Capitol Alert

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez: worker advocate and ‘queen of the kids’ table’

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, has built a reputation as a strong advocate for unions and workers.
Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, has built a reputation as a strong advocate for unions and workers.

No matter what job she held, Lorena Gonzalez says, her late mother told her never to change who she was: “a feminine, foul-mouthed, happy-go-lucky, strong woman.”

In her second year in the state Assembly, Gonzalez is a new face for the labor movement in Sacramento, pushing for guaranteed sick leave and job protections for grocery store workers. She’s an influential voice for single mothers like herself, as well as immigrants and working-class families.

She’s also as blunt and bold as her mother would have wanted. Like many of her colleagues, she insists she isn’t a typical politician. In her case, for better or worse, that’s often true.

“I try really hard to just be clear and frank,” she said. “... People work hard and they should be paid. People need that voice. They want someone to say that for them and they deserve that. It’s part of empowering them.”

Gonzalez sometimes says too much to too many, including on Facebook and Twitter. She offers unfiltered particulars about her life, including time spent watching her son brush his teeth via video chat. She ended a post about her daughter’s telephone habits with the hashtag “TotalMomFail.”

She believes it makes her more approachable to a public that appreciates, but seldom gets, authenticity from its leaders. Occasionally it backfires, like the night she posted a photo of colleagues drinking at the Capitol, only to learn that one of them was later arrested on suspicion of drunken driving. Gonzalez said she’s become more conscientious about not uploading photos of others imbibing.

Her disagreements, mostly with Republicans and anti-union officials, but on occasion with Democrats and labor leaders, play out across town like soap operas. Her icy relationship with Assembly Speaker and fellow San Diego Democrat Toni Atkins, which some liken to a sibling rivalry, is so well established that it served as a punch line at a recent Atkins roast.

But she has no plans to smother her freewheeling style with carefully crafted statements.

“I can’t stand listening to people who don’t say anything,” she said.

The youngest of three, Gonzalez grew up in the northern San Diego towns of Vista and Oceanside. Her father, an immigrant farmworker, and her mother, an emergency room nurse, divorced early on. Carmen Regan worked to unionize nurses, and worked up to three jobs to support the family. Though they didn’t have a lot, they had health care, and even dental insurance, “which was unheard of in our neighborhood,” she said.

Her best childhood friend was the daughter of the area’s top labor leader, Jerry Butkiewicz. While in high school, Gonzalez wrote a scholarship paper about the late Assemblyman Pete Chacon, a Latino credited with being the father of bilingual education, whose southern San Diego district she now largely represents.

For her college essay to Stanford, she wrote about Cesar Chavez’s Delano grape strike and boycott.

After earning her law degree, she found new inspiration in then-Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, the highest-ranking Latino in state government.

“When I brought her into my office, I said, ‘I want you to be so aggressive that I have to apologize for you,’” Bustamante said. “And she looked at me, smiled, and said, ‘Oh, I can definitely do that.’”

Gonzalez also was optimistic, intelligent and an expert on environmental policy, he said, and she rose to become his senior policy adviser.

Her first run for office was a special election for the San Diego City Council. She lost the early-2006 runoff against now-Mayor Kevin Faulconer by 724 votes. Gonzalez opted against a rematch and said she considers campaigning for the seat a mistake.

She became political director of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, AFL-CIO. Butkiewicz, after reviving a moribund labor-union movement, retired two years later, and she took over as the first woman and person of color to lead the organization, which then represented about 120 unions and 120,000 union members.

Unlike Butkiewicz, Gonzalez said she was not invited to sit on the board of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, which to some signaled a more adversarial relationship between business and labor. “‘You need to go sit at the kids’ table,’” is how she puts it.

“That’s fine. I am really happy at the kids’ table,” she said. “In fact, I’ll be the queen of the kids’ table.”

Gonzalez tries to hire only true believers. Her office tests prospective employees. One question asks them to find the nearest union hotel to her district office.

“Basic research,” she said.

Even an old nemesis praises her transition to assemblywoman.

“I am impressed by the way she’s driven issues. She’s been bold and aggressive. She isn’t waiting in line for anyone,” said Carl DeMaio, a Republican former San Diego city councilman.

However, he said while the issues she’s advancing make for “good political chum, they’re disastrous for the working families of California, the very people she wants to serve.”

Her legislation has made appearances on the Chamber of Commerce’s “job-killer” list.

She successfully pushed a bill to require employers to offer paid sick days to 6.5 million workers, and this year returned with an effort to extend the benefit to in-home caregivers. A former college cheerleader, she is carrying a bill to offer job protections for professionals in the field. After a holiday conversation with a waitress, she tried but failed to double pay for most workers on Thanksgiving.

Angie Wei, chief of staff at the California Labor Federation, said Gonzalez’s background gives her a unique understanding of unions. She has used her influence in the movement to get officials on board with worker-related measures that may not initially have been their top priority.

“If you look at her policy agenda, she’s reflecting the day-to-day experiences she had meeting, supporting and agitating with workers every day,” Wei said.

San Diego business leaders are objecting to a Gonzalez bill to increase oversight of a city-owned planning nonprofit. Mark Cafferty, president and chief executive of the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp., said it would not be “particularly helpful” for businesses trying to build and expand.

“When she went up there, I was very convinced that it was a good thing for San Diego because she was going to be strong,” he said. “I think at times for me personally it has felt like her agenda has been very anti-business.”

Gonzalez doesn’t mind disagreement. Over the years, she’s become accustomed to far worse. She’s been threatened with recalls by gun rights groups and the actor Rob Schneider, who objected to her support for requiring vaccinations for schoolchildren.

A couple of years ago, a rock was thrown through her living-room window shortly after she was criticized by a GOP operative for living a lavish lifestyle. Gonzalez scoffed at the critique and wrote online at the time that her family felt she was “under siege.” “Bring it,” she said.

Debate over public employee pensions dominated much of her time at the labor council, culminating with a blow to unions when city voters passed an initiative that replaced pensions for most new city workers with a 401(k)-style plan. Five months later, however, labor’s massive investments in infrastructure and candidates were rewarded with a Democratic sweep of high-profile races in the region.

Gonzalez was largely credited with helping elect Bob Filner, the second Democratic mayor in 40 years. But after she left for the Legislature, she was criticized by labor twice: For abandoning Filner too soon as he faced sexual harassment allegations and, after Filner resigned, for backing newly minted Democrat Nathan Fletcher rather than waiting for the labor council to choose its candidate.

“Labor kind of took it as a slap in the face,” said Mickey Kasparian, head of the UFCW Local 135 and president of the labor council.

Said Gonzalez: “I think it was hard on some people to realize I am not a labor leader anymore.”

Her loyalty now, she says, lies with her constituents.

“My mom used to always say, ‘God helps those who help themselves.’ And you hope so,” said Gonzalez, reflecting on chats with financially struggling neighbors at the grocery store and post office.

“For me, it’s how do we ensure that people who work hard are paid with dignity and respect, and can make their own lives for themselves?” she said. “Because that’s what people who I grew up with want to do. They don’t want to rely on government.”

Christopher Cadelago: (916) 326-5538, @ccadelago

Lorena Gonzalez

Age: 43

Party: Democratic

Residence: San Diego

Education: Law degree, UCLA, 1998; master’s in American government, Georgetown University, 1996; bachelor’s in American Studies, Stanford University, 1993.

Experience: Assemblywoman, 2013-present; CEO/secretary-treasurer, San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, AFL-CIO, 2008-13; vice president, California Labor Federation, 2010-13; political director, San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, AFL-CIO, 2006-08; senior policy adviser, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, 1999-2006.

Family: Two children: Tierra, 19, and Antonio, 12.