A decade ago, Lena Gonzalez was a Cal State Long Beach student stuffing envelopes and knocking on doors for her soon-to-be boss, Councilman Robert Garcia.
She was a single mother on the verge of getting her bachelor’s degree, something that took her 10 years to complete. But it was something she said she needed to do to support her first-born son. She was also hungry for a spot on Garcia’s staff after his successful bid to win a seat on the City Council, replacing Bonnie Lowenthal in a 2009 special election.
Garcia, who went on to be re-elected as a councilman in 2010 and then ran successfully for mayor in 2014, said Gonzalez was very aggressive and persistent.
“She was just by far the most dedicated,” Garcia said. “She was there all the time.”
Now the 38-year-old Gonzalez, who succeeded Garcia in representing the 1st Council District, is in the middle of a special election of her own: She is running to finish the state Senate term of Ricardo Lara, who was elected state insurance commissioner in November.
Gonzalez, a Democrat in a deep-blue district, is a heavy favorite to win the seat in the June 4 runoff election against Republican Jack Guerrero, a Cudahy councilman.
As the frontrunner, Gonzalez, has been the subject of more scrutiny than at any time in her political career. In a recent interview, she shrugged off the criticism, saying it was due to a bias against progressive women in power.
“I’m not second-guessing myself,” she said. “I know I’m the right person for this position and I think other people’s egos or their staunch negativity for a woman like myself to be in this space I think is just smoke and mirrors to the reality. Which is, we need someone from Long Beach, but also I’m the right person for this.”
Early political life
Before Gonzalez landed her gig as field deputy for Garcia, she was already active in local Democratic politics. Her parents, originally from the Long Beach and San Pedro area, eventually moved to South Orange County; Gonzalez joined them several years later, after staying with a family member in Carson. Once there, she would become involved in local nonprofits and Orange County Democrat clubs.
While her immediate family was stable, Gonzalez had a number of cousins who were in and out of the prison system; she lost one cousin at a young age to gang violence. Her family life was good, she said, but sometimes they struggled to make ends meet.
“For me, it was like I had to get out of that and do something that could hopefully shape families’ lives for the better,” Gonzalez said. “Because I know the struggle that my family has gone through with various issues in relation to criminal justice reform, losing their job, working in the service industry and all of that. That’s my family in a nutshell.”
She volunteered at local food banks and served as a juvenile hall mentor before becoming vice president of the Long Beach Young Democratic Club, where she met another current City Council colleague, Rex Richardson.
The five years that she worked under Garcia underpinned her knowledge of the district, Gonzalez said, allowing her to be close to the ground on the issues that were impacting residents in Downtown. During that time she also earned her MBA at Loyola Marymount University, and currently works in civic engagement for Microsoft.
She and her son, Luca, became mainstays at community meetings and City Hall over the next four years. Gonzalez, then Garcia’s district field deputy, shuttled around the district responding to resident complaints. She said she still remembers people’s addresses and names.
At the end of Garcia’s first and only full term on the council, he said Gonzalez approached him with the intent of replacing him if he were to become mayor. Garcia said he knows Gonzalez will be a champion for women’s rights, the environment and immigrants when she gets to Sacramento, just like she has been in Long Beach.
“She’s a really good council member,” Garcia said. “She’s really well liked because she delivers. She’s a really great voice for these communities.”
Gonzalez said that her upbringing has allowed her to be that champion for communities like those in the 1st District, because she’s able to relate to the struggles that some of the residents have to overcome.
“When I go to talk to kids in the Washington neighborhood, their brothers and sisters are in gangs or are going through struggles because their sister got pregnant at 16,” Gonzalez said. “They feel like there’s no possibility and I’m there to really pump them up to give them inspiration and hopefully to allow them to know that through a lot of perseverance they could have the opportunity to thrive and get to where they need to go.”
Vision for Long Beach
The Long Beach City Council has received criticism for being too nice to each other with unanimous votes being cast by politicians not wanting to rock the boat. But that dynamic has roots that date back a decade when Gonzalez and Richardson were young organizers trying to break into the scene.
Richardson said that the City Council back then was very divided, and he and Gonzalez used to talk of how they would conduct business if they ever earned a seat on the dais. They would build a cohesive vision for the future of the city.
“We always see that areas like the 1st District and the 9th District have a lot of similarities in terms of the need for more parks and more economic opportunities and how that’s really been the case for generations,” said Richardson, who represents the North Long Beach area. “At some point, we may have an opportunity to have our shot and really change the narrative and make the city a bit more equitable.”
He said Gonzalez has been a big part of that over the past five years. If you want to know what kind of person she is, Richardson said to look at the items she’s fought for to become policy.
He said Gonzalez led the push for park equity, an effort to more evenly distribute city resources and activities throughout the city.
She also headed an effort by the city to align itself with a statewide sanctuary bill and to create a local legal defense fund for residents facing deportation.
One of the more controversial items Gonzalez supported was the creation of a local hotel ordinance that sought to protect hotel workers from being overworked and from being put in situations where they could be victims of sexual assault.
“Lena’s a fighter for people,” Richardson said. “For working people and their quality of life and their dignity. That’s why she did so well in the primary, because people know what she stands for.”
While Gonzalez received endorsements from her fellow council members, county representatives and even the mayor of Los Angeles, she has not been immune to criticism from residents and media.
Gonzalez first faced questions when she launched her City Council campaign to become the 1st District representative in August 2013. Some opponents pointed to her residency in Long Beach only reaching back to the previous year and alleged that she was a carpet bagger who moved to the district just to legally be able to run for the seat.
While she had worked for Garcia as a field deputy since his days as a councilman in 2009, Gonzalez first established residency in the city in March in 2012 for one month before establishing a second address in the city in July of 2013, according to a records search.
And early on in the current senate race, a previously undisclosed DUI from 2014 came to light.
Ian Patton, executive director of the Long Beach Reform Coalition, a community group that has seized on disclosures that Gonzalez was the recipient of more than $1 million in supporting ads from an independent expenditure committee funded by oil companies like Chevron, Valero and Tesoro, said Gonzalez has been less than courageous during this campaign.
Patton accuses Gonzalez of limiting her interaction with members of the public who are critical of her and blocking some of them on social media or exiting venues through the backdoor to avoid them altogether. He also denounced her dodging a debate with Guerrero.
“She can’t lose against a Republican in this district, and is still afraid of her shadow, “ Patton said. “It’s really pathetic.”
Gonzalez admits that she hasn’t had the best relationship with the media and that’s something she realizes she’ll have to improve on in order to educate the public on the issues she has worked on.
“For me, I don’t do the work to get kudos. I don’t. I think that’s maybe weird for some people to imagine,” Gonzalez said. “I’ve learned through this senate race that I do need to amplify some of the work we’re doing, but I just do it because I really like to do it and honestly I am averse to taking interviews. I just feel like there are other ways.”
Gonzalez said she is ready to start serving the district which includes many underserved communities like Bell, Paramount, Lynwood and South Gate. While she has only served Long Beach as an elected official, many of these cities face the same kinds of issues like poor air quality and rising housing costs.
“The 1st District has felt neglected; the 1st District has felt less-than in some cases and the 1st District has fought for funding and resources,” Gonzalez said. “We need someone that will fight in Sacramento for the southeast region in the same way.”
If Gonzalez is victorious in the June 4 election, she said there are a number of things she’d like to focus on, including:
Environmental Issues: Gonzalez has been an advocate for environmental protections while serving on the City Council. She led the effort to ban Styrofoam from the city’s restaurants and was one of two votes against a land-swap deal that could dramatically increase the levels of oil production in the Los Cerritos Wetlands.
Healthcare: Gonzalez saw her cousin die at the age of 36 because she lacked the proper health insurance to help her battle cancer. She said she’ll work to protect the Affordable Care Act, something that has been under attack from the Trump Administration.
She also said she could pick up the mantle from her predecessor, Ricardo Lara, who introduced legislation in February, 2017 that sought to provide universal healthcare for all Californians. Gonzalez said the time could be right, with Gov. Gavin Newsom signaling that he’s open to overhauling the state’s healthcare system and potentially forming some kind of single-payer system, which Gonzalez would support.
“It will cost a lot but the fact that everyone could be potentially covered and have access to good-quality healthcare is really a high-priority for me as a state senator,” Gonzalez said.
Affordable Housing: Gonzalez described herself as an ally of renters and tenants rights groups while on the City Council and has said she’d like to see the state be “bullish” on affordable housing creation in the future.
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.
Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz__LB on Twitter.
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