Jack Guerrero had no intention of going back to his hometown city of Cudahy—or even becoming a politician—when he left as a teen after receiving an acceptance letter to study at Stanford University in Palo Alto.
Growing up in a tough neighborhood in southeast Los Angeles County in the 1980s and early ’90s, he said he faced taunting from local gang members on his way to school, witnessed drug deals and domestic violence incidents and experienced the constant presence of police helicopters above his neighborhood.
“It was tough to be a kid at that time,” Guerrero said.
Today he is a two-term councilman of Cudahy, a position he’s held since 2013, and the Republican candidate in the 33rd state Senate District race that will be decided on June 4.
He’s up against Long Beach Councilwoman Lena Gonzalez, the heavily favored Democratic front-runner, to represent a district that includes southeast cities along the 710 Freeway, including Huntington Park to the north and the majority of Long Beach to the south. The position was left vacant by Ricardo Lara, who was elected state insurance commissioner in November.
Guerrero faces an uphill battle to win the seat; the district is over 55% registered Democrats, and roughly 11% Republican.
The son of working-class Mexican immigrants, Guerrero said his journey to political office happened almost providentially. Months into moving in with his father in Cudahy while he found a place to live in a beach city, a bribery scandal involving local elected officials broke out.
It was “made for television” stuff, Guerrero recalled. One Cudahy city official even barricaded himself in his business for hours as authorities attempted to take him into custody.
“I remember feeling just awful for my city,” Guerrero said, “thinking, this poor city where I was born and raised and leadership can’t get it together to serve constituents honestly.”
It motivated Guerrero to find a candidate who was both honest and competent to support. When he couldn’t find one, though, he decided to run.
The private sector life
Before the 45-year-old unmarried economist grew homesick and decided to live closer to relatives, he wore many hats in the finance industry and traveled the world.
He’s a certified public accountant and vice president of corporate treasury at Union Bank with experience in investment banking, auditing government agencies and advising Fortune 500 companies. His jobs have taken him to New York, San Francisco, London and Zurich.
Before that, he earned a bachelor’s degree in quantitative economics from Stanford University (one of his professors was former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice) and a master’s in business administration focusing on corporate financial management from Harvard University.
As a result, he considers himself a classical economist and free marketeer—a believer that the competitive market is the solution to many of today’s issues.
State Sen. John Moorlach, who represents the 37th District in Orange County and whom Guerrero closely aligns with politically, said having someone with Guerrero’s background could bring “real positives to Sacramento.”
Right now, Moorlach is the only certified public accountant on the state Legislature. “I could use some company,” he quipped.
More importantly, Moorlach said, having Guerrero on the Legislature would mean having a financial- and detail-oriented mind for one bill in particular: the budget.
“We need some people in Sacramento that have some real world business experience, that accounting acumen,” Moorlach said.
Red in a sea of blue
Guerrero may understand balance sheets, but is he able to muster enough support in a heavily Democratic district that hasn’t been represented by a Republican in recent years?
As a fluent Spanish-speaking child of blue collar Mexican Catholic immigrants, Guerrero believes he understands the 33rd Senate District, which is about 70 percent Latino.
“I think a lot of Democratic politicians are a little bit disconnected from the working poor,” Guerrero said.
He described some Democrats in elected positions as middle class who can bear the brunt of taxes as opposed to the working poor trying to make ends meet.
“It’s unfair to tax them in ways that make life difficult for them when the government then uses the money and gives fat salaries to executive management, money for consultants, pensions that are out of control and mismanages the cities’ finances,” he said.
David Hernandez, chairman of the Los Angeles Hispanic Republican Club, which has endorsed Guerrero, believes his willingness to call out politicians who offer sweetheart deals to businesses has resonated with his constituents in Cudahy—a city just over 1.2 square miles and a population at about 23,000.
“That type of pay-to-play favoritism—single bid contracts—that’s going on in every city of the district,” Hernandez said. “So often than not politicians are unwilling to point that out because there are so many people benefiting financially from that and who in turn contribute to the campaign.”
Guerrero’s colleague, Cudahy Councilwoman Elizabeth Alcantar, doesn’t doubt he cares about the community. But she differs in opinion on a lot of political issues that “have a lot of implications for our community,” she said.
Take, for example, immigration.
The councilwoman—whose day job is advocacy work for a nonprofit—estimates that nearly half of the mostly Latinos living in Cudahy are immigrants and half of those immigrants are undocumented.
“I don’t doubt he cares, but it’s tough,” Alcantar said.
What is seen as a nationally divisive issue had local effects when, in 2014, a resolution declaring Cudahy a Sanctuary City came before the council and passed. Guerrero abstained from that vote, which Alcantar interpreted as him not finding the issue important enough.
“We should be standing up and being vocal about our support for our immigrant community, our undocumented folks,” Alcantar said.
The council decision led to high tensions in future council meetings when outside conservative groups opposing illegal immigration continuously attended them in the following years.
Guerrero said he isn’t against immigration—pointing to his parents who worked as farm workers before turning to factory work—but does believe the U.S.-Mexico border needs to be made secure.
He believes legal immigration needs to be fixed so that it is more efficient and more closely aligned with the needs of the country’s economy.
His conservative views on LGBTQ issues and women’s reproductive rights are also troubling for Alcantar—and has been a point of criticism by his opponent, who supports both issues.
Guerrero abstained from a Pride month resolution put forth by another Cudahy colleague last June and has criticized Planned Parenthood.
“His staunch opposition to Planned Parenthood, to continue to paint it as simply an abortion clinic when it provides so many more services […] it does hurt our communities,” Alcantar said.
Alcantar believes such mischaracterizations of a health care center that provides flu shots, mammograms and other screenings may deter community members who could feel ashamed of being associated with it.
Similarly, she worries about their disagreement over what benefits city employees should have.
“One of the bigger issues we disagree on is the terms of what benefits our employees should have—whether they should have a pension in order to support themselves past working for the city,” Alcantar said.
The environment seems to be the one issue both Alcantar and Guerrero can agree on.
They both agree that plans to expand the 710 Freeway will hurt communities alongside it—including Cudahy and Long Beach. Gonzalez on the other hand, has expressed support for it.
However, Alcantar would like to see Guerrero speak about not just the negative health impacts but the environmental injustices that disproportionately affect low-income, communities of color.
Key issues for Guerrero
Business-friendly climate: Guerrero would like to lower taxes and cut the red tape that many businesses face when opening up in cities. He saw the issues in Cudahy where it took some businesses a year and a half to set up shop.
Guerrero believes these efforts would level the playing field for companies who don’t have lobbyists or have money to buy off politicians who then in turn provide special treatment, known as “carve-outs.”
“By doing policies that lower the tax burden for businesses across the board we then have the additional benefit of averting corruption,” Guerrero said.
Education reform: This is perhaps the most personal issue for Guerrero, who has called the state’s public education system “decrepit” and criticized funding priorities.
“Education should be about the children and most of the funding should go to the classroom,” said Guerrero, who noted the astonishing payments to consultants, administrators, lawyers and others that funding goes to.
A complete overhaul of the education system under Guerrero’s plan would include a focus on school choice—whether it’s public, parochial or charter—reform of teacher tenure rules and a “focus on core academic disciplines, not indoctrination of ideology or over-sexualization of elementary schools,” he said.
Guerrero said his charter school growing up was Cal State Los Angeles with which he supplemented his education at Bell High School. The school, at the time, was one of the lowest performing schools in the state and did not offer Advanced Placement courses that he sought.
“I really felt a bit short-changed by the quality of my education,” Guerrero said.
Without any help from his family or school, he was also able to attend Stanford and Georgetown University for summer classes between his sophomore and junior years. He paid for those courses by fundraising, reaching out to the local Elks Lodge and Kiwanis Club organizations.
He now sits on the advisory board for the Hispanic Scholarship Fund and donates to local schools and other charities the equivalent of his city council stipends.
Pension reform: Multiple times, Guerrero has been told to “dumb down” discussions or avoid talking altogether about what he believes to be the biggest threat to the state’s long-term sustainability: unfunded pension liability.
It’s estimated at one trillion dollars, according to a Stanford study, and Guerrero says it should be thought of as debt—something public agencies have not been honest with their constituents about.
Everyone in state government could be fired, Sacramento could be shut down and all of California’s tax revenue could be hoarded for six years “and we still would not recover,” Guerrero said.
At least one of the ways to address the issue is by taking a cue from the private sector by migrating away from a deferred pension plan and toward contributions like a 401K plan.
“If you are an employee in the public sector and you have earned your deferred compensation, that should be honored to the extent economically feasible,” Guerrero said. “Anything above that—that you have not yet earned—should be the subject of renegotiation.”
An ‘unusual’ senator
If elected, Guerrero says he is ready to expose corruption in Sacramento—from Democrats or Republicans.
“I will be an unusual senator because I’m not afraid to challenge the status quo and to call attention to corruption when I see it,” he said.
He hopes to bring to light what he believes are pernicious consequences of excessive taxation on working families.
“I’ve been battle tested,” he said, “and I will bring the same discipline to Sacramento.”
Editor’s note: On Tuesday, June 4, voters will decide who they want representing them in the 33rd state Senate District – either Long Beach Democratic Councilwoman Lena Gonzalez or Cudahy Republican Councilman Jack Guerrero.
In addition to English versions, the Long Beach Post has published profiles of Gonzalez and Guerrero in Spanish and Khmer, both of which are widely spoken in the 33rd District. These versions were compiled by certified professional translators to capture the content, style and meaning of what Gonzalez and Guerrero shared in their interviews, to the best of the translator’s knowledge.
Stephanie Rivera covers immigration and the north, west and central parts of Long Beach. Reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter at @StephRivera88.
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