Karina Talamantes is the kind of candidate we always say we want, but often ignore.
At 29, she is representative of the next generation of leadership in the region. As the daughter of Mexican farm workers who lived in government housing as a child, Talamantes is proof that the American born descendants of immigrants can grow up to be proud of their roots while yearning to assimilate and bring vitality and energy to their communities.
Talamantes is a graduate of UC Davis. She is a career counselor. She's is small business owner. She is a fresh and exciting young presence on the political scene here. She's running for Sacramento County Office of Education. And, building on her personal experience, she wants to be a bridge from poverty to assimilation for kids here.
"I want to know what Karina sprinkles on her corn flakes each morning," said County Supervisor Phil Serna, who has endorsed her. "She has incredible energy."
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When we vote, we tend to pick familiar names. It doesn't even matter if we know anything about the names we select, just that we've heard of them. So electing people sometimes becomes an exercise in choosing the most obnoxious, most self serving, most monied candidates out there.
Then when we complain about elected leaders letting us down, we often forget to look in the mirror. We forget that we're often co-conspirators in a democracy that is beautiful in theory but is sometimes ugly in the monotonous churn of candidates, measures and uninformed voters.
So why does Talamantes deserve your attention? Because the Sacramento County Office of Eduction directly educates 30,000 students and provides support services for 245,000 across 13 school districts in the region. Because SCOE provides adult education, special education, career technical education, early learning. It provides training to school teachers. It might be the most critical education entity that you never heard of.
Talamantes landed the endorsements of Serna, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, state Senator Richard Pan and many others by earning them from the outside. She wasn't born connected. She was born near a farm where her parents worked in rural Glenn County. The Talamantes family lived in a trailer behind the farmer who liked her family and helped them arrange work visas so they could live in the U.S. legally and without fear.
The downside was the Talamantes family – mom, dad and four siblings – were crammed inside the trailer. It would flood in heavy rain. Mold grew. By the time Talamantes was a toddler, this arrangement was untenable.
The family moved to nearby Willows, landing housing through a federal program for the rural poor. The catch was that the families had to build their own homes. So they did.
"We moved into the neighborhood, and everyone built each others' homes," she said.
As a child, Talamantes spoke Spanish at home but learned English quickly, in part to act as a translator for her parents. She entered UC Davis on the strength of her grades and through a federal assistance program for the rural poor. But she had to go into debt to pay for her bachelor's degree in community and regional development, which she earned in 2011.
"I came out with $35,000 in debt and I've been paying it down ever since," she said. "But I'm a product of government programs and mentors that put me in place to have equal opportunity."
Talamantes is running for the seat in SCOE District 2, which encompasses Antelope, Del Paso Heights, Elverta, Gardenland, Hagginwood, North and South Natomas, North Sacramento, Rio Linda, and Robla.
"The first day I set foot on the UC Davis campus, I thought, 'I want to give back to the community," she said. "I need to make sure that the mentor that I had, the resources that I had are available to more students."
She knows the struggle sorting through the maze of financial aid forms. She's worked with students who didn't realize they were undocumented until they were applying to college. She knows the struggles that lower-income students face, having experienced the death of her father – through an agricultural workplace accident – when she was a sophomore at Davis.
"We were never able to get a grief counselor for my mother who spoke Spanish so I learned how important advocacy was," she said. "But our family stayed united."
From humble farm workers, the four Talamantes children are all professionals or college students. To help make up the income they lost when her father died, the family opened two businesses: A mobile truck that sells Mexican-style fruit, and a T-shirt company. Talamantes knows how to hire employees and run a business.
SCOE offers many of services to help poor, working people – but those services are not used enough, and she knows why.
"How can you use the resources if you don't understand that they are available?" she asked of immigrant families in the county.
If elected, she would also join the still-too-small ranks for female elected officials and even smaller ranks of elected Latinas.
"Karina stands out," said Angelique Ashby, the only woman on the Sacramento City Council and a mentor to Talamantes. "She is qualified, she works hard and gives every challenge her best."
Sometimes the political candidates you need to know are the ones you never heard of.