By Hilary Morefield
When Lorena Gonzalez stepped into the room for our fifth session, her presence immediately commanded attention. The assemblywoman’s confident, hilarious and candid approach had the full room from her first line. Gonzalez has been a long-time ally of SDLA and has spoken to past fellows on numerous occasions regarding her work as the secretary-treasurer and CEO of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, AFL-CIO but this was her first time speaking at the institute as an elected official. For this session, she approached the conversation on a more personal level, discussing her experiences as a young progressive in her 20s, her career and the some of the lessons she learned along the way.
Here are six of these essential lessons:
1. Work hard
Gonzalez faced a great deal of animosity going through the steps of her early career– as a minority woman growing up in Vista, she had a number of people trying to take her down. “[The experience] made me tough,” Gonzalez said. “You have to sacrifice certain things.” Gonzalez remained tough, worked hard, and went on to attend school at Stanford, Georgetown and UCLA. She refused to compromise, however, on what mattered the most to her– her family. She completed law school as a single mother and made sure her family was with her every step of the way along her early career path.
2. Take risks
With limited experience and an even more limited budget, Gonzalez packed up everything and moved to Sacramento for the opportunity to work for former California Lieutenant Cruz Bustamante as his senior advisor. Early on, she was asked to advise him on environmental legislation, an area in which she had very little expertise and experience. Gonzalez took it on nevertheless and through a great deal of research and self-teaching became an expert in the area. As Gonzalez pointed out, “risk worked,” and the position served as an excellent experience and a launching pad for the rest of her career.
3. Find a passion
Gonzalez took some time to discover what drove her passion for pursuing politics. She knew she was very people driven and had a strong interest in helping working families. She says her eventual involvement in labor finally gave her a solidified sense of purpose, the feeling that “Yes– this is why she was put on this earth.” She worked heavily on labor issues for many years and continues to help workers through her legislative work and decision-making as an assemblywoman.
4. Be kind to everyone
Gonzalez says her mentor in her early career, Cruz Bustamante, taught her this essential lesson. She noted in her experience a tendency for more powerful politicians to “feel like [they] are above a certain class of people” once they obtain a certain stature. Gonzalez tries to face every person she interacts with, from staffers and interns to high level officials, with respect and kindness. “Who knows-your custodian could be the leader of one of the biggest labor unions in the state,” she said.
5. Be honest
“Honesty serves a purpose.” Gonzalez shared her distaste for behind-the-back political smack-talking and lying to employers. She encouraged the fellows to avoid negative commentary on others they wouldn’t themselves feel comfortable facing, as word gets around easily in social circles. “It’s always better to say it to their face than to have someone else tell them the same thing.”
6. Remain loyal
“It’s okay to support someone who isn’t with you 100 percent on everything,” said Gonzalez. She said in her experience it’s essential “to develop the ability to understand people at different places– different arguments, different ways of thinking– and be able to work with them.” As long as you share the same fundamental values, you do not have to be point-for-point on every value, and you can benefit from the difference of perspective. Gonzalez believe this matters more than any individual quality in politics.
Gonzalez’s advice resonated with a number of the fellows, who felt similar challenges in their own paths and careers. We were delighted to have her back on board for the session and look forward to hearing from her again in the future.