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College student by day, city councilman by night

When 19-year-old Jeremy Yamaguchi dropped off his ballot on election day, a poll worker asked his mother, “Is this his first time voting?”

“Actually, he’s a candidate,” Peggie Yamaguchi answered.

And as the top vote-getter for the Placentia City Council, the Cal State Fullerton sophomore became the youngest elected official in Orange County, according to the registrar of voters. He was sworn in last month.

Yamaguchi has since been thrust into the spotlight, with his parents accompanying him to lunch meetings with other politicians and to hobnob with business leaders at parties. And with final exams approaching as he prepared to take office, the political science major got his first lesson in balancing city responsibilities and course work.

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After learning on election night that he was the likely winner, Yamaguchi still had to study for a test and prepare to give a talk in class the next morning.

“The teacher announced that I had won the election, and I got a standing ovation.”

His mother said the transition from Boy Scouts and band to politics seemed natural for her high-achieving son.

“People asked him to run. They had said that he would make a difference in whatever he chose to do,” Peggie Yamaguchi said.

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While the 2007 El Dorado High School graduate has long had an interest in politics, this was his first taste of victory. He ran for student government in elementary, middle and high school -- and lost every time.

“I was community-minded since I could walk,” Yamaguchi said in an interview in the City Hall office he shares with three other council members.

By the time he turned 18, he had racked up hundreds of hours volunteering with the Boy Scouts, his neighborhood watch group, city festivals and fitness runs, and had been named the Placentia Chamber of Commerce’s citizen of the year. He could have gone into student government at the university, but figured, why not turn pro?

So he read a step-by-step guidebook, “How to Win a Local Election,” and pitched his idea to a corps of trusted advisors: city council veterans and his family.

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Some said he didn’t stand a chance. Others said his age wouldn’t be a barrier but urged him not to take the decision lightly. His friends thought it was a joke.

“Once they saw the yard signs going up and me walking the streets in a sport coat, only then did they believe me.”

He won over voters with campaign staples: door-to-door visits, candidate forums, mailers and a website. Within months he had raised nearly $10,000.

For once, “it was not just a popularity contest,” he said.

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“I couldn’t find life experience in the dictionary, so I didn’t know how to combat that,” he added. “It’s your willingness to research the issues that counts, not how long you’ve been on this Earth.”

Mayor Greg Sowards has known Yamaguchi since he was 9, but stayed neutral until hearing him speak at a candidate forum. It was there, Sowards said, that Yamaguchi showed “drive and an innate wisdom” while offering viable solutions to city problems.

“Most people in their 40s don’t have the grasp of the issues in their community that Jeremy does,” he said. “When I was 19, I didn’t even know what the City Council did, much less was I interested in running it.”

Placentia, a north Orange County city of about 50,000, has faced serious fiscal problems in recent years. It lost millions in the failed OnTrac project to replace traditional railroad crossings by lowering a train track into a ditch. The project was plagued by shoddy bookkeeping and conflict-of-interest charges against former city officials, and pushed Placentia to the brink of bankruptcy.

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Yamaguchi, a Republican, said his top goal for his four-year term is a fiscal recovery plan that won’t cut police, fire and community service budgets.

By his second council meeting, he had taken a stand on a hot-button issue, backing an ordinance to restrict RV parking on city streets. He said the desire of the majority -- less cluttered streets -- outweighed the preferences of the small number of motor-home owners.

Yamaguchi has had to reorder some of his priorities. Until last month, he always put his education first. Now, city duties prevail.

“If I had a final on the night of the City Council meeting, I would be obligated to be at the meeting,” he said.

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There are some perks. For one, he is now technically his father’s boss: Brian Yamaguchi is a Placentia police sergeant. The City Council is responsible for setting his salary, and Yamaguchi has had to recuse himself from voting because of the conflict of interest.

But in many ways, he’s still a kid. He remains involved in Boy Scouts and lives at home. His parents support him financially. (The $210-a-month City Council stipend, he said, will be “just enough to fill up my gas tank and pay my phone bill.”)

And he still drives his first car, a blue Ford Mustang given to him by relatives.

“When there’s a bicycle in the parking spot marked ‘council member’ ” he joked, “you’ll know what happened.”

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tony.barboza@latimes.com


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