At 26, Alex Padilla is the youngest Latino ever elected to the Los Angeles City Council, a feat that earned him a place on Newsweek’s recent list of the top 20 young Latinos to watch in the 21st century.
But for Padilla, an MIT graduate, his budding political career is less about ambition than about public service. His goal is to raise the visibility, and the standard of living, of the largely Latino community in the San Fernando Valley where he has lived all his life.
“My eyes began to open in high school,” says Padilla. “I was on the baseball team, and I had the chance to visit different high schools in different communities. I saw the inequities in resources and I thought, ‘Why don’t we have this?'”
The son of Mexican immigrants, Padilla says his parents worked hard to ensure a better life for their children. “They struggled and sacrificed a lot,” he says. “Growing up, there was one clear message: education, education, education.”
After graduating from MIT in 1994 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, Padilla went to work at Hughes Aircraft as an engineer. “I enjoyed it, and I was getting paid very well,” he says. “But 39 hours a week behind a computer and one hour in a staff meeting wasn’t giving me the personal satisfaction I was longing for.
“It wasn’t just about having a good, stable job–I also wanted to be happy,” says Padilla. “There’s a satisfaction you get not only in your heart but in your gut when you know you’re doing something right and you’re impacting somebody else’s life for the better.”
Padilla says he learned the value of public service from his mother. “She’s always trying to help people–she is very much a giver,” he says. “She used to volunteer me and my brothers and sisters to go to community cleanups or to volunteer at the church.”
In the working-class community of Pacoima, where Alex Padilla still lives with his parents, almost every house has a fence around the front yard and the sidewalks offer few trees. Youth gangs and economic underdevelopment are problems.
“Even before I left for MIT, I knew I was going to come home to where I grew up,” says Padilla, who is shopping for a house in the same area. “I don’t think it’s right to achieve a better quality of life and then move out. Going to MIT opened up the doors of opportunity for me, and I wanted to bring those opportunities and resources home.”
Padilla campaigned hard for his Council seat, answering constant questions about his age. “From day one, all I heard was, ‘Alex, you’re a great guy, you have a bright future, but you’re too young,'” he recalls. “Whenever people said that, it just drove me harder.
“What set me apart was the fact that I was running in the community where I was born and raised. I know the issues from a firsthand perspective–there’s no substitute for that.”
Padilla says he chose to run for City Council because it’s the most direct link to the services his district needs so desperately. “The City deals with the direct tangible impacts on a community,” he says. “We deal with the streets, the parks, the libraries, and the police.”
Padilla says the hardest thing about his new job is the intensity of it. He works 70-80 hours a week and says not even his time at MIT prepared him for the mental and physical demands of political office. “It’s tough to maintain a balance between the work and personal time,” he says. “Sunday is my family day–I do nothing on Sunday but go to church and spend time with my folks.”
What makes it worthwhile, he says, is his passion for what he’s trying to accomplish. “I’m trying to provide for my community, and maybe for society as a whole, better opportunities and a better lifestyle than I had,” he says. “If kids who are in kindergarten today can grow up and not have to deal with buckled sidewalks and graffiti and gangs roaming around, then I’d be proud of myself.”
Since he took office in July 1999, Padilla has secured a site for a long-awaited new police station in his district as well as getting streets repaved and traffic lights fixed. His constituents frequently stop him on the street to thank him. “That’s all the thanks I need,” says Padilla. “I don’t need headlines, just the appreciation of my district.”
Padilla is well-known in his district, partly because he campaigned the old-fashioned way, going door-to-door. “They know me personally, they know my family,” he says. “And that counts for a lot. More than anything else, people understand that I understand.”