Tony Vazquez will become the first Latino member of the Santa Monica City Council when he is sworn in on Tuesday.
It's been a long time coming.
Vazquez's election on Nov. 6 was the culmination of 15 years of efforts on his part to provide a voice in government for the Latino community, beginning with his work as a student volunteer in the mid-1970s for Fred Beteta's successful campaign for a seat on Santa Monica's joint school and community college board in Santa Monica.
"This is what we have been working for since the mid-'70s," Vazquez said. "Maybe now the city can be a little bit more sensitive to the needs of the Latino and black communities."
Joining Vazquez at Tuesday's swearing-in will be Robert T. Holbrook and Kelly Olsen, who were also elected to four-year terms on the seven-member City Council.
Vazquez, with the aid of a new generation of Latino student volunteers from Santa Monica College, was the top vote-getter among nine candidates.
Campaign observers said that what set the tone for Vazquez was a four-page brochure that was mailed early in the campaign that identified him as a family man with ties to the community and a commitment to the future of the city.
He was endorsed by the politically powerful tenants group, Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights--an endorsement he acknowledges he could not have won without--yet as a homeowner he was not viewed as a rent control radical.
"He had all the political credentials of being a real candidate," said Steve Alpert, a political consultant who analyzed the election. "He probably had more volunteers than any other candidate and brought in a new constituency and was able to raise a great deal of money from people who were interested in seeing a Latino get elected."
Indeed, campaign records show Vazquez was able to raise a significant amount of his money from Latinos in the Westside, a group that previously had not been active in local elections.
Vazquez's brother, Nati, who was deeply involved in the campaign, said the victory was particularly significant in the Latino community.
"People felt the system just didn't care," he said. "But Tony gives them a sense of pride, a sense that there is change in the air."
Jose Sigala, a student at Santa Monica College and vice president of the Chicano student group MEChA, said he got involved in the campaign because he thought it would be historic.
"This proves that by being involved in the community we can bring about positive change. Eventually, I hope to be in Tony's shoes. I want to be in elected office."
Santa Monica Mayor Dennis Zane, who endorsed Vazquez, said the 34-year-old community planner with United Way will help bring Santa Monica together.
"Tony brings to the council a unifying vision to resolve differences," said Zane. "In his philosophy and in his disposition, he is a healer."
Vazquez did not always see himself in politics.
Born in Tijuana, Mexico, in 1956, he crossed the border to San Diego at the age of 2 with his family. After a brief stay in San Diego, the family moved to an apartment on Pontius Avenue in West Los Angeles, where they lived for five years.
The family bought a home in Mar Vista in 1963. Vazquez first attended Mark Twain Junior High School but was soon transferred because "I was in rumbles all the time." He finished at Webster Junior High School, then went to Venice High School.
Vazquez said he had no interest in school and had planned to attend Los Angeles Trade Tech to become a machinist. But the summer after high school he was involved in an accident that totaled his car, and he was left without transportation.
"I was bummed all summer," Vazquez said.
The accident turned out to a turning point.
Figuring that he could take the bus and hang out on the campus all day, Vazquez signed up for classes at Santa Monica College. But he quickly became involved in MEChA and with student government.
It was at that time, Vazquez said, that he realized politics could make a difference in bettering his community, and he took part in getting Beteta elected to the school board in 1975. But after participating in two unsuccessful attempts to elect Latinos to local offices in the 1980s, he realized that a Latino candidate would need the support of the tenants group--which gained control of the city in 1979 after getting a tough rent control law passed--to have a shot at winning.
After Vazquez had received a degree in history from USC and taught elementary school in the Montebello School District for five years, he and his wife, Maria, returned to Santa Monica in 1984.
"This is where our roots are," Vazquez said in explaining the move back to the Westside. "My wife and I said that if we were going to do what we said we were going to do in the '70s (getting a Latino voice in government), then we wanted to do it in the Westside."
Vazquez, who became a U.S. citizen in 1978, is reaching his goal, and others are taking notice of what he hopes to accomplish.
"Tony's election is a big step toward moving leaders in the Latino community into leaders in the city," Zane said. "We have Rita Morales on the Planning Commission and now Tony Vazquez on the City Council. And I believe there are more to come . . . and it's high time."