Last month, South Gate representative Anthony Rendon was tapped to become the next Speaker of the California Assembly, starting in January. This means both houses of the state legislature will soon be led by Latinos - Kevin de León became Senate President pro Tempore last year.
Rendon, a Democrat, has been a member of the Assembly since 2012 where he represents the 63rd District, which stretches from Bell and Cudahy in the north to Long Beach. He's third-generation Mexican-American, the grandchild of immigrants who arrived starting in the 1920s. He grew up in Southern California and attended local colleges and universities.
Rendon's background is in early-childhood education. But he's perhaps best known as an environmentalist. He headed the California League of Conservation Voters at the state and local level. His biggest political win so far has been last year's Proposition 1, a water bond he authored that pays for water infrastructure such as storage and recycling.
Rendon's district office in South Gate isn’t far off the 710 Freeway. To get there one has to weave around trucks past heavy industry and it's as good an entry point as any into what makes Rendon tick.
KPCC: Please tell us about your district. It’s strung together by the 710 Freeway. There's a refinery and an aircraft parts manufacturer not far from your office.
Rendon: We still have one of the few steel plants left. In addition to the manufacturing presence that we have here, we are also bisected by the 710, the 105 and the 91 freeways. The Alameda Corridor project goes by the district as well. We are exceptionally close to the Port of Long Beach and the Port of Los Angeles. So a lot of the attendant environmental problems related to the proximity to all those things very much impacts the district, and the residents of the district.
KPCC: You've made your mark as an environmentalist. What took you there?
I ran a series of nonprofit organizations here in the district that I now represent. We found that a lot of the problems that we had, whether they were problems relating to health or even problems relating to learning and education, were linked to the environment. Some problems relating to groundwater contamination, a tremendous amount of problems relating to asthma and air pollution. So those types of environmental problems led to problems that I had to address as a nonprofit executive director.
KPCC: When you went into the Assembly, did you come with an environmental agenda in mind? What this something you wanted to tackle having already worked in this area?
Rendon: Yes, certainly. Environmental issues, environmental justice were things I was interested in. But I also spent about 15 years in early-childhood education, so that was important. I think what is important is the intersection between all these issues, and how they all relate.
KPCC: The perception of the environmental movement in Southern California has typically been that it's more of a Westside movement, typically white, based in places like Santa Monica. You’ve done some bridging of the two. Can you tell us about that?
Rendon: I like to think of myself as a bridge between a lot of the Westside environmental organizations and the Eastside or Southeast Los Angeles County environmental justice folks, and environmental justice groups.
What's interesting about that perception is that if you look at public opinion polls, for example, the recent PPIC (Public Policy Institute of California) poll on climate change, you find that communities of color are more concerned about these issues that the general public is, statistically speaking. So there is a disconnect between the formal environmental organizations and the communities on the Eastside. But the people themselves on the Eastside are very much affected by these issues, and very much concerned about that.
KPCC: We just saw the shutdown of the Exide Technologies battery recycling plant in Vernon. Can you mention some other examples where you have seen children, families, seniors poisoned in this area?
Rendon: We have a much higher than usual asthma rate for children, particularly children zero to five. Overall asthma rates are higher than the rest of the state as well in my district. We have had problems with groundwater contamination, perhaps most famously in the city Maywood, but also in Cudahy and Bell as well.
KPCC: You say that communities of color don't see strong outreach from mainstream environmental organizations. What's driving their interest in the environment?
Rendon: They are being impacted on a daily basis. Right here down the street, you turn on the tap water in Maywood – it’s brown. People understand that. There is nothing abstract about the drinking water quality crisis for folks in Maywood. If your child has asthma and you live along the freeway in Bell, there is nothing abstract about that. You understand the link between bad air quality and you child’s asthma.
KPCC: How might the perspective you’ve developed in your previous work and in this district inform your role as Speaker of the Assembly?
Rendon: In terms of perspective, what’s interesting about my district is that if you talk to folks in the Central Valley, those experiences are similar. The experience of not having the same amount of resources that other parts of the state get. The problems of air quality are the same. The problems of drinking water quality are the same. So I think to the extent that my experiences here in the district help to mimic what folks in the Central Valley experience, what folks even in Imperial County experience as well, I think that will be helpful.
KPCC: Next year will be the first time that both houses of the state legislature are led by Latino lawmakers. It’s a milestone symbolically. But substantively, what subtle differences in perspective do you think Latino leaders bring to the table? Your own activism on the environment is a good example. Can you tell us more?
Rendon: In the same way that we, as a state, are not monolithic, the Latino community is not monolithic, either. We come from very different backgrounds. We certainly don’t have a monolithic political identity. We don’t even have monolithic ethnicities. I think what binds the community together and what informs our leadership, to a large extent, is having that immigrant experience. Either as firsthand experience, as some of my colleagues have had, or through one’s family lineage. And I think that takes on a certain subjectivity that informs what we do as leaders.
KPCC: Parts of your district – cities like Bell and South Gate – have endured a series of political corruption scandals, which makes political engagement among your constituents even more difficult than it already is. How to address trust and engagement in a district where people have been pushed in the opposite direction?
Rendon: I represent nine cities. Five of those cities have have former public officials in prison. I won my primary with 6,100 votes. There was someone in West Los Angeles who received 41,000 votes – and finished fourth. My communities are not engaged, have traditionally not been engaged.
The key to engagement...is involving people where they live through their own institutions. It’s also really important as someone who is a state elected official to make sure I am engaged with the local officials here in the district. We spent all of last week meeting with the local city managers. We met with the city managers from Paramount, South Gate, and from Lynwood last week. To continue to be engaged with those folks is important.
I think the media is important as well. Bell was able to happen because people weren’t paying attention.