Not a lot of elections result in one candidate receiving 73% of the vote. In fact, 73% of voters can rarely agree on anything. But in the recent special election to fill the Assembly seat vacated by Ben Hueso when he moved over to the State Senate, San Diego-Imperial Central Labor Council leader Lorena Gonzalez received a staggering 73% of the vote, while her opponent, former City Councilman Steve Castaneda, garnered just 27%.
Despite San Diego’s reputation as a fairly conservative area of the state, Gonzalez didn’t take the traditional political tactic of “playing to the middle” in order to court more conservative voters. She unabashedly ran on her track record as a labor leader, workers’ rights activist and job creator — and it paid off on Election Day. Big time.
On May 28th, Gonzalez was sworn in as the newest member of the California Legislature, representing Assembly District 80. Gonzalez, who’s served as the head of the Labor Council since 2008, has been a staunch worker advocate for years, and plans to continue her fight for the working class from her new office in Sacramento.
This blogger got a chance to ask Assemblymember Gonzalez about her transition from labor leader to lawmaker.
Labor’s Edge: Why did you decide to run for Assembly?
Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez: I had been approached by then-Senator Juan Vargas who was running for Congress at the time, as well as then-Assemblymember Ben Hueso [who ended up filling Vargas’ seat when Vargas went to Congress]. They introduced the idea, but I was hesitant at first, because I loved my position at the Labor Council. But then, when I went to a National AFL-CIO meeting, I heard the leader of the New Jersey Federation of Labor talking about his state’s program to recruit union members and leaders to run for public office. In his view, that’s the next step — not just believing in what the [Democratic] party can do for working families, but believing in the actual people who live and breathe union priorities and knowing that they can be leaders. That’s when I seriously first thought [running for office] was a possibility. And when the opportunity came up [to run for Assembly in District 80] I thought,” Rather than complain about another elected official who just thinks about votes and campaign contributions, I want someone who wakes up and thinks, ‘What can I do for working people today?’ That’s the kind of legislator I want, and that’s when I decided to run.
Labor’s Edge: What excited you most about the campaign?
Asm. Gonzalez: What was exciting was the results! I took a very pro-worker approach in everything I did throughout the campaign; in every ad and in every interview, I mentioned my role as leader of the Labor Council and my experience as a worker advocate. I didn’t shy away from it, and people really responded to our message about creating good, self-sustaining jobs. I think it was the focus on jobs as a theme that really resonated with everyone. When you quit looking at ‘interspace politics’ and when you display unions as a pathway to the middle class, I think they respond to that. The fact that we were able to get 73% of the vote, as well as the editorial endorsement in the conservative San Diego Union-Tribune, I think is pretty amazing.
I'm so thankful for all the union support, both financial and personal, during campaign. The rank & file members who volunteered to walk precincts, knock on doors and make calls felt as much a part of this as I did. It was an incredible experience to get sworn on a day with so many rank & file union members at the Capitol [participating in a lobby day in support of AB 880]. When I got sworn in, I think I said “proud” 18 times. This isn’t just me coming to Sacramento, it’s all of us coming to Sacramento. It really felt that way, and it was exciting.
Labor’s Edge: What’s the toughest part about transitioning from labor leader to legislator?
Asm. Gonzalez: The toughest part is not having daily interaction with rank & file union members. I loved my job as head of the Labor Council because I got to work with union leaders and members every day. I got to fight for workers who were in unions, who wanted to be in unions and who weren’t in unions, and I really got to talk to the people who are affected by our state’s policies. It’s tough to be in this [Capitol] building and feel so removed from the rank & file.
Labor’s Edge: What are your plans, priorities and goals now that you’re in the Assembly?
Asm. Gonzalez: I want to find ways to increase jobs, particularly in the private sector. We need strategies to reform the Enterprise Zone program and other corporate tax incentives, to make sure we’re providing incentives for good, self-sustaining jobs with benefits. I also am excited and hopeful about helping to get AB 880 passed, so we can ensure that as we expand Medi-Cal, we’re not allowing the Walmarts of the world to dump workers into the system without paying. And I want to make sure we’re keeping the promise we made to the rank & file when we asked for their support of the Affordable Care Act, that they would be able to keep their health care and not be penalized for it.
Labor’s Edge: If you could send a message to other union women and workers’ rights activists about running for office, what would it be?
Asm. Gonzalez: I would say to go for it, and don’t be afraid of who you are! It’s ok for us to proclaim that we’re for workers, we’re advocates and organizers. There’s nothing wrong with that, and in fact it’s a message that really resonates. I’d absolutely tell them, go for it!
This article is the first installment of our new Q&A series with labor leaders who are reinvigorating the fight for workers’ rights. Stay tuned for a new installment next month.