After two years in the state Assembly, Cristina Garcia was ready to quit.
“If someone would have challenged me for my first re-election, I would have just given them the job,” she says today. “I hated it.”
It wasn't that anything in Sacramento surprised her. She'd been told about the schmoozy culture of the state capitol, of its norms, that junior members were expected to know their place. What surprised her was her complete inability to cope with it.
“Sacramento's a hard place to be an iconoclast,” says her old political consultant, Leo Briones. “It's a follow-the-leader culture. And she doesn't do a lot of following.”
Garcia, now 40, admits she was cocky at the beginning of her career.
“I wasn't raised to stroke egos,” she says. “Leadership and I had a really confrontational relationship when I first got there.”
Garcia was raised in Bell Gardens, a small, economically depressed city in the southeast part of L.A. County. Growing up, she was a math nerd. After graduating from Pomona College, she taught math and statistics for 12 years. She considered herself coolly logical. And Sacramento, to her, seemed entirely bereft of logic. There was just no convincing her colleagues in the Legislature. There were ulterior motives at work, special interest groups with fingers on the scale, other games afoot. She didn't know the rules.
When Garcia started teaching, she wasn't very good. But she had the self-awareness to know she wasn't good, and she worked hard to get better. As a legislator, she followed the same path. It took “a lot of introspection, a lot of therapy,” she says, but she decided that she needed to change. She decided to work with others more, be more of a team player. And she decided to focus.
No one challenged her for re-election in 2014, so back to Sacramento she went, this time with her curly hair dyed purple.
“I felt so controlled by these forces, by who I had to be,” she says, “and I couldn't figure out the system enough to accomplish what I wanted. I was really frustrated, so it was my only way to rebel.”
This has been a breakthrough year for Garcia. She introduced a number of important bills, one of which would classify “stealthing,” the act of removing or tampering with a condom without a sexual partner's consent, as a form of rape. She promoted the cause of electing women to the Legislature and played a key role in negotiations over a bill that extended the state's cap-and-trade policy, holding up the passage of the bill and extracting concessions that addressed air pollution in underserved communities.
“I don't fit the traditional stereotype,” Garcia says. “And yeah, now I play the game. I have to fundraise. I have to stroke egos, do stuff for other people, be helpful where I can be, even if it's not my issue, to get goodwill for later.
“But I've been able to, for the most part, do it on my terms. I go to events and I curse. People know I'm going to say 'shit' and 'fuck' somewhere in my speech — they're my favorite words. I call out peers on occasion and people get angry at me and it doesn't make you friends.”
Actually, Garcia has made friends, and earned her colleagues' respect, however grudging.
“There's often a difficulty that people have, going from an activist to a legislator,” says Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, who represents another district in Southeast L.A. “She's been able to make that transition. And she's done that without losing her roots.”
The Legislature is on August recess, and it's Garcia's last day in Bell Gardens before meeting up with two of her siblings for their annual backpacking trip in the Sierra Mountains, which she jokingly calls “fat kid camp.” She meets me at a Starbucks in Los Jardines, one of those massive shopping centers with red tile roofs, palm trees and 300 black asphalt parking spaces, radiating heat in the summer sun. Behind our table, there's a Toys “R” Us, standing just about where the apartment where Garcia grew up used to be.
“This is as good as it gets in Bell Gardens, this corner right here,” she says. “This is our downtown. I went to school, I busted my ass to do well. You grow up thinking success is leaving and never coming back to communities like this.”
Garcia's parents are both from Mexico. Their relationship was abusive, and they divorced when Garcia's mother was pregnant with her. Garcia's mother worked in a sweatshop making clothes, raising four children by herself in a one-bedroom apartment.
One day, a man came into the place Garcia's mom was working, looking for someone to take over a contract. He chose Garcia's mother. The man later helped her start her own clothing manufacturing business. She remarried, and her new husband built them a house. They bought other businesses, other properties.
They were upwardly mobile but they stayed in Bell Gardens. Garcia often wondered why. She went to Pomona College, studying both math and politics, and spent her junior year abroad in Prague, taking in the Czech capital in the wake of the Velvet Revolution. She was fascinated by the country's nascent democracy, just taking root after years of Soviet rule, and how the people were struggling to catch up.
She taught math for 13 years, first in a Los Angeles public high school, then at L.A. City College, and then taught statistics for a year at USC. She thought she'd teach for the rest of her life. Then her mom had a heart attack. Her stepfather was already struggling with diabetes. Someone had to move back home and take care of them.
“My siblings were like, you're single,” Garcia says, with a bit of a laugh, “and they literally told me I was just a teacher, which still makes me upset.”
Moving home felt like a step backward. She projected her frustration onto the city, complained every chance she got about how there was dog poop everywhere, how the public pool was no longer free and about how there was no economic development.
Finally, one of her sisters told her: “If you're not happy here, do something about it.”
So Garcia began regularly attending city council meetings. She was an agitator, a gadfly.
“I would talk about things like, 'Where's our money going?'” she says. “I don't understand how we have a casino, we have $50 million more [from tax revenue], but our public services and our parks have less. It makes no sense to me.”
The city officials regarded Garcia with disdain.
She took her new role with the same seriousness as she took teaching. She learned how to read a budget, how to make a public records act request. She learned public officials' salaries. The money wasn't great, but officials received other forms of compensation, such as car and cellphone allowances. The money was often hidden. You had to know what questions to ask.
In 2009, Garcia ran for city council but came 114 votes short of clinching one of the three seats.
Around that same time, in the neighboring city of Bell, activists were wondering why their property taxes had gotten so high, and where the money was going. One of them asked Garcia for help, and she started digging into Bell's finances.
“Cristina was one of the first people I interviewed,” says former Los Angeles Times reporter Jeff Gottlieb, who — along with Ruben Vives — would break the Bell corruption story and win the Times a 2011 Pulitzer Prize for public service. “Talking to Cristina and others, you got a feeling that there was something wrong in Bell but no one could quite put their fingers on it.”
The first Times story, about Bell city administrative officer Robert Rizzo's jaw-dropping $787,637 salary (nearly twice as much as the president of the United States') came out on a Thursday. That night, Garcia, businessman Ali Saleh and political consultant Leo Briones formed a group that would soon be called BASTA — the Bell Association to Stop the Abuse, and the Spanish word for “enough.”
“We would do these night runs at 2 or 3 in the morning and flyer the whole city,” Saleh says. “Front doors, car windows. We would get hundreds of people to show up to a town hall” — held at the Islamic Center in Bell, one of the few places in the city capable of accommodating such a crowd.
Garcia became the chief spokesperson for BASTA, a grassroots movement that shook the foundations of politics in Bell, a city where the electorate was considered apathetic to the point of nonexistence.
“BASTA did 60 press releases in a year,” Briones says. “It was a pounding effort.”
The scandal would lead to the arrest of seven officials, including Rizzo. Thanks in large measure to BASTA, four out of five of the city councilmen were recalled. Saleh took one of their seats.
In 2012, Garcia ran for state Assembly. It was an open seat, but she faced a tough opponent in former Assemblyman Tom Calderon. As an outsider running against an establishment Democrat, Garcia was the decided underdog. No matter. The Bell scandal had given her name recognition, and a “reformer” label worth its weight in gold. Calderon, who would go to federal prison for money laundering years later, already had the air of corruption about him. Garcia edged out Calderon by 1,200 votes in the primary to take second place, then easily beat the Republican candidate in the general election.
In the years that followed, she would often think of her semester in Prague. The Velvet Revolution, in many ways, had been the easy part. Governing could be a challenge.
“I gained 33 pounds my first year and a half in office,” she says with a laugh. “I've aged really quickly in this gig.”
Almost as striking as Garcia's victories have been her failures. A number of her government reform bills have floundered. For instance, she's pushed for a law mandating the full public disclosure, on the state controller's website, of every local elected official's total compensation. A law like that might have averted the Bell scandal.
Her colleagues have resisted the proposal, she says, “because these are their friends, and the system works for them.”
She's floated an idea to create a mobile app to make it easier for politicians to disclose every time they interacted with a lobbyist. And she's tried to relax a law that makes it mandatory for a teacher to report two students engaged in sexual activity. Proposals like this have proved difficult to generate enthusiasm for. They lack a natural constituency.
Assembly member Laura Friedman says Garcia “tends to gravitate to issues that not a lot of people take on, where there's no special interest or corporate sponsor.”
For years, Garcia has pushed to make menstrual products tax-free. (She hates the term “feminine hygiene,” she says: “They're not like my deodorant!”)
When she first brought up the idea to her staff, she says they told her: “You know, people are going to make fun of you, and you're already kind of different. Do you really want to do this?” So she waited two years. Then she decided, “I don't care if I'm different. I'm gonna do this.”
Last year, the Legislature passed the so-called “tampon tax” bill, along with another that would have done the same for diapers. But the famously frugal Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the two proposals, saying the state couldn't afford the loss of revenue.
This year, the proposals were combined into a single bill, along with something to cover the cost: a 1.5 cent–per-serving tax increase on hard alcohol. “It's time to tax liquor before ladies,” Garcia said at a press conference. But the bill failed to make it out of committee. Garcia blamed lobbying by the alcohol industry, as well as the governor.
“Ultimately, Jerry Brown has been horrible on women's issues,” Garcia says. She points out that the governor vetoed a bill last year that would have guaranteed at least unpaid family leave to employees of small businesses. And on a recent appearance on NBC's Meet the Press, Brown suggested that Democrats had to be ideologically flexible on abortion rights.
Brown and California have recently acquired the reputation of leading the country, if not the world, in the fight against climate change. It's a reputation built on the passing of the country's first cap-and-trade law, which aims to reduce greenhouse gases.
But the policy is a deceptively moderate one. Instead of imposing a hard limit on emissions, the law allows polluters — say, a factory or an oil refinery — to pay for carbon offsets, like planting a forest somewhere, or to purchase carbon credits at a state-run auction or from other entities that pollute less than allowed.
A growing number of environmental justice advocates say the law disproportionately affects low-income areas, where the factories and oil refineries often are located. “Historically, you do find a lot of facilities such as refineries and power plants are usually adjacent to what we call communities of color,” says Quentin Foster, a project director at the Environmental Defense Fund. The polluters can pay for offsets by, say, planting trees anywhere in the state. That may help California reach its goal of reducing greenhouse gases, but does nothing for the air quality in cities with a lot of industry.
This year, in the midst of negotiations to extend the cap-and-trade law, Garcia introduced a bill that would have imposed new limits on polluters. Progressives were on board. Moderates, though, were skittish. The Legislature had passed a gas-tax hike earlier in the year, and one state senator was facing a recall for his “yes” vote on that. A group of moderates calling themselves “new Democrats” issued a press release arguing that any pollution regulations beyond cap-and-trade would hurt the economy, saying in part, “We must prioritize programs that demonstrate cost-effective [greenhouse gas] emissions and programs that promote green job growth in high unemployment areas.”
When the oil lobby and the building trade unions came out against Garcia's bill, its fate was sealed. On the same day that Donald Trump announced he was pulling the United States out of the Paris Climate Accords, Garcia's bill fell three votes short of the 41 it needed to pass in the Assembly. Garcia was then cut out of negotiations, as the governor and industry representatives hammered out a moderate cap-and-trade extension. That draft would include a provision exempting oil refineries from local regulations. And as a sop to Garcia, it would have set up a public database of emissions data.
Garcia says they told her, “Here's what you can have.” She said, “Yeah, that's not good enough.”
So she cobbled together a coalition of irked Assembly members, including a few who wanted a clean air provision, a bunch more who wanted something done on housing, and another group who were upset over the oil refinery provision.
It was a risky, complex game Garcia was playing. As she was gathering progressives, the other side was gaining Republicans. Eventually, when she got about 25 Democrats to say they opposed the bill's current draft, Garcia was invited back to the table.
“She went from bomb thrower to pragmatist
The resulting agreement gave the governor his cap-and-trade extension. Garcia got a separate bill cutting emissions from polluters, with a timetable and an enforcement mechanism, which Brown signed in Bell Gardens with Garcia by his side. The housing advocates were promised forthcoming legislation. The deal wasn't great for everyone. Oil companies were still exempted from local regulation.
“I did have to compromise,” Garcia says. “You have activists that have been here longer than me that need a lot more. They feel like it's not enough. But I tell them, 'Guys, we've never been at the table, ever.' We've never gotten anything.”
“She went from bomb thrower to pragmatist,” says Steve Maviglio, a political consultant who worked on the environmental justice side of things. “She was able to understand that you can't get it all at once. You have to compromise in order to accomplish something.”
It's easy to miss the importance of Garcia's victory. The environmental policy debate has often pitted globally minded environmentalists against industry and unions, both of which stress the importance of a strong economy and job creation. Unions, in particular, hold a lot of sway in communities of color. Garcia's move upended that dynamic.
“It was pretty significant,” Briones says. “It's gonna set a precedent with how the environmentalists need to deal with communities of color.”
In every year that Garcia has been in Sacramento, the number of female legislators has decreased. This year, of the 120 state senators and Assembly members, only 26 are women, the lowest in 20 years. In the Assembly, there aren't even enough women to break a filibuster.
As chair of the women's caucus, Garcia has taken it upon herself to reverse that trend.
“She really took me on and acted like a mentor,” says Friedman, who was first elected in November. “She made phone calls, she came and phone banked for me. She fundraised for me. It's a real mission for her.”
In the upcoming special election to replace Jimmy Gomez in the Assembly, Garcia not only endorsed outsider Wendy Carrillo but worked to keep other women from entering the race. Garcia, in other words, is stepping into a role that men in Sacramento have played for a long time — that of kingmaker or, rather, queenmaker.
As for Garcia herself, she's been asked to run for statewide office, but hasn't seen the right opening so far. The state Senate district she lives in may open up if its current representative, Ricardo Lara, wins his race for insurance commissioner in 2018.
“I no longer say I'm confident, because as women we're not allowed to be confident — we're arrogant, or bossy, or something like that,” Garcia says, with typical dry sarcasm. “But let me say this: I'm confident I can win that seat.”
But she's not sure she wants it. She's finally figured out the Assembly, figured out how people work, figured out a role for herself. Would she really want to risk it for a supposedly more prestigious title? She hasn't decided. But, she says, “I want to be considered for these things. I get angry when my name's not thrown around.”