Consuelo Martinez poses for photos outside her strip mall campaign headquarters with a small army of volunteers — including infants — wearing bright blue campaign T-shirts.
“OK. Thank you, everyone,” Martinez shouted out. “Let’s go walk.”
Martinez, a former community organizer with the American Civil Liberties Union, is running for a seat on the Escondido City Council for the first time. She's challenging Ed Gallo, an incumbent who’s been in office since 2000.
In the Nov. 4 election, Martinez is one of two Latinas hoping to change the face of Escondido's leadership and shake up its long-standing conservative politics. The other is Councilwoman Olga Diaz, who is trying to unseat Mayor Sam Abed.
Martinez is a Democrat. Gallo is a Republican in a city where 40 percent of the voting population is registered Republican, compared to 28 percent Democratic.
But Martinez does have one distinct advantage — she speaks fluent Spanish in a City Council district where more than half of the population is Latino.
That demographic fact is by design. In 2011, several Escondido residents sued the city under the California Voting Rights Act. They said citywide voting to elect local public officials diluted the power of minority groups.
Escondido settled the lawsuit in 2013 by agreeing to divide the city into four council districts. Martinez said she wasn’t planning to run this year, but when no one stepped up to oppose Gallo she felt she had to.
“I knew he didn’t represent me,” she said, taking a break from her precinct walk. “And if we want to talk about change, but then we’re not really willing to put ourselves out there for it, then, you know, it’s all talk.”
What is change for Martinez?
“Change to me is a place where people from the outside don’t see us as a divided or a racist city,” she said. “I don’t believe that we are. I think it’s like an image, a branding problem that we have.”
That image, Martinez said, stems from Escondido’s history of policies targeting immigrant residents living in the U.S. illegally. Perhaps the most notorious is the city’s 2006 ordinance making it illegal to rent property to tenants without legal immigration status.
Gallo voted in favor of the rental ban, along with Mayor Abed. The city canceled the policy just two months after it passed, in the face of a federal lawsuit brought by the ACLU and other groups.
Gallo said it’s all in the past now.
“The only good history does is to show us where we've been,” he said in an interview outside a meeting of the Escondido Republican Club. “I want to look at where we're going.”
As Gallo talked about his campaign platform, life-sized cutouts of Ronald Reagan and Sarah Palin welcomed attendees into the meeting room where a buffet of Mexican food was about to be served.
Escondido’s Latino population has grown from 23 percent in 1990 to close to 50 percent today, according to census data.
Gallo said he’s reaching out to his Latino constituents on common concerns.
“Everybody wants a safe neighborhood,” he said. “When I talk about the gangs, they all understand that. When I talk about graffiti, they all understand that. When I talk about doing neighborhood improvements, they all understand that stuff.”
On the campaign trail, Gallo and Abed are emphasizing their successes in office — investment in the city’s urban core, fiscal prudence, the arrival of new businesses and, with them, jobs.
“But my signature achievement is the financial stability of the city,” said Abed, who first won a seat on the Escondido City Council in 2004.
Abed, a Republican and a Lebanese immigrant, said he’s modified his position on illegal immigration at the local level. He said he now believes that it’s a federal issue.
“If you don't commit a crime, you are welcome to live in Escondido,” he said. “We have to grow as one community. Assimilation, unity, inclusiveness is the best way, and we have done that.”
Abed is also defending his seat against a Latina, Diaz.
She is Escondido’s first Latina councilwoman. The 2006 rental ban got her into local politics, she said.
At the time, she owned a coffee shop in town. Diaz said she started getting insults from people because of her Mexican heritage.
“I'm a normal person going about my life and then suddenly I'm being told by angry people to go back to Mexico,” said Diaz, who was born and raised in Central California's Salinas.
She decided to run for City Council in 2006. She lost that race but won in 2008 and was re-elected in 2012.
Diaz prides herself on her due diligence on all City Council matters. And she, like fellow Democrat Martinez, said she wants to change the city’s image.
“Escondido needs to be thought of as a community that welcomes everyone,” she said. “And everyone can raise a family here and grow their business here.”
To win, both she and Martinez know they’ll have to gain support well beyond the Latino community. Though Latinos make up nearly half of Escondido’s population, they’re less than one-fourth of registered voters.
They’ll also have to get Democrats to vote in a non-presidential election year.
But, when the ballots are finally in, it may be Escondido’s 15,000 independent voters — nearly 26 percent of the total voting-eligible population — who point the direction for the city’s political future
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