Two years ago Elliot Gonzales found himself walking home on an industrial stretch of Pacific Coast Highway that connects Long Beach to Wilmington.
The night was still, the moon was full and the smell of nature battling the odors of chemicals still sticks in his head. He thought of the former councilwoman from the area, Jenny Oropeza, who used the moniker “Cancer Alley” to refer to this area and the health implications its residents face daily.
While Gonzales has always been an advocate for the environment, he recounted this night as a sort of political awakening and call to action.
He had served two terms as a commissioner on the city’s Sustainable City Commission, but last year he took a run at a seat in the California State Assembly, garnering 13% of the vote in the primary before failing to unseat the incumbent Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach.
Gonzalez is now a candidate for the vacant 1st District Long Beach City Council seat and says he is the candidate to best represent the area because he is not bound by corporate interests.
This freedom will allow him to create policies to unburden those communities that surround the industry concentrated along the 710 Freeway, he said. His “heart is on fire for justice,” he said, and his grassroots fundraising will allow him to deliver justice to his future constituents.
“What I get to do is I get to be uncompromised,” Gonzales said. “I get to create my own agenda and serve my people. My donors are my people, my community. They’re the only people I have to be accountable to.”
The 32-year-old Gonzales was born in Long Beach and has lived in the district for over a decade. However, he spent his formative years in Florida before moving back to the city when he was 19.
He said his move to Long Beach made him a more radical environmental advocate because the South doesn’t have the dirty air that Southern California does.
Now an unabashed progressive who has latched onto policies like the Green New Deal, Gonzales says he’s ready to bring those ideas to the City Council.
One of his first forays into city politics came from looking out the window of his apartment inside the Blackstone building across from the old Main Library. There was a public park and garden on top and he wanted to restore public access to it.
After multiple visits to City Hall, Gonzales said the city gave him a token space to plant a garden, the one that was located to the left of the entrance of the old City Hall building. He said he knew it was a concession to keep him quiet—but it also showed him the power of persistence.
The small victories are still victories to Gonzales, and he pointed to his work on the Sustainability City Commission, one he said lacked real teeth, as an example of what can be accomplished.
“What I was able to do on that commission, even though it was not meant for us to really be able to do much, was to provide this information to the public that had never been there,” he said of a report on the city’s oil and gas production that was discussed when he was chair. “I think that’s what I’m most proud of. Making public information that was obscure to be brought to the surface.”
Gonzales is one of the lowest fund raisers (about $1,500 raised at the close of the latest filing period) in the field of eight people vying to replace now state Sen. Lena Gonzalez in the seat that represents Downtown and the city’s westside.
He wouldn’t have it any other way. He was part of the wave of activist candidates that appeared in the wake of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ people-powered run at the White House in 2016.
And like Sanders, his policy goals, which include converting the city’s energy consumption to 100% solar, creating a funding mechanism to build public housing and creating a public bank, prod powerful industries that have influenced politics for decades.
Jeff Nelson, his roommate and informal adviser on his campaign, said that Gonzales is courageous and has a sense of humility that is refreshing for someone running for office.
He said that while the campaign is lacking traditional donations or endorsements, it has received a number of handmade signs and other campaign trinkets from community members with whom Gonzales has struck a chord.
“We look at it as he’s getting endorsements from the community,” Nelson said. “He’s getting endorsements from individual people who are showing up to volunteer and stuff like that.”
Gonzales knows he faces an uphill battle.
He lacks traditional credentials for office like a college degree, but he has supplemented his Long Beach City College courseload with lectures and speeches from Martin Luther King Jr., Cornell West and Angela Davis. He listens to them while working as a dishwasher at a Downtown restaurant.
He also doesn’t have the support that has been bestowed upon the perceived front runner in the race. But what he and his supporters believe he has is something more important than endorsements. He’s genuine, and that quality he says he’ll carry into office as he continues to advocate for his community.
“This is a position of humility. You never get it done right,” he said. “You’ll never have accomplished it all and you’re always going to be behind. And you should be OK with that. As soon as you start speaking so confidently about how great you are you’ve stopped serving the public and you’ve started serving yourself.”
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