Ricardo Lara is viewed in the Capitol as something of a rising star — a trajectory that ironically was helped by the still-unfolding scandals involving the city of Bell, which is in his district.
During his first and only term in the Assembly, he was named chair of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, an important panel that gives state Auditor Elaine Howle her marching orders. Lara, handily elected to the Senate last year in the 33rd District, now serves as vice chair of the same panel — a procedural change because the top spot alternates session-to-session between the two houses.
Lara, D-Bell Gardens, carried legislation to crack down on local fiscal procedures, a direct result of the corruption that was disclosed at Bell, in which local officials paid themselves exorbitant salaries and hid their activities from the public. Gov. Brown signed Lara’s legislation into law.
Lara sits on Senate Rules, the powerful five-member committee that determines staffing and office budgeting for the upper house and decides on the confirmation of the governor’s appointees, among other chores.
He also chairs a select committee on Ports and Goods Movement, and serves on the Appropriations and Labor committees.
The son of a factory worker and a seamstress in East L.A., Lara has worked on issues of educational equity and the rights of women and minorities. He chairs the 23-member Latino Legislative Caucus comprised of eight Senators and 15 Assembly members.
Lara, who is gay, is a member of the LGBT Caucus and is the first openly gay person of color in the state Senate.
The Senator last week responded to questions posed by Capitol Weekly.
Hispanic people will soon be the largest of the ethnic populations of California. How will that impact the political scene?
After the elections in 2012, it’s clear that the framework for what people considered “Latino issues” has changed. People typically associated Latino issues as those that only affected the undocumented community. However, as the recent elections have shown, this is not the case.
At the federal level, 8/10 votes from the Latino community were for President Obama. In California, the President’s wining percentage among Latinos was even higher exceeding 80 percent in some precincts in Los Angeles’ heavily Hispanic East Side.
While Latino issues have always been prevalent in the national and state process, it’s clear that there is a powerful voice in our Latino voters that cares about issues like public safety, education, housing, jobs and our economy. In order to meet these demands, we will need to have people who advocate on behalf of these issues in leadership positions. It’s one of the priorities as a Latino Caucus to ensure that women of color in particular, are represented in appointments to commissions, boards and leadership positions that can be a voice for our communities.
The Supreme Court will rule soon on same-sex marriage. What is your position on same-sex marriage and why?
Of course I’m supportive of this. As an openly gay man, I feel it’s a right that the LGBT community has long been denied. I also see this as a stepping stone for a broader fight for equality. A victory at the Supreme Court is one small fight in a series of other fights. This court case has the potential to set the groundwork for a National trend that could have positive impacts on tax equality, and job equality for the LGBT community.
Assemblyman Ammiano reintroduced the TRUST Act in December. The governor vetoed the first version because he said it omitted serious crimes. What’s your position on the new version?
I have been a supporter of the Trust Act from its introduction. I applaud my colleague Assembly member Tom Ammiano for the work he is doing to ensure our communities are safe. I believe that the Trust Act honors key values like family unity, equality and due process under the law. In my belief, the bill limits unfair, costly detentions of aspiring citizens in local jails for deportation purposes- people who would otherwise be released.
This bill would also save local resources and help rebuild confidence between immigrant communities and local police that keeps us all safe.
There are major public-works projects being advanced by Gov. Brown, both extremely costly. One is the peripheral canal. What’s your position on it?
This has traditionally been a polarizing issue between Northern and Southern California and I find it disconcerting because it shouldn’t be. It is in all of our best interest to ensure reliable access to clean and affordable water for all Californians. Just last year I asked the Joint Legislative Audit Committee to look into the escalating water prices in Los Angeles. I received numerous complaints from constituents about the high costs and low quality of their water.
The findings identified how a neglected aging infrastructure can be more costly to our state and rate payers, especially when our most vulnerable are priced out of the access to water.
As a Senator who represents a community with poor access to clean water, I will do my due diligence to ensure that as discussions move forward, communities like my own from throughout California, have a voice at the table.
The state electorate has sided with the Democratic Party in most instances for a number of years. What would you suggest that your party do to continue to hold the electorate?
First of all, we have to celebrate what the Latino electorate managed to do. In just two elections the community has shown its level of engagement in the democratic process is only becoming stronger. According to a report by the Pew Hispanic Center the record numbers of Latinos who cast ballots in last year’s presidential race, perhaps as high as 12.5 million, is just the beginning of the electoral “boom.” As a party we will need to focus on making our leadership look
like the demographics of California.
We will also need to make sure that the issues that all Californians prioritize, jobs, access to health care, a quality education are met.
And while the Democratic Party has managed to adapt to the changing demographics across the United States, we also need to do more than just messaging. We need to be messengers that can carry out the demands of the next generation of Californians and Americans.
What does the Democratic Party have that has so effectively appealed to the electorate?
I believe that the heart of our appeal is our inclusivity of people from all backgrounds and beliefs. As the recent elections have shown, this is something that the Republican Party has failed to do. The fact that we are welcoming of everyone makes us a younger, proactive and dynamic party. These are objectives that really haven’t been embraced by Republicans.
Ed’s Note: Writer Jim Cameron is a contributor to Capitol Weekly.