Gloria Soto, 29

Gloria Soto, 29, is running for Santa Maria City Council’s 3rd district seat. If elected, she will be the youngest woman ever to serve on Santa Maria City Council. She discusses the importance of district elections, her lived experiences and the need for diversity in government.

When did you realize you needed to run? When did you hear that call?

I was actually asked quite a few times in the last three years if I would ever consider running for office. After the last presidential election, the question I was asked was no longer “would you consider”—it became “when will you?” As someone who has been a longtime volunteer and public servant through my work in nonprofit organizations here in Santa Maria in Santa Barbara County, I've always had this need to be ofservice to others. That's just always been my calling.

But going into politics—I never thought it would be possible. If you look at the demographics of our current city council, they don’t look like me. The average age of our city council is 69 years old, when the median age here in the city of Santa Maria is 29 years old. I never thought, at that moment, it was something I could consider.

Then my community really advocated for district elections, and this has been a battle for about 20 years, changing the city at-large elections to district elections. It wasn't until the city of Santa Maria was threatened by a lawsuit that they decided to move forward with changing to district elections.

So in my district in particular, I knew that our community leaders were having a difficult time finding a candidate. Especially with what was happening at the national level, I realized we need to engage young people and it's really important that we are represented by people who truly care about this community, people who are deeply connected to the obstacles and barriers that families are faced with every day. I realized it's time for someone like that to run, and I am the right person. My communities needed someone to step up and serve and so I decided to throw my hat in the ring.

Speaking of these city council districts, this is the first time Santa Maria is having an election using this district system, as opposed to electing city council members at-large. Why are these districts so crucial?

It makes it easier for your average folks to run. When it's a citywide election it becomes very costly. I know that in the last city council race, some council members spent between $60,000 to $80,000.

In the city of Santa Maria, city council member positions are not full time:  they're essentially a volunteer position with a small stipend. So, it makes it very difficult for people who truly want to serve their community to campaign unless they are retired, or they are wealthy already, or have additional financial means.

With district elections, it’s going to be more possible for younger, less wealthy candidates to get involved.  It’s going to be possible for me to knock on every single door, not just once, but twice before November 6th. If it were city wide elections, there's no way I would have had the opportunity to knock on every single door of a registered voter. District elections make itmore feasible forvoters to have a more personal relationship with the candidate.  They get to elect someone who lives in their neighborhood, who knows their issues, who understands the needs of their particular part of the city. There’s something very powerful about that.

What’s something that you love that is unique about your district?

My district is a very diverse district. We have families that are living in extreme poverty in my district, and folks who live around the country club as well. There is a big economic disparity.

There are lots of new housing developments in my district, and new schools, and lots of young families.  The district is also home to the airport and to business parks and industrial areas.

I really want to make sure it’s not just the same people that are engaged in local politics. I want to make sure that people who are on survival mode in my district barely making ends meet, can be engaged in their local government. And the problem that I've seen is that they haven't been invited to the table. Nobody has had the opportunity to really sit down or go to their door and talk to them.

Here in the city of Santa Maria, where over 73% of residents are Latino, it's mind boggling to me that we don't have interpretation services at our city council meeting. So, when we're talking about bringing communities together and elevating every constituent’s voice here in Santa Maria, it's important that we do what we can to invite our folks to the table. That's one of the most important things that I'm focusing on in this race—ensuring that I engage not just people who are eligible to vote, not just people who are already registered, but really all of my constituents, to make sure that they know that their voice is powerful.

What are the potholes in your district? What are the issues in your community and in your district that you think are being neglected, but we really need to be addressed?

In my district, there’s been a boom of housing development happening. When we're talking about growth here in the city of Santa Maria, my district is the one that has been impacted by it. One of the things that I want to ensure is that we have more mixed-use development in my district. My district is in need of more grocery stores, we’re in need of more recreational options for families and their children.

There have been community conversations about building a new soccer complex in my district. I want us to stop just having conversations about it and move to implementing concrete plans as to how we're going to make this happen.

But development needs to be managed, in the hopes that more affordable homes and apartments can be made available.  New homes right now are going for $389,000 and up, while the average income for a family of four here is about $56,000 a year. Families are not able to save up for down payment or even qualify for a home loan, given the mortgage crisis that accompanied the Great Recession. I want to learn how we can insure that affordable housing is a top priority of the city council, the planning commission, and developers.

Given the fact that it's so expensive to purchase homes here, that’s also increasing the rent. A two-bedroom apartment is going for $1900 dollars a month. We're talking about families being really strapped down by rental costs and spending more than a third of their income on housing. That needs to change. Santa Maria’s city council should seriously consider adopting an inclusionary housing ordinance, as cities to our north and south have done.

You’re planning on attempting to tackle major issues in your city. What past experiences have prepared you for public office?

I want to start by talking about the importance of my lived experience, which is so similar to that of so many other Santa Marians. I was born, educated, and raised in this community. I was born to immigrant farm working parents who would get up at the crack of dawn to go work in a field and would come back completely covered in mud. I remember the struggles that my parents faced in order to provide a roof over my head and food on my table. When I was five years old, I was living in this studio apartment with my parents where every morning, I would wake up cold and wet because of the condensation from the wall that was next to my bed—no insulation.  Single-pane windows.  Sub-standard in so many ways but it was the best we could do.

These are the living situations that currently many families here in the city of Santa Maria face, and what I will bring to the city council is a different perspective on these problems. I'm a candidate who has lived through a lot of the same experiences that many, many families in Santa Maria are currently living in—right now. In addition, I am a college-educated, home-owning success story, and I want my journey, my progress, to be the rule—not the exception—for Santa Marians coming up behind me.

Additionally, my professional experience has been important preparation.  I have been in the nonprofit sector for most of my working life in a variety of positions. And like other working-class Santa Marians, I have benefited directly from nonprofit organizations who invested my leadership skills and today I serve as a board member and volunteer in those organizations. Today I work for Planned Parenthood, and my experience there—in community relations, development, and education— has really gotten me ready to be able to take on something like this. In addition to that, I worked alongside other community benefit organizations that are working to break down institutional barriers and create more of a just world for people in my community.

My vision for Santa Maria is that our city—and its government—create policies that will allow all our youth to live fulfilling lives in Santa Maria, being able to get excellent educations here, and to have thriving careers here, and to be able to afford good housing and to provide for their families. Again, my story shouldn't be the exception but the rule for all families.

There's a huge disconnect between the people who are making decisions that are directly impacting our everyday lives and their constituents. In order for our local government officials to truly serve all communities in the city, there needs to be more diversity up on the dais and that doesn't just mean by ethnicity, that doesn't just mean gender, that doesn't just mean what languages we speak—I think it also means lived experiences. I want to bring the compassion, kindness and empathy of every Santa Marian into their local government.

Who have been your mentors and who has supported you the most throughout this campaign?

I get so emotional when I think about this. First of all, my mom and dad. Everything that I am, everything that I've been able to achieve, it's really thanks to their hard work and their sacrifices. They left their country just like all immigrants do, in the hope that their sacrifice would ensure a better future for their children and grandchildren. Because of their sacrifices, and because of the many Santa Marians that lent us hands when we needed them the most, that is why I am able to have this privilege to be running for office. My biggest mentors and my biggest support, it really comes down to my mom and dad and their sacrifices. Also the teachers that havefrom a young age supported me and encouraged me to go on to higher education. 

I'm also thinking about one particular individual, my best friend, Patricia Solorio. She's known me since I was 15 years old, when I met her in high school through Future Leaders of America. She was the Program Coordinator for the organization at that time, and we became really close and maintained a really strong relationship throughout my high school and college years. Now we have this very strong friendship. She is my best friend and my biggest cheerleader. She is the person that I can always go to and vent and ask for support.

And then of course, my entire campaign team. My team supports me not just because of our personal relationships, but also because of what this campaign means for the city of Santa Maria. We need to change the perspective that people have about our city. That includes our local government officials, our residents, and our constituents. In order for us to change the negative perception that people have about our community, we need this movement to happen.

I am also hugely inspired by the youth of Santa Maria. They are so excited, so engaged. On our first precinct walk, out of the 15 people that showed up, 13 of them were youth who are under the age of 21. After our walk, we all came back together and had barbecue lunch, and they were sharing with me what their vision is for our community. They are also big mentors of mine and I’m so looking forward to this journey with them.

Well moving away from your biggest supporters to your biggest doubters. What doubts do you think people have about you as a candidate and what do you say to people who think you’re too young to run?

I've actually had people tell me that they don't believe that young people should be running because I should be focused on my career and on raising my children. I've been asked, “What does your husband think of this?”

And so again, when I talk about the assumptions and the perceptions that some people have of young Santa Marians, of first-generation immigrants, of professional women—changing those perceptions is one reason this race is so important. Instead of me trying to explain to them why young people should be invited to the table and why diversity, including age, is so important up on the dais, I need to show them through action.

No one is going to work harder than me in this election, and that’s how I’m eventually going to break those perceptions. If I get the vote, if I get the win, and I knock on every single door, if this is a successful campaign, that's how we're going to start changing this mentality that people have about millennials and about young people in a broader community. I always throw it back to youth. The city of Santa Maria is younger than the state of California, as the average age in Santa Maria is 29 years old, whereas in the state of California it’s 36. In those terms we are a very young city, and when we're talking about job growth, that must include our young people, our college educated workforce that we keep exporting out because we don't have the jobs for them in our community.

How do we get young people involved in the political process in general? And what advice would you give to another young person who's considering running?

One of the things that I know to be true is that, through my own lived experiences, our community is made up of immigrant farm working families. So many families are literally on survival mode, doing the best that they can to provide for their children to get a roof over their heads, food on their table, and they unfortunately don’t have the means or the time to get involved with local politics. 

My parents were out to work by sunrise and home by dusk. Given that they weren't involved, I didn't grow up in an environment where I learned about the importance of civic engagement. I learned that as high school student in leadership programs, and as an adult in my professional career.

In order for us to get young people engaged, we need to support our local community benefit organizations that are working on youth empowerment and on educating our youth on civic engagement. I’m a huge fan of the nonprofit sector.  Did you know that non-profits make up 15% of California’s economy?  That nonprofits rank as the state’s 4th largest employer—ahead of construction, finance, and real estate?  That on average, nonprofits employ more people than for-profit small businesses?  I would love to see the city become a hub for nonprofit career opportunities.

Statistics show that the more young people are involved in electoral work, the higher the chances are for them to continue on with higher education, and for them to come back to their communities, take leadership positions and run for local office. In order for us to really change the odds for our community's future, we need to invest in our young people.

And we need to bring not just them up but bring their families along as well. One of the ways that we do that is by supporting our local nonprofit organizations that are already doing this work, inviting people to the table, listening, asking questions, learning, and then, leading by example.

Honestly?  Until recently, I didn’t think that running for office was something that I could do at my age because I never saw myself represented in our local government. Growing up, I always thought that in order for me to do this, I needed to be 60 years old, wealthy, and probably white. Luckily, that is not my mentality now, and I know better. Because I am leading through example, my four-year-old niece can look up and say, “If she's doing it, I can do it.” We need to just dive in to create pathways for the next generation that's coming.

 The views expressed in this interview are those of the candidate, and do not reflect the beliefs and views of Ballot Breakers or its staff.

Lacy Wright