Tony Cardenas’ hands were chilled from the frozen turkeys he’d been handing out, but he hardly seemed to notice, so busy was he greeting constituents at his annual food giveaway for the needy.
This would be the last holiday he would conduct the event as a Los Angeles City councilman. He handily won election to Congress on Nov. 6 in a district drawn last year to reflect the area’s surging Latino population. He takes office Jan. 3.
Cardenas, 49, said he’d keep up the charity — a reminder of his own roots as the child of poor, hard-working immigrants from Mexico.
When people step forward as their bags of food are loaded, assembly-line style, “I see me; I see my family when I was growing up,” he said. “I see my district.”
Cardenas is going to Washington at a time when Latinos are increasingly viewed as important voters and their ranks in Congress have grown, and he cites immigration reform as one of his priorities.
“With other Latinos in Congress, there is lots than can be done,” said Cal State Northridge political scientist Martin Saiz.
The congressman-elect is one of three sons of Mexican farmworkers chosen for Congress in November from California, where Latinos are about 38% of state residents, up from 32% in the 2000 census. In the hardscrabble 29th Congressional District, in the east San Fernando Valley, including Pacoima and Panorama City, Latinos make up nearly 70% of residents and 51% of registered voters.
Cardenas won against little-known, underfunded opponents in the primary and general elections. Other Democratic Latinos who could have challenged him — state Sen. Alex Padilla of Pacoima, Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes of Los Angeles and L.A. school board member Nury Martinez, for example, are close allies who endorsed him almost as soon as the new political maps were finalized in the summer of 2011.
So Cardenas’ place in history as the first Latino to represent the Valley in Congress was essentially a foregone conclusion — and a variation on 1996, when he succeeded Assemblyman Richard Katz, a Democrat barred by term limits from seeking reelection. It was the first time Cardenas, an electrical engineer turned businessman, had run for office, and it marked a family triumph.
Andres and Maria Cardenas had come from Jalisco as newlyweds so he could work in the fields near Stockton. The family later moved to Pacoima and soon bought a house on Filmore Street in which to raise their 11 children. Andres had only a first-grade education and Maria never got past the second, but they insisted their children do well in school.
“They couldn’t help us with our homework,” recalled Tony, the youngest, “but they knew what a bad grade looked like.”
He said his strict parents took every possible step to ensure their kids stayed out of trouble, right down to not allowing their sons to “dress like cholos.”
The Cardenas brothers spent weekends and summer vacations helping their dad with the gardening business he had started. The future congressman, who suffered from allergies, still has vivid memories of sweating and sneezing through the long days.
“I hated it, but when I looked back, I saw it as an example of doing what you’ve got to do to feed 13 people.” Cardenas said. “It was one of many life lessons I learned from my parents — you don’t necessarily get to do what you want; you have to do what’s needed.”
After earning his degree from UC Santa Barbara, Cardenas worked at Hewlett Packard, then returned to the East Valley and soon was running his own real estate firm and becoming interested in politics. In 1994, Cardenas, Padilla and Stuart Waldman, now an area business leader, co-founded the San Fernando Valley Young Democrats.
Two years later, voters sent Cardenas to Sacramento. In 2002, he ran in a special election for a City Council seat and lost to Wendy Greuel by 225 votes.
“We had an incredibly contentious race,” said Greuel, now city controller and a candidate in the mayoral race. “He’s a fierce competitor.”
A year later, he ran again and won, only to find himself assigned a council chamber seat next to his recent foe. But the two found common ground on some issues and became friends.
Greuel described her former colleague as a “details person” who does his homework on matters before the council, who “stays true to his word” and “doesn’t mind ruffling feathers.” She backed his congressional campaign, and he has endorsed her for mayor.
Cardenas has worked on legislation to keep young people out of gangs and sought ways to improve education, generate jobs, help military veterans and promote animal welfare. He puts a premium on constituent services, observers say. He’s generally viewed as a business-friendly moderate.
“He’s extremely pragmatic,” said Democratic club co-founder Waldman, now president of the Valley Industry & Commerce Assn. “He has the experience and the world view to be very helpful to us on business issues.”
Cardenas says he’ll stay in close touch with his new constituents, flying home most weekends. His wife, Norma, who runs her own consulting business, and their two younger children, both in high school, will stay in California.
He said he knows he’ll struggle with how to balance local concerns with Washington’s larger policy issues, “a constant push and pull.” But he says his college training will serve him well:
“As an engineer, you learn there is a solution to every problem. It may take you a while, but eventually you’re going to find it.”