I am an Imperfect American, and was an Imperfect School Board Candidate
I recently withdrew my candidacy from the March 2019 Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) School Board election for District 5. After getting many requests to elaborate on why I dropped out, I have decided to talk about what really happened.
When friends and family members recently began encouraging me to run for a vacancy that opened up on my school board in the same district and community where I grew up and attended public schools, I figured it wasn’t the most harebrained idea. It felt right having attended school there my whole life. And later, one of my first jobs out of college was working for the L.A. School Board as a policy advisor and community liaison.
I thought, it is after all by the grace of God and thanks to some pretty amazing public school teachers that I made it through the system. Despite all odds, I graduated from an inner-city L.A. public high school and attended college. I even earned a master’s degree in public policy. On top of that, I’ve had some pretty remarkable professional experiences.
I told myself, maybe this is the time for me to run for the LAUSD and bring my experience and perspective to the role of representing my community and District 5, a Latino student majority, low-income and immigrant district. After all, I was one of those low-income immigrant students.
So, I decided to run. I filed the required paperwork and started knocking on doors and talking to people across my community. I knocked on hundreds of doors, talked to hundreds of people at parks, farmers markets, churches, and on the streets of my neighborhood. I was excited about running, and people were excited to support me.
I was flying high. People were endorsing me, donating to my campaign, wearing buttons with my campaign logo, and putting up my lawn signs.
It was a great feeling. When a representative from an organization that is a part of one of the most powerful special interests reached out and requested a meeting, I thought, sure, my campaign is gaining momentum and people are noticing.
We met but the conversation quickly went south. They had ran a background check. And I was told I couldn’t be endorsed because in their view, I was effectively radioactive.
When I decided to run for office, I thought about the kids who needed a champion. I thought about my experience going through the same system. I thought about all of the skills and grit I had developed over the years that I could now use to try to make these schools a little better than they were before. I thought about how I could keep paying those opportunities forward to kids who sorely need it and fundamentally deserve it.
I didn’t think about my past.
But the truth is, like so many other Americans, I have made mistakes and have had some run-ins with the law. I got a DUI in my early 20’s and have been involved in a few bar scuffles. I certainly don’t condone drinking and driving and have learned from my past mistakes. Like most people, I would consider these transgressions fairly forgivable, instead they were enough to now be leveraged by powerful special interests looking to maintain the status quo, and used against me to force me out of a school board race that in theory, is supposed to be open to all who are willing to put their name on the ballot. Because that’s how Democracy is supposed to work, right?
At one point during the conversation I thought, this guy is implying that he will leak my criminal record himself. He used phrases like, “sometimes with a little time things become easier,” translated as wait until we say you can run and “maybe you can run for something in the future,” translated as wait your turn. It was a humiliating experience. I couldn’t even really mutter a real response. “We won’t share any of the details of what we found on your record with anyone, we’ll just have to say ‘we can’t go with Eduardo and I can’t tell you why.’”
My heart sank in disappointment. I thought, how could they reduce me, and attempt to portray me, as nothing more than a criminal? The Obama White House vetted me. I even have Global Entry and TSA Pre-Check for for crying out loud.
But I quickly understood, now more than ever, that politics is a nasty business. And it’s particularly unfair to candidates of color from low-income communities. It’s hard enough as it is for poor urban kids to make it through high school and on to college while avoiding the school-to-prison pipeline, let alone to make it in government or politics or any other successful industry for that matter.
It’s unfair to people with real, lived experiences.
The truth is, this continuous cherry picking of candidates by powerful special interests is one of the biggest reasons why people of color continue to be politically under-represented.
It’s hard enough to get past the cultural barriers of running for office when you come from a working-class and/or immigrant family. It’s also incredibly expensive to run and that’s why most lawmakers tend to be independently wealthy or have very wealthy networks.
Much ado is made about how we want more candidates from diverse backgrounds to run for office but the political status quo has no real intention of supporting them when they do run. The political system is like many other systems — inherently racist and classist. We see it in education with professionals of color needing more academic training and graduate degrees to reach professional opportunity parity. Professionals of color with college degrees are still often less wealthy than less-educated white professionals.
But the powers that be aren’t actually interested in affecting change or electing candidates from diverse backgrounds or with lived experience to office. Between being threatened with exposing the mistakes of my youth, and powerful outside groups backing white candidates to represent mostly minority-majority schools, it was very clear that effectively running a competitive race would be next to impossible. And with that, a much needed voice was shut out of Democracy.
What I will say to future aspiring politicians of color who have also made their fair share of mistakes is to not be discouraged by the false notion that you can’t run because of perceived “skeletons in the closet.” F — k that, run. Ignore the noise, run with your eyes wide open, and focus on the change you can make for your community.
If I could do this all over again, I would have shared my own history and incorporated it into my personal story about why mistakes don’t define you. What you learn from your mistakes and what you choose to do with your future — that defines you.
In fact, I would still be running if this was a one-on-one fight. I know I’m strong enough to take the personal mud-slinging, and I know I can work hard enough to try to defeat the enormous amount of money that would eventually be used against me. But it’s not a one-on-one fight and I wasn’t prepared to allow my family to get dragged into it. I couldn’t do that to my wife, my family, my close friends, and supporters.
An estimated 70–100 million or more Americans have some kind of criminal record that includes arrest or conviction. And it is well documented that people of color with a criminal history are disproportionately impacted when it comes to opportunities. National criminal justice reform advocate Glenn E. Martin said it best, “those closest to the problem are closest to the solution, but furthest from resources and power.”
I’m proud to have worked for President Obama and an Administration that supported and expanded opportunities for everyday people with a criminal history. A President that through a Presidential Memorandum established the Federal Interagency Reentry Council, an effort to reduce recidivism and improve employment, education, housing, health and child welfare outcomes for individuals with a criminal history. A president that gave me a chance to serve in his Administration despite the mistakes of my past. A chance regrettably I don’t get with the voters of Los Angeles — at least not this time.
Check out the Youth Justice Coalition to learn more about key organizations working to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline and expand opportunities for young people in the Los Angeles area who’ve been impacted by the juvenile justice system. Youth Justice Coalition: www.youth4justice.org
To learn more about organizations continuing the work to support and expand opportunities for millions of formerly incarcerated and convicted (FIC) individuals in Los Angeles, visit: Los Angeles Regional Reentry Partnership (LARRP). www.lareentry.org