It’s not easy going into the family business when that business is politics and when your dad was Joe Serna Jr., the former mayor of Sacramento who casts a long shadow to this day.
Phil Serna, a current county supervisor, hears the well-meaning comparisons to his dad all the time – though sometimes those comparisons aren’t so well meaning. Sometimes old-timers will wag fingers at him, as if he were still the boy trailing after his father, and say that his papa would have done this or his papa would have done that.
The implied – or sometimes overt – message is that the son doesn’t measure up to the father. He isn’t as charismatic. He isn’t as bold. He isn’t as willing to shake up the system or fight the power the way the one and only Latino mayor of Sacramento once did.
But it doesn’t stop there. A statue of his old man is right outside City Hall, immortalizing the leader who died in office. The main quad at Sacramento State – where Phil Serna was educated – is named after his pops, who taught there and demanded so much of the students in his government class.
That’s a lot to live up to, especially when the father never needed or wanted his son to live up to him or follow him. Joe Serna only wanted his eldest child to be his own person and follow his own path.
Despite sharing so much, father and son came from different worlds and times. The father was able to give the son everything he never had. Joe Serna, for example, kind of marveled when Phil developed into a talented musician.
Joe Serna had no time for such artistic pursuits when he was growing up as a farmworker kid, living in labor camps near Lodi. He toiled in the fields and came of age in the 1950s and when brown skin and a Spanish surname – along with poverty and a lack of education – meant a life on the margins. “I was supposed to live and die as a farmworker, not as a mayor and a college professor,” he told The Sacramento Bee in 1999.
Joe Serna didn’t graduate from Sacramento State until 1966 when he was 27, and he clasped his diploma with callused hands. He threw himself into his turbulent times of protest, becoming a devoted disciple to labor leader Cesar Chavez and serving in the Peace Corps.
When the old man got into politics in the ’70s, there had only been one Latino ever on Sacramento’s City Council – the late Manuel Ferrales – so Joe Serna qualified as a pioneer. He felt the backlash that racial and ethnic pioneers experience as they push boundaries and open doors for others. When he was elected mayor in 1992, he had his city parking spot adorned with the word alcalde – Spanish for mayor. His phone lit up with folks leaving messages that were derogatory at best and racist at worst.
By the time Serna died in 1999, he had been re-elected easily. He laid the groundwork for downtown and midtown development that is flowering now. He played a key role in keeping the Kings and used his bully pulpit to challenge Sacramento’s public schools to be better. But more than that, Serna expressed a love for Sacramento and a sense of gritty optimism that people remembered when he died too soon from cancer.
At that time, all we knew of Phil Serna was that he worked for the Home Builders Association of Northern California and that he had kept vigil at his father’s bedside on the night that he died. “I woke to the sound of my brother wailing,” Phil’s sister Lisa told The Bee in the days after Joe Serna’s death.
Time went by and there was nary a public hint that Phil Serna would ever run for elected office. But when a spot opened up on the County Board of Supervisors, Serna quit his job and jumped in the race. He poured his own money into his campaign, refinanced his house and won in 2010.
The first several years were spent cutting budgets to reflect a paralyzing regional recession. But this year was different, due to an expected 4 percent increase in discretionary spending.
Serna, now chairman of the board, sets the agenda. But he did more than that last week. He came into his own.
In a 5-0 vote to approve a $3.7 billion budget, Sacramento became one of the very few counties to restore health care to undocumented immigrants. This was achieved in part because Serna appealed to reason and science, as opposed to emotion and rhetoric. He arranged for his supervisor colleagues to hear from a host of health officials in the public and private sector who all had the same message: Public health for all is compromised when basic health care services are denied to the undocumented.
The unanimous vote reflected a common-sense view that let the air out of the usual immigration arguments. The county wasn’t seeking to comment on the state of immigration. It merely was acknowledging that undocumented people live here, and that if they weren’t able to access public health, they could infect others.
“The lack of acrimony was palpable,” Serna said. “It was the proudest moment I’ve had on the board.”
The county also increased spending for mental health services. And, led by Serna, it will spend $1.5 million to address why African American children die at a higher rate than any other group in Sacramento.
It was telling that a Sacramento City Council with four African American members could not find it in themselves to partner with the county and commit dollars to this effort. By words and actions, the Sacramento public official most committed to addressing the high incidence of deaths of African American kids in Sacramento is Phil Serna.
He did it before packed chambers reflecting citizens feeling a stake in their community. Serna ran the meetings his way – cordially. He could have taken a shot at Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson and council members Allen Warren, Larry Carr and Rick Jennings, but didn’t.
“I didn’t want to let my disappointment get in the way of a bigger objective of combined resources, which I hope we can achieve one day,” Serna said. “Our hand is still extended.”
Many wonder if Serna, 47, will follow the footsteps of his dad and run for mayor. “A lot of people assume I will be on the same track he was,” Serna said. “If he were here today, he would tell me that I have to do what makes me happy. The part that I enjoy the most is helping empower people.
“I’m very proud of my father, not just where he ended up in life but how he did it,” he added. “It’s not just about (his) being mayor. For me, it’s about the individual who came from deep poverty and picking tomatoes. The whole continuum of who Joe Serna was is what stays with me.”
Last week, Phil Serna stepped out of a shadow he never let bother him. He’s his own man, just as his father wanted. In that way, the father lives on while the son moves forward – making his own name while honoring the one people remember.