Sacramento District 6 City Councilman Eric Guerra knows a thing or two about achieving big things against long odds. The son of migrant farmworkers, he joined his family as a very young child working long days in the fertile fields of the Capital Region. He eventually worked his way out of those fields and into Sacramento State, where he was elected student body president and earned a master’s degree in public policy. After a decade as a key staffer in the California Legislature, last year the 36-year-old Guerra became the first Latino to be elected to the Sacramento City Council since former Sacramento Mayor Joe Serna died in 1999. We sat down with him recently to discuss some of the city’s major challenges and opportunities.
You bring a wealth of experience from working for years in the Capitol. What did you learn there that will perhaps guide you here?
My experience in the Capitol has given me a better understanding of how complex public policy really is. You’ve heard the term “the Gordian knot?” That’s the challenge with public policy and why you need to think out of the box and figure out other ways to keep tackling problems. You have to keep trying. Many times, when we haven’t seen changes, it’s because people just give up. The reason I got to go to college is because people before me spent a lot of time trying to move the ball, to give me an opportunity to go to the middle class and get exposure to issues that I never would have thought about otherwise. I think that’s the biggest thing: exposure to a lot of ideas, and also recognizing the role of timing. Sometimes a good idea just comes at the wrong time. The California DREAM Act is a good example. I drafted that in 2005, but it was bad timing. We had gotten that policy to a point where there was enough support among lawmakers to move it forward, but it needed a new governor. So at that point, the policy was good but the timing was wrong. The timing became right when [Governor] Jerry Brown came into office, and now you have something that is transforming lives.
In terms of city council you’re the new kid on the block. Is there an issue or two that are at the forefront of your agenda?
One of the reasons that I ran was because I saw how, in my district, we have neglected the commercial and industrial corridors, which I’ll call business corridors. Letting them degrade has impacted the quality of life in our community. At one time, Stockton Boulevard, Power Inn Road, Folsom Boulevard, Del Paso Road and Franklin Boulevard were the most iconic commercial centers in the city. Now you have weakened buildings, businesses shutting down, blight and graffiti. Some cities in our region have been very successful at finding ways to re-energize their business corridors. West Sacramento, for instance, has started that right off of [West] Capitol Avenue and Harbor Boulevard — so I want to do that too. We need to figure out how to re-energize our industrial corridors so they can provide local jobs and the folks who live there aren’t traveling half an hour or 45 minutes a day to their jobs. Because that’s what’s happening right now. They’re having to spend money on transportation, vehicles, insurance, gas, accidents or whatever just to get to work, versus trying to find local employment here. If you have local employment and jobs that are above the minimum wage, then you raise the median household income, and that’s the real end game in my opinion.
For District 6 city councilmember Eric Guerra, it’s important that regulation of the sharing economy start at the state level and offer a uniform system that local jurisdictions can amend to fit their own unique circumstances. “When you start piecemeal at the local level, it’s hard for an industry to learn every jurisdiction’s regulation,” Guerra says. He goes on to point out that the cost of navigating labyrinthine regulations eventually gets passed along to consumers.
Sacramento has a significant homeless problem. There are no easy answers, but is there an effort for dealing with this issue that you support? What more can and should we be doing?
In dealing with the homeless issue, first and foremost there has to be a recognition that everyone has a stake in this. The finger pointing goes every different direction, from the city to the county, county to city. Even residents who often say, ‘It’s not my responsibility. It’s their responsibility; they put themselves in that situation.’ The reality is, the social services and mental health dollars and all the wrap-around services are largely controlled by the county. So that means we need to be working even more in partnership with them. What we’re talking mostly about is the chronically homeless or those who have lost every support structure. Growing up, my mom was very active in a small town. We were very poor, but there was a support structure — through the church or some other way that could help get us into a position of some stability. And that’s what is lacking when we’re dealing with the neediest population – that support structure. That’s why we need more permanent supportive housing.
California has adopted a statewide regulatory framework for medical marijuana dispensaries. But cities retain a huge role in crafting regulations for their own communities. How would you like to see Sacramento address its own regulations?
I support the medical industry. In fact, I’ve made motions for us to clean up the code to make it more representative of what’s happening with dispensaries today. But we cannot blindly jump into the distribution, manufacturing and cultivation business. Just because people are cultivating illegally now doesn’t mean that we have to rush to legalize their activity. That’s very shortsighted. Yes, there are great tax revenues. Does Sacramento have that opportunity? Yes, possibly. But we’ve got to be deliberative and thoughtful of a strategic plan that those industrial core growers are looking at developing. There are some property owners or business interests who will not want to move into an industrial area, or may not want to move into a commercial area like Little Saigon. So we need to be thoughtful and deliberative, but also not let the industry get away from us.
Sacramento is known as one of the most diverse cities in the U.S., but you are the first member of the Latino community elected to the Council since former Mayor Joe Serna died in 1999. Are you surprised it took this long?
I’m not surprised by it. If anything I was more frustrated and a bit disappointed by it. I feel that after Joe Serna died, very few people acted in a methodical and thoughtful way to engage the Latino community and to encourage it to be politically active. So one thing I’ve done is to go out into the community and talk about all the ways people can engage in government, because a candidate has to develop a resume for a voter to say, ‘I’m going to trust you with representing me.’ You cannot just be a single issue candidate. I think single issue candidates serve a purpose in a large body, but at the local level I think you have to be a person who can cross over. You have to give voters confidence that you have experience working with other members of the community to solve problems. So now I reach out to our community to tell them about the city management academy and city planning academy, telling them, ‘This is something in which you can learn how your government works.’ So it’s a full circle. It’s voting — which is the absolute least you can do — but it’s also being involved and learning how to access your government. Helping to make those connections is something every elected official and person aspiring to office should do, whether they’re Latino or not.