Cristina Garcia wasn't happy about moving back to her hometown of Bell Gardens in 2009. The 30-year-old Los Angeles City College adjunct math professor only returned to help her four siblings care for their ill parents.
Like many other bright and ambitious kids in her neighborhood, success meant “leaving and never coming back,” she admits. She left Bell Gardens to major in math and politics at Pomona College, but the culture of political corruption in her hometown remained a thorn in her side.
“A lot of these cities have a lot of the same problems,” she explains of the heavily Latino working-class suburbs in Southeast L.A. County. Arrogant politicians “would personally attack you” merely for speaking up at City Council meetings.
Garcia has been politically minded since grade school, when her mom joined local business leaders to oppose an alleged land grab by Bicycle Casino. So after returning to her home turf, Garcia took the advice of her sister, who told her to stop complaining and start fostering change.
As a math whiz, Garcia was a natural at synthesizing complex information about how Bell Gardens spent its municipal funds. There and in other Southeast 'burbs, she discovered that city employees were being grossly overpaid for their skills, especially the top officials next door – in the city of Bell.
In one of the weirder occurrences at that time, city leaders of Maywood disbanded their own government and handed over the duties of running Maywood city services to the leaders of Bell.
A Los Angeles Times reporter was poking around, considering a story on what initially seemed a potentially positive way for small cities to share their overhead costs. But Garcia knew that Maywood's ceding of power to Bell was fraught with problems. She became a source for the Times' award-winning expose of Bell's corruption.
That scandal was an opportunity for reform. Garcia helped form BASTA, the Bell Association to Stop the Abuse. She organized protests at Bell City Hall, canvassed neighborhoods, collected data and helped build the very infrastructure of a new political movement. She worked to unite the Lebanese and Mexican communities for the first time, and pressed the district attorney to act.
People started asking her to run for statewide office. “I didn't want to do it,” she says. “But I felt guilty. People were saying we couldn't self-govern.”
So in January 2012, Garcia announced her candidacy for state Assembly. She spent her entire savings on the race, then broke her leg before the June election.
Though out of funds, she beat supposed favorite Tom Calderon for the seat previously held by his brother, Charles. The Calderons constitute a controversial political dynasty – the third and youngest of the brothers, state Sen. Ron Calderon, now faces 24 felony corruption counts and is on temporary leave from the legislature. Tom Calderon also has been indicted in that case.
Last November, Garcia – standing alone among California's 120 legislators – called for Ron Calderon's resignation, and was met with vitriolic attacks from the family's political machine. But she says she won't be silenced by the political bullying she grew up despising.
As the 58th District representative in Sacramento, Garcia says she's comfortable “playing the game of state politics for the sake of moving the agenda forward.”
“Change is easy to do,” Garcia says, “but governance often is hard.”