Sitting in a Sacramento diner on Friday morning while preparing to go door to door in his campaign to win a City Council seat, Eric Guerra shook his head while considering his life of achievement over poverty.
“Sometimes even I can’t believe that I am here,” said Guerra, 36, a policy analyst at the state Capitol who is running to fill the Tahoe Park/Elmhurst/College Greens council seat recently vacated by Kevin McCarty. Absentee ballots go out March 9, and election day is April 7.
One of the most interesting candidates to seek political office in the state capital in some time, Guerra has gone from farmworker kid, to college student living out of his car, to student body president at Sacramento State, to an advanced degree, a sought-after job, a home, family and a community where he is a budding leader.
“From where I was to middle class in less than a generation, “ Guerra said. “Where else can you do that?”
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Guerra could become the first Latino elected to the Sacramento City Council in nearly 20 years, but that designation sells him short.
Guerra’s journey in life inspired his run to represent everyone – not simply an ethnic group. His opponent, retired lobbyist and community college trustee Bruce Pomer, is old enough to be his dad, but Guerra is the one with the most hands-on experience in land-use policy, the mainstay of city government.
He has lived in the neighborhoods he seeks to represent for nearly 20 years. “I’m here because people cared about me,” Guerra said of the family, friends, college counselors and neighbors who encouraged him. “I’m running to become a voice in solving problems.”
Most of the voters in the district Guerra seeks to represent live south of Highway 50 in an area that stretches to Florin Road and is bordered on either side by Stockton Boulevard and Watt Avenue. It is an economically challenged area with an ethnically diverse population.
But this is a special election with nothing else on the ballot, meaning a fraction of the district’s 26,000 registered voters could wind up deciding the race. In such elections, higher-propensity, higher-income voters tend to turn out more heavily. That means the northern part of the district that borders Sacramento State could have the biggest say.
Guerra could suffer if older, white voters dismiss him as too young, too ethnic or too vulnerable to being intimidated when it comes time to make tough political decisions.
In truth, Guerra has overcome intimidation and fear that make Sacramento politics seem tame. For him, fear meant living in dilapidated housing as a child outside of Esparto, between an almond orchard and a walnut orchard on County Road 86.
It meant watching his father waste away in a cycle of alcoholism and incarceration. At 5, Guerra was already working harder than most adults ever will, earning piecemeal wages for exhausting work.
“I would pick figs with my mom,” he said. “We would get paid a dollar for a 40-pound (box) of figs. You could maybe get three boxes in an hour. It was tough.”
Guerra remembers the foam knee pads his mother would make him for so he could box figs while on his hands and knees – a bandana wrapped around his face to keep from inhaling too much dust on hot summer days.
“We were on our knees for 12 hours. You would show up at 6 and leave at 6. If you rested, you weren’t making money.”
He graduated to a peach orchard where he worked for eight years while making minimum wage.
“It wasn’t the work that was bad,” Guerra said. “It was the thought that I would do this forever.”
When it was time for career-day discussions, Guerra was not one of the high school students picked to go along. He was toward the back of the line in a high school graduating class of only 46 kids.
“I wasn’t a bad kid, but it’s not like I hung around in the best of circumstances,” he said.
Opportunity came through a federal education program that helps migrant kids go to college. Guerra moved to Sacramento in 1996 and lived with a cousin in Del Paso Heights – but that only lasted a month.
“One day he just lost it,” Guerra said. “He had schizophrenia. I lived in my car for a few days.”
Counselors in the College Assistance Migrant Program got him into apartments near Sacramento State.
He became ASB president. He obtained a master’s degree in public policy. He bought a house in Tahoe Park. County Supervisor Phil Serna was so impressed with his intellect that he appointed Guerra to the county Planning Commission. With five years on the board, Guerra is now the senior member and is serving his second consecutive term as chairman.
Guerra shares the politics of his district. He voted against Measure L, the recent unsuccessful initiative backed by Mayor Kevin Johnson that would have strengthened the powers of the mayor’s office. Measure L was strongly opposed by many of the voters Guerra hopes will elect him.
“We have to protect neighborhoods,” Guerra said. “We have to make sure that we’re not going to neglect the investment in these neighborhoods.”
Guerra’s age and background make him appealing to the young families in Tahoe Park. He worships in the area, has family in the area and is past president of his neighborhood association.
He is the outsider who became the neighbor.
Running for this race isn’t a steppingstone, but a culmination of how far he’s come. Winning the race would be an American dream come true, so Guerra goes door to door – shaking hands, making friends, transcending ethnic politics to represent the interests of all.
“When I first moved here as a college student, I didn’t know communities like this existed,” Guerra said. “I got here and I realized: This is who I am.”
Call The Bee’s Marcos Breton, (916) 321-1096.