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Meet Tony Madrigal

He's one of two young new faces on the incoming City Council--the one who wasn't supposed to win. But win he did, and with a profile that sets him apart from other councilmembers--he's Latino, a renter, and lives on the east side--he might just bring that 'fresh perspective' up-and-comers are always promising.

By Sarah Phelan

Born in Turlock and raised in the Central Valley as a farmworker, newly elected Santa Cruz City Councilmember Tony Madrigal remembers picking apricots in the Tracy area as a kid.

"I heard shouts of 'La Migra!' and then I saw 30 worker guys running my way. So I jumped off my ladder and ran, too, until my dad, who was the foreman and had his green card, grabbed me and asked where I was born," recalls Madrigal.

He credits that realization that he had rights as an American citizen--and his awareness that others around him didn't--with making him feel like he had to study, work hard and give back to his community.

His civic-mindedness paid off in spades last week, when Madrigal won a seat on the City Council, toppling incumbent Mayor Scott Kennedy and Councilmember Mark Primack. It was a surprise victory that, as Madrigal reveals, was four years in the making--and which pleased his mom, who upon hearing the good news reportedly said, "That's nice! Now, are you gonna come help your sister move?"

Fresh from his election victory, Madrigal spoke to Metro Santa Cruz about the race, his hopes and aspirations now that he's won, and how to go from political unknown to winning candidate in four short years.

METRO SANTA CRUZ: You were trailing in fifth place early on election night. Were you sweating it?

TONY MADRIGAL: I was in sixth place, actually [laughs]. And I felt that was expected, because normally the absentee ballots are first to come in and they tend to be more conservative, according to conventional political wisdom. So my campaign manager, Cliff Tillman, said, "Don't worry," although it's true that a growing number of progressive voters are voting by absentee ballot in our district, and tend to be the procrastinators who send in their votes at the last minute.

Who or what do you think won the race for you?

I tried to focus on infrequent and new voters, and younger people and the east siders. I remember knocking on a door on the east side and this woman came out and said, "Wow! Are you here talking to us? We've never had anyone come out here, and I've lived here for 10 years and been a registered voter the whole time!" And I told her, "I'm going door to door and I hope you like my ideas," and she said, "Yeah, great!" With other people, they said, "Oh, you're an east sider? Then you got my vote," while others said, "Are you on the council now?" and when I said, "No," that was enough to get their vote. People who live on the east side are very aware that they don't have representation, because everyone on the current council lives on the West Side.

Everyone whose name was on the Santa Cruz Progressive Coalition door hanger was a winner on election night. Do you think that hanger was the deciding factor? And was it fair that the coalition chose your name to appear rather than Scott Kennedy's, when you both had received the same number of progressive endorsements?

The hanger helps. It's a Santa Cruz tradition, but regardless of that, I just kept on doing my precinct walking and my mailings. I'm grateful to the coalition for including me, but I wasn't involved in the choice between me and Scott Kennedy.

Now that you're elected, what direction do you want to take the council? And how much influence do you think you'll have?

Now that I've been elected, the real work begins. I'm going to do what I know, which is to work hard, and I think there's a greater need to involve more of the community in the city's governmental process, whether it's by being on a commission or being involved with a particular agenda item. I feel blessed that when it comes to reaching out to the Latino commun.ity or the younger kids, many of whom I used to tutor--these are people I already know. And I'd like to be able to take the City Council show on the road, it that's at all possible, financially and politically. For instance, supposing there's a development that affects the east side, if the council could figure out a way to have a meeting on that side of town, it would make it more accessible to the community that's going to be impacted. Many times, the people who show up at a council meeting are the ones against an agenda item, because they are upset and so more willing to take time to come and speak out, but I think all the people in a neighborhood should be able to have a say. As for specific issues, I'm concerned about our local economy, jobs, housing, seniors and kids, all of which take money, which means we're back to focusing on the economy. We have the campus and the tourists, so we shouldn't be scraping by, but we are. It takes leadership by the council to bring all the players to the table. Fight the fights worth fighting, and fight the fights you know you can win. And if you can do both ...

Emily Reilly said that it took her the first two years on the council to get up to speed. Do you think you're going to have some growing pains?

I met with some city department heads during the campaign--Parks and Recreation, Public Works, Water, the Redevelopment Agency--and they were all very helpful and were happy to share information just because I asked for it. So, right now, I feel that I've got an idea, but sometimes the real chance of change is in knowing all the little details. Like knowing what can be changed, moved or shifted. For instance, I'm reading the housing element, which talks about the Beach South of Laurel plan, and I learned how it was that the Three Amigos--as people called Chris Krohn, Keith Sugar and Tim Fitzmaurice--were able to stop the then hotel/conference project. It wasn't by voting against it, but by changing the zoning areas and specifying what can be in there, what fits in with the tone of the area.

Which issues do you think you're prepared on, and on which do you need to do more work?

I bring my experience organizing people in the community about things they care about, such as the Depot project, and tenants complaining about landlords who don't fix repairs but do raise rents, and labor negotiations. So, I can educate my colleagues, for example, about how if grievances go to arbitration, then that costs money. I know what it's like to be homeless, having been there myself at one time, but I'd like to learn more about the economics of homelessness, its main causes and how many people die because they freeze to death at night. I've also learned a lot about the impact of desalination plants, but I need to know more. And I'd like to know what parts of town it's gonna be possible to develop affordable housing in, and bring in or attract industry into. I want to learn more about how to make the whole permitting process more user friendly. Is it just a matter of political will, or is it that the city can't do it, because of prohibitive costs. I also want to work with landlords whose affordable housing units are about to be converted to market rates, in an effort to keep them affordable for another 40, or 90, years. Do we have to throw everything but the kitchen sink at them, or not? Supposedly, the housing market has stabilized for now.

You said you wanted to run in 2000, but decided not to because you weren't ready. What made you ready for the 2004 race?

A lot of my work with the community, with labor and with children. I've done community organizing around housing issues, and filling out immigration forms and citizenship applications, and I'm the co-founder of Beach Flats Soccer.

What was your strategy in this campaign?

Four years of working with the community, talking to people, getting to know who are the nonprofit directors, the public service workers, and who are the leaders of the organizations that give out political endorsements. I've been a member of the Santa Cruz Action Network for three years; I was their newsletter production guy and on their steering committee. And it took four years of living here in Santa Cruz, paying the rent--and still being able to afford to stay! And for the past three years, I've been working at SEIU Local 415, getting to know local elected officials, including the county supervisors, and getting to understand importance of working people having a voice. We as a community can no longer afford to influence local elected officials. We must go out and become them.

With Measure J having gone down in flames, what do you see as the way to find solutions to our current transportation dilemmas?

There are things we can do as a community. The university can play its part, and the city can promote sensible transportation policies within our town. There's potential for bus rapid transit improvements, in which some street parking spots become bus lanes during rush hour, making riding the bus more attractive. And I'm very supportive of the rail trail. There's a large working class population in Santa Cruz, many of them Latino, who ride their bike every day to their jobs as dishwashers and service workers.

Do you think that as an SEIU employee, and as only the second Latino councilmember in this city, you'll come under extra scrutiny?

I know that for some folks my SEIU involvement is an issue, since I work for the union that represents most of the city's service workers, but that's only one issue of many within the city. As for my Latinoness, I've been reading a book by Jorge Ramos called The Latin Wave, in which he discusses how two Democratic contenders in Texas, who both spoke Spanish, still lost the race to a Republican, while Bill Richardson, who didn't play up his Latinoness at all, won and became governor of New Mexico. So, my position is, yes, I care about the same issues as the rest of the city, like school closures, jobs, housing, traffic, the local economy and the environment, and I happen to be Latino. I feel that's why people voted for me. They can identify with these issues and they happen to love that I'm Latino.

Anything else you want to say about the election?

I truly want to thank my supporters. I just want to try and do the best I can. And if there's anyone out there who wants me to pick up a yard sign, just call 295.2518 or email [email protected].

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From the November 10-17, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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