Watsonville’s mayor opens up about his hometown, pressing issues and running for state assembly
Meet Luis Alejo, mayor of Watsonville, holder of several degrees, hometown role model, and now a contender for the 2010 race for the 28th State Assembly District. Born and raised in Watsonville, Alejo left to obtain an undergraduate degree from UC Berkeley, a master’s in education from Harvard, and a law degree from UC Davis. Since returning home from his academic ventures, he works as a staff attorney with the Monterey County Superior Court. A new member of the Watsonville City Council, Alejo has also decided to shoot for a seat on the California State Assembly and has received endorsements from many local leaders, including the Santa Cruz City Council and Board of Supervisors.
He recently spoke with Good Times about his past, his aspirations, and the year to come.
Good Times: How long have you been on the Watsonville City Council? What accomplishments stand out from that time?
Luis Alejo: I was elected to the Watsonville City Council on Nov. 4, 2008 with 77 percent of the votes. I now represent the part of Watsonville where I spent a significant part of my childhood.
Since joining the council I have made neighborhood safety and reducing gang violence a top priority, and I continue to hold neighborhood meetings with residents committed to deterring crime. I have also led graffiti abatement efforts, improved our public art ordinance, created a high school dropout prevention task force, and, along with my fellow council members, maintained a balanced budget during difficult economic times.
GT: How has Watsonville changed since you were a child growing up there?
LA: Watsonville’s population has nearly doubled in size—significantly changing its demographic landscape—and our city council is now more reflective of our community. We also have a very young population, with 45 percent of our residents under the age of 25.
Watsonville has always had its challenges, but we have confronted them with resiliency and perseverance. The people, cultures and rich agricultural land really make Watsonville a wonderful place to live, and our city will be the largest in the county in just a few years.
GT: After obtaining various degrees (at UC Berkeley, UC Davis and Harvard), what made you return to Watsonville?
LA: When I was 19 years old, I made a commitment to return home after graduating from college to serve the people of my community. I made a lot of sacrifices and gave up some good opportunities to come back to work as a legal aid attorney. But it was a good decision, and I am now working as a staff attorney for the Monterey County Superior Court. I assist thousands of local residents with their civil and family law cases, including helping protect women and children who are victims of domestic violence. I have seen how I can apply my education, networks and experience to make good changes here in the Monterey Bay. I also wanted to serve as a role model for local youth, and hopefully inspire more to also come back home and lead our city in the future.
GT: Now that you are mayor, what are your first
priorities for the city?
LA: I plan to continue working hard to attract good jobs to Watsonville through strategic marketing to increase business investment in our city. Keeping our neighborhoods safe, and working to decrease high school dropout rates, will continue to be top priorities. When students do not graduate from high school, the probability that they will enter the criminal justice system increases dramatically. These students have fewer economic opportunities and earn less throughout their lives. Taxpayers end up paying billions to incarcerate them and, therefore, it impacts everyone in our communities.
GT: It’s an interesting time to become mayor; it can’t be easy between economic troubles, budget cuts and extremely high unemployment rates. How are you dealing with those pressing problems?
LA: I think true leadership is best shown during challenging times. Working closely and collaborating with others has proven an effective strategy in addressing these pressing problems. Together we will lead our city through this difficult storm.
GT: What are your reasons for running to represent the 28th State Assembly District in the 2010 election?
LA: Our state is in a major fiscal crisis that has already placed significant hardships on our families, schools, and communities. Now more than ever, we need a strong voice and proven leadership for our local communities in Sacramento. I can hit the ground running at the State Capitol because I’m the only candidate who has previously worked as a legislative aide in the State Assembly in Sacramento. I gained valuable insight and skills to be an effective representative for our area. I have already earned a wide range of support from elected and community leaders through the 28th district, and will work hard to win the June 8 primary.
GT: You’ve won many key endorsements. Why do you believe the community is showing such strong support for you and your campaign?
LA: I believe my own personal career choices and track record of public service has shown where my commitment lies. I have shown a strong commitment to serving the people of our local communities and trying to really get our state back on its feet again.
GT: What legacy will current Assemblymember Anna Caballero leave behind?
LA: Assemblymember Caballero has shown to be a true bridge builder who earned a lot of respect for being an effective legislator. She has worked hard on securing funding for the Pajaro River levee, has been key on local government issues, and stood up against the state takeaway of local city and county funding. She certainly was a key mover and shaker on the statewide water bond. She will continue to effectively serve our area after she wins her campaign for state senate.
GT: What is your vision for the 28th District?
LA: Creating good jobs is my number one priority. If people are working, they can pay their rent, bills and spend money locally, which benefits local businesses. I will advocate against further state takeaways of local funding including redevelopment funds. Those funds help spur economic development and reduce blight. Job creation is closely connected with reducing violence in our communities. As Father Gregory Boyle of Los Angeles once said, “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.”
We will have some major issues to deal with including changing the two-thirds voting requirement to pass a state budget. Water will also continue to be a key focus to secure a sustainable water supply, which is connected to job creation and supporting our strong agricultural industries in the 28th district.
GT: What is your favorite thing about South County?
LA: The people of the Pajaro Valley are the greatest asset and we also have a rich local history. Agriculture has clearly been the gateway for so many different people who now make the Pajaro Valley their home.
GT: Some colleagues have called you a workaholic—are they right?
LA: All I can say is that I keep sleep to a minimum. I enjoy serving my community and it does take a lot of time. But I love every minute of it.