, gives you a warm feeling.
“Politics is a good teacher. Good political advice is good life advice. Try to get along, work with others, share. Understand other people and their points of view. Learn to compromise. There’s value in it.
“Sure, politics is tough,” he added. “But remember, if it was easy, it would be done already.”
Ed’s Note: Jim Cameron, a Sacramento writer, is a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly.