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Alex Padilla: From Engineer’s Road to Politician’s Path

Written by: Pilar Marrero, Portrait by: Ricardo Palavecino

Find more firsthand accounts of the campaign against Prop 187 here.

In California, there is a generation of public officials, activists, scholars, professors and others who were shaped as a result of Proposition 187. Many were coming of age at that time, and their whole perspective on what they were going to do with their lives changed completely because of it. 

Alex Padilla has been one of the most successful ones. Today, he is the Secretary of State for California. His tenure as the chief elections officer for the state has been marked by efforts to facilitate voter registration and, in his words: "to have as an inclusive democracy as possible.”

But in 1994, when Proposition 187 was on the ballot, Padilla was a recent graduate of engineering at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  He had been born and raised from immigrant parents in Pacoima, a graduate of San Fernando High School and a baseball player.

In June of that year, he returned to Los Angeles to find that his state seemed to believe that hard-working immigrants like his parents were a burden and not a benefit to California.

“I was working internships and trying to land a job. But September and October were just filled with these anti-Latino vibes. You could feel it in the news and on some of the TV ads that Governor Pete Wilson was running,” he remembers.

He was offended.

“It did not make any sense to me, it frankly insulted me, it hurt me because I was coming home, proud of my degree, partly as a symbol of accomplishment of my parents’ sacrifices and struggles,” he adds. "And here's this politician saying: California is going downhill, and it's the fault of people like your parents? That shook me to my core.”

Before this, Padilla never thought about having anything to do with politics, although his family often volunteer for community events, which he never related to public policy.

“I learned quickly, both before the vote on 187 and especially after when it passed, that we had to engage and change that trajectory, change the power of our voice in the political process,” remembers Padilla. “A lot of people, maybe some of my friends and neighbors, might have been eligible but had not registered because too many of us thought: ‘Why bother?’”

On October 17, 1994, Padilla marched through the streets of Los Angeles with his family and tens of thousands of other Angelenos, many Latinos, many immigrants and others. “This march gave me a palpable feeling in my stomach of our power; I knew that regardless of what happened on election day, I needed to get involved to change the politics.”

Within two years, Padilla went on to work in political campaigns as a staffer, political director or campaign manager for a variety of Latino politicians. By 1999, he had been elected to the Los Angeles City Council, and in 2001, he became the first Latino and the youngest ever President of the City Council. He was barely 28 years old. 

In 2006, he was elected to the State Senate and re-elected in 2010. In 2015, he ran and won the statewide race to become Secretary of State for California.

Padilla sees his life as a “full circle.”

“I started off as a young man trying to organize, to register people to vote to today, where I serve as the chief elections officer for the state of California. If Proposition 187 was an attempt by some to exclude Latinos and others from the California dream, I am dedicating myself to have as an inclusive democracy as possible.”

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