Photo by Sam Hodgson
This isn’t a job that Mateo Camarillo really wanted.
If he’d had his way, in fact, he wouldn’t even be a resident of the newest San Diego City Council district.
As the Redistricting Commission redrew the city’s political lines last year, Camarillo led the push to create a second Latino-majority district. His proposed map for District 9 looked relatively similar to what eventually got created.
But it didn’t have some of the whiter neighborhoods that ended up there like College Area, Talmadge and Kensington, the very place Camarillo’s called home for the last two decades.
He’s running for City Council now, frustrated that no other Latinos jumped at the chance to empower the district he worked to create.
For Camarillo, the move is the latest in a career that’s married classic social activism with one of the bedrocks of American capitalism. He has a master’s degree in social work and takes credit for bringing food stamps to San Diego County and diversity training to City Hall.
Then, as executive director of the Chicano Federation, Camarillo confronted the same local governments — the city and county — that he says were funding his organization. He wanted to be independent.
So he opened a McDonald’s in Linda Vista in 1976. The way he describes it, he needed to make money his own way if he was going to keep seeking change.
He doesn’t see much of a difference between social work and the fast food world. “Because to succeed in business, you need to be customer-oriented. People-oriented. That’s what social work is,” he says.
I spent last week in the new District 9 to learn its neighborhoods’ big issues, meet with its leaders and residents and take their concerns to the candidates. Here’s my guide to Camarillo’s priorities, how he sees the job and what he doesn’t want to talk about.
Thankfully his wife, Reina Camarillo, who joined us for the interview, did a better job of admonishing him for not answering questions than I did.
Top Three Priorities
• Bringing a Business Perspective: “As a businessman I don’t think the city is being run very efficiently,” he says.
He complained about the City Council raising the water and sewer rates and going into debt to finance improvements. What would he do differently? He says the city should never have borrowed money if its workforce wasn’t ready to handle it, causing a backlog of repairs.
“So that’s what I’m talking about, bringing a business perspective. You’re more efficient in terms of trying to have a bottom line that’s within the means of the city,” he says.
• Listening to People: And, on top of that, organizing solutions.
“You don’t tell them what their problem is,” he says. “They tell you. Your job is to work out a solution based on what they’re telling you. Democracy comes from the bottom up.”
• Finding the Money to Pay for What He Wants: He makes clear that some of the things he wants to do are going to take money, like getting more books into libraries.
So, I asked him, where do you find that money? One way, he says, is to get the city to be more efficient by showing a greater appreciation for diversity.
“When you value that, you know what happens? People get more efficient. You get respect. People have ownership of their job because they’re respected,” he says. “It’s not about getting a whip and saying, ‘Work harder. Work longer hours. You’re drinking too much coffee,’ etc. etc. You do it positively like valuing differences as part of the work culture.”
Best Way to Describe His Pitch
Representative for Latinos and immigrants.
Camarillo puts it pretty plainly: “I’m running because underserved populations need representation.”
What He Doesn’t Want to Talk About
Specific solutions to solving problems.
When I ask Camarillo how to actually pay for the road, sidewalk and building repairs sought by residents, he says: “The solutions are (to) be more responsive to a majority of the constituents.”
I tell him I don’t think just being more efficient through a workplace that values diversity will be enough to make headway on the city’s financial problems. He agrees and says: “You have to prioritize those resources. I don’t think that you just go out and willy-nilly raise taxes. You need to have the confidence of the voters, of the people.”
What do you do about the desire for more bike lanes in City Heights or the maintaining of palm trees in Kensington? “You’ve got to respond to different things in different neighborhoods,” he says.
Interesting Fact About His Life
He owned six bilingual radio stations in California.
“We were the first Spanish-speaking station in San Diego, licensed by the FCC. Before, all the Spanish speaking stations came from Mexico,” he says. Those stations focused on news from Tijuana, Rosarito and Baja California. His focused on what was happening here, with the school board or City Council, he says.
What He Sees as Important in Each Area
• City Heights: Bike lanes and the need for stronger ties created by community policing, a proactive approach that has officers working closely with community members.
• Kensington/Talmadge: Utility-line undergrounding and the dangers posed by the city having stopped regularly maintaining its palm trees.
• College Area: The many problems created by the large student population at San Diego State, including mini-dorms. As one solution, he suggests bringing back the preference for local students.
• The district’s chunk of southeastern San Diego (Mount Hope, Mountain View and Southcrest): The scarcity of parks, open space and greenery. Also: the pollution at Chollas Creek.
Get In Touch With Him
I’m the editor of VOSD. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.325.0526.
Like VOSD on Facebook.
Value investigative reporting? Support it. Donate Now.