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[whitespace] Richard de la Paz Street Seen: To win his seat on the council, Richard de la Paz walked District 2, knocking on doors and talking to his neighbors.

Photograph by George Sakkestad

King Richard

The youngest member of the Watsonville City Council has big plans--and people are listening

By Andrea Perkins

'LOOK AT this Burger King. This is like something you would see in Beverly Hills," says Richard de la Paz, squinting up at the stucco facade and terra-cotta tile of a rather grandiose fast-food restaurant. On a small arched wall in front of the establishment, golden letters read: Welcome to Watsonville.

"I want to put more stuff here that's equal to that Burger King," he continues, an outstretched arm sweeping across a horizon cluttered with dilapidated tenements and glitzy car dealerships. It is a gesture more befitting a storybook king or a revolutionary than a university student. But de la Paz, who at 24 is the youngest member of the Watsonville City Council, isn't your typical university student.

The Burger King is in District 2, the district de la Paz took from Mayor Oscar Rios, who reached term limits last November. No one expected de la Paz to win District 2, the only contested seat in the race. No one, that is, except Richard de la Paz. He says he won because his "constituents are not the kind of people to be impressed by fancy degrees and flashy endorsements"--and because he knocked at least three times on every door in the predominantly Latino district.

Like his colleagues, de la Paz wears a suit when fulfilling his role as councilmember. Watsonville City Council meetings are not like those in laid-back Santa Cruz, where the mayor has been known to show up in his fly-fishing vest. In Watsonville, councilmembers in formal attire stand to recite the pledge of allegiance.

Today, however, de la Paz is decked out in jeans, a yellow windbreaker and a baseball cap, the keys to his 1965 powder-blue Impala hanging around his neck on a strap. He is fresh from his early morning workout and ready to commence a walking tour of District 2. De la Paz, a man who prefers actions over words, has been leading a lot of walking tours lately. Recently he took a group of department heads through his district, pointing out the plethora of substandard housing.

Situated at the southern edge of the city, District 2 includes part of downtown and the Pajaro River front. As he walks, de la Paz describes the parks and soccer fields he hopes the city will build along the river bank instead of the concrete flood walls proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers. Where there is a boarded-up building, de la Paz envisions a sparkling, tourist-enticing eatery framed by extended sidewalks. In place of that dismal doughnut shop, de la Paz sees affordable single-room-occupancy units.

He enters a dirt lot, empty except for a rooster and an abandoned cowboy boot. "Look at the size of this thing," says de la Paz, referring to the lot. "People always say there is no place to put affordable housing. Well, here's a place."

All in The Family

DE LA PAZ says he wants to be "an injection of a 'We're getting better' attitude in the city's bloodstream." Such ardor has impressed many of his former critics.

"Richard certainly lights up a room when he comes in," says Mayor Chuck Carter who, along with all the other councilmembers, endorsed de la Paz's opponent, Erica Padilla. Like the others, Carter was shocked when de la Paz won. His shock turned to amazement when de la Paz's first official act was to vote for Ramon Gomez in a mayoral race everybody thought was between Betty Bobeda and Chuck Carter. Indeed, de la Paz's refusal to cast the tie-breaking vote led to Bobeda's decision to step down.

"He's got fresh ideas," admits Carter, "and he's full of enthusiasm, an enthusiasm that is infectious."

Meanwhile, those who have always supported him can't resist prophesying great things in his future. "I want him to be mayor," says his stepfather, Joe Ortiz. "I don't know why. There's no money in that either. Maybe he'll be a supervisor someday. The thing about Richie is that he is a tremendous talker. He makes me cry when he talks."

While de la Paz has worked hard to prove himself (he is a tireless attendee of meetings and events), he has no qualms about rattling the cage of the established order. Recently he appointed his mother, stepfather, aunt and neighbor to various city commissions, a move Carter says he would have advised against if de la Paz had sought his advice.

When Sentinel reporter Stett Holbrook--who during the campaign called de la Paz a "political outsider" with a "thin résumé of civic experience"--asked him to comment on the unorthodox appointments, de la Paz replied only, "The Kennedys did it."

De la Paz, who believes that actions speak louder then words, loathes being asked to explain himself. "I will say this and this only," he says, his voice rising a little at the end of each sentence. "My commissioners have not missed a meeting and they have gone above and beyond what is required of them in attending other commission meetings. Their excellent performance speaks for itself."

When asked if he appointed his commissioners in hopes they would do his bidding, he responds that the planning commissioner, his neighbor Irene de la Cruz and a former director of Defensa de Mujeres, recently went against his recommendations.

"I just want them to do what they feel is best. It will give my camp a good balance--not just 'what Richard wants,'" says de la Paz, who often refers to himself in the third person--a style that epitomizes his ability to detach himself from his own experiences. When talking about his past, for example, he doesn't dwell on details.

All That He Can Be

GROWING UP "wasn't the smoothest road," he says. "My mom had me when she was sixteen. My father got locked up, incarcerated [for strong armed robbery] a couple of years after that, so it was basically only me and my mom on welfare during my childhood."

After his parents' divorce, de la Paz didn't see much of his real father. He always hoped he'd get to know him better as an adult, but his father died of a heroin overdose when de la Paz was 20. De la Paz says this is one reason why he is such a devoted father to his own 2-year-old daughter, Richele.

De la Paz excelled in sports and did well in his classes when he applied himself, but what he calls an "attitude problem" caused him to get kicked out of several high schools. After a stint at Cabrillo, he felt he needed to start over.

Discipline had always been the missing element in de la Paz's equation. At age 18 he joined the Navy. There, military drills cultivated his dormant work ethic.

"I also learned how to be tactful," he says. "I learned how to control my attitude instead of letting it control me. I learned how to use my attitude. I use it now when I'm advocating for something." He liked living in open barracks so much he has suggested that barrack-style housing might be one way to approach the migrant farmworker housing crunch.

In addition to the City Council, de la Paz serves on the Criminal Justice Council of Santa Cruz County, the Pajaro Valley Prevention and Student Assistance Board of Directors, the Pajaro Valley Unified School District, the City Council Relations Committee and the Selective Service Board of Directors. He also works full time at the University of California Observatory as a purchasing specialist and wakes up every morning at 5am to work out at the gym.

During the brief periods when he is actually home, de la Paz often pops in DVDs--not to watch, but to listen to in the background. Some of his favorites are Braveheart, Last of the Mohicans and Gladiator. The parlance of these celluloid heroes has slipped into de la Paz's own vernacular. He obviously looks up to these invincible men, who fight for justice, run across mountaintops and slay tigers with their bare hands.

Like many of our most popular heroes, de la Paz is a man of intense contradictions. It is difficult to decide if he is more Kennedy or Chavez. His confidence is certainly his most salient feature, stemming from an ability to win people over to his cause through the sheer force of his charisma. This charisma also comprises a conflicting mix of bravado and modesty. De la Paz switches from one to the other quite naturally. And while mature beyond his years (he bought a house at the age of 20), he is still very much a kid at heart. One of his goals in life is to visit all of the Disneylands in the world.

The first time Mark Bisbee, a battalion chief with the Watsonville Fire Department, saw Richard de la Paz, he was very impressed. It was during another one of de la Paz's District 2 walking tours, on which he led eight city officials.

"There were all these department heads around him," Bisbee recalls, "and he was in charge. He didn't seem intimidated in the least. He has a presence--what we call in the fire service a 'command presence,' like when a bunch of people are in a classroom and an important person walks in the back and all the heads turn."

Richard de la Paz
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Terms of Endearment: De la Paz, his wife, Michele, and 2-year-old daughter, Richele, were set to move to Davis when Richard decided to run for Watsonville City Council.

Great Expectations

TEENAGERS FLOOD the poorly lit, unheated North County High School civics classroom. De la Paz is here to give a talk about local government and zoning laws. "I hate to call them kids," he whispers as they funnel in from lunch break. "That's what they call me. Only, they don't say that anymore. People say I'm young, but not too young."

Not a tall man, de la Paz looks slick and professional as he draws diagrams depicting the structure of local government on the blackboard. His hair, still growing out of its military do, is a little spiky. In his beige suit and tie, he looks out of place among the piles of sports equipment and term projects. But de la Paz is not much older then these "kids," who grow a little bleary-eyed during his lecture. Perhaps he realizes they are potential voters, or maybe he just remembers what it's like to be in high school. At any rate, he seems to sense that their fragile attention is straying.

"Why don't we legalize drugs?" he asks as a brief segue into the topic of current events. The students sit up a little straighter in their chairs. A few hands shoot up. Opinions are expressed. "The way we're fighting drugs is wrong," he continues, warming to his subject. "People always say 'Don't do drugs,' but they never take the time to teach you how to be a responsible person. For example, do you guys have any decision-making classes? No! You have classes that teach you a bunch of stuff you will never use, but nobody teaches you how to make a simple decision, and decisions are what make up your life. If you teach someone how to make a good decision, they won't want to do drugs."

De la Paz switches into teenager-speak, using expressions like, "I think our education system blows." He tells them that he learned more talking to a bum on the street than in most classrooms. And he is open about his own troubled experiences as a high school student, making the girls blush with his classic good looks and tough talk.

"What made you decide to run for city council?" asks a girl in the front row. "I mean, like, what was the evolution of your political involvement?"

Like a true politician, de la Paz doesn't get around to answering the question right away. First, he wants to clarify that while he was a troublemaker with an attitude problem, he was by no means dumb. "I was in calculus as a sophomore," he says, launching into a predictable tirade about the value of learning. Returning to the question, he says, "I decided that I didn't want to sit back and let other people decide things about my city for me."

All's Fair in Politics

A MORE THOROUGH answer to the question about de la Paz's political evolution would reveal that it was not his lifelong dream to serve on the Watsonville City Council.

After being discharged from the Navy, de la Paz planned to study law and economics at UC-Davis, where he had already bought another house. While waiting for school to start, he, his wife, Michele, and their daughter, Richele, were staying with de la Paz's parents in Watsonville.

"That's when I started hearing about the political stuff that was going on," he says. "Before that I didn't even know what the city council was, nor, to be honest with you, did I care."

You don't just decide to run for city council. However, de la Paz says that he "just decided to run for city council" about a week before moving to his new home in Davis.

"At first nobody supported me," he says. "They said, 'You always do this!'" referring to his characteristic impulsiveness. But de la Paz worked his magic and soon convinced enough people to form a committee, composed primarily of family members. He transferred to UCSC, sold the house he had just purchased in Davis and started knocking on doors and introducing himself.

De la Paz's opponent, Erica Padilla, was probably busy practicing her acceptance speech when he filed his application to run 10 minutes before the deadline. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with a substantial résumé for a 25-year-old, Padilla had all the endorsements a candidate could want: the county's two daily newspapers, the mayor, the former mayor, the City Council and the Teamsters Union, just to name a few. De la Paz, who had just returned to Watsonville after a four-year absence, was an unknown quantity, a junior in college who had the public endorsement of the police chief.

Fifteen minutes after de la Paz submitted his application, his cell phone started ringing. "I was leaving the elevator," he remembers, "and the Sentinel called to tell me that an 'anonymous source' had just brought my criminal record to their attention." The criminal record consisted of a petty theft ticket issued to de la Paz just after his 18th birthday.

Hesitant to discuss the incident even now, de la Paz says only, "It was stupid. All I did was pay a fine. The Sentinel was technically accurate when they reported on it, but the perception was there that I did something horrible. They made it sound like I was a thief."

Instead of undermining his campaign, de la Paz says that the smear attempt actually brought him more votes. "I was pumped up," he says. "I was excited to draw that much attention, because people understood where it came from. When you're running for something, 'anonymous sources' just don't drop things off."

As soon as that controversy fizzled out, de la Paz was making headlines again, this time for portraying himself as a Democrat on his campaign fliers. "I was a Democrat," he explains, "in so far as the ideals go, but in the service I had registered as an Independent, because I thought Independent was like you have your own ideas. So they [Padilla] went around telling people not only that I wasn't a Democrat but that I was a Republican and in this community that is political suicide."

While Padilla touted her service on various city commissions, de la Paz emphasized his lifelong residency in District 2 and his commitment to the community's youth, which struck a chord in a town where 33 percent of the population is under the age of 19. He won by a landslide.

Nightmare on Elm Street

THE FIRST District 2 meeting of Richard de la Paz's term begins promptly, with the new councilmember congratulating everybody on the "10 beautiful looking street cans" that he has placed throughout the district.

After his words are translated into Spanish, the short speech meets with thunderous applause from the mostly Latino audience.

The place is packed, folding chairs spilling out into the lobby. As soon as the applause dies down, Sergeant David McCartney gives a crime update, making it clear that de la Paz has inherited more then just a housing crisis. The latest reports show that Watsonville's crime index increased 3 percent in the year 2000. District 2 alone has seen an increase in parole violations and DUIs. Watsonville's unemployment is at an all-time high, with an annual average of 15 percent, three times the national average.

Yet, substandard housing and code enforcement are what de la Paz wants to talk about tonight. Calmly, he clears his throat and begins to discuss his housing rehabilitation plan. Watsonville has $1.5 million set aside for the rehabilitation of rental housing alone, but with 250 code enforcement cases in backlog, it has been difficult to get at those funds. De la Paz says he wants to streamline the process. He says he wants within-the-hour over-the-counter building permits for anything that is less than 500 square feet. The room erupts into another riotous round of applause.

But for every 10 constituents who rally around de la Paz's rehab plan, there is one who wonders whether it is really a way to house more people or the first step toward gentrification. Bringing buildings up to code will certainly make them safer and more livable, but enforcing those codes may mean that some people, like those who live 10 or more to a room, will be displaced.

"What is your plan for if those people have to move out?" asks ex-mayor Oscar Rios, who has been standing inconspicuously in the back of the room.

"You asked me a good question and I'm going to give you the best answer that I can. I don't want to leave any problems for whoever follows me," says de la Paz, unable to resist taking a jab at the former representative of the district. "I promise that I will take care of District 2." After the applause dies down, he continues to talk about his "interdepartmental assessment team," which is made up of one person from each city department.

"We've already assessed the 100 block of Elm Street, which needs a tremendous amount of code enforcement," he says. Elm Street is where de la Paz lives with his parents, wife and daughter in a blue Victorian. Behind the house are several newly remodeled and affordable rental units that de la Paz helps his parents manage. (The family also owns rental property in Monterey County.)

"We will not enforce one code," he continues, "until we assess. Our second step is to think strategically so we don't displace anybody."

This is not enough of a reassurance for a tattooed young man who asks, "Do you think families are going to like being asked to leave?"

"I will give them adequate housing," says de la Paz patiently. "We can't fix the world in one day. This is where I've decided to start. Look at this meeting," he adds suddenly, pointing to the crowd, "have you ever been to a District 2 meeting this size?" and the crowd goes wild.

When it is finally quiet again, one woman stands up in the midst of the throng. "You are giving hope to some and not to others," she says angrily.

Despite the chill of the winter night, the room is sweltering and de la Paz is almost beginning to lose his patience. "I'll say it again and this will be the last time," he says. "We are going to solve the housing problem one board, one room, one house at a time. If we don't start now, where will we be in 10 years?"

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From the March 28-April 4, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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