12 years in office, Jeremy Yamaguchi still sees resistance from the Republican Party toward young politicians

Jeremy Yamaguchi
Jeremy Yamaguchi, 31, who’s been a Republican councilman in Placentia since he was 19, rides in a classic MG car at the Placentia Heritage Day Parade with Air Force Veteran Ron Culler.
(Courtesy of Jeremy Yamaguchi)

This article is part of an ongoing TimesOC series about young politicians in Orange County. As a new generation is politically activated in the wake of the recent youth-driven protests, young O.C. politicians share insights about their paths in local government.

When Jeremy Yamaguchi was first elected into the Placentia City Council in 2008 at age 19, he became the youngest elected official in the city, county, and possibly the state. Same for when he became mayor at age 22.

But Yamaguchi, now 31, had been accompanying his parents as they volunteered for various city commissions since he was 10. His mother was involved in the neighborhood watch and the committee that plans the annual Placentia Heritage Day Parade.

“By the age of 18, I had attended more city committee meetings than most people have attended in their lifetimes,” he said.

A fourth-generation Japanese American, Yamaguchi said previous generations of his family relocated from Los Angeles to O.C. for opportunities in businesses and the aerospace industry.

His grandfather grew up in Los Angeles’ Terminal Island community before being sent to the Manzanar internment camp in the 1940s in reaction to the attack on Pearl Harbor. He graduated high school in the camp and later joined the 442nd Infantry Regiment, composed almost entirely of second-generation Japanese Americans who volunteered to fight during World War II.

Yamaguchi is also the third generation of his family to work at Disneyland. His grandfather had an industrial-installation company that set up refineries, steam boilers and submarines at Disneyland, and he’d pay his middle-school grandson to work in the Anaheim warehouse.

Yamaguchi’s dad, a retired sergeant of the Placentia Police Department, worked in food service at Disneyland, while his mom worked at the Main Street souvenir shops.

Placentia City Council members get paid $150 a month, so as his day job, Yamaguchi works in sound production. He has worked on live events for Disneyland, including its Christmas parade, marathon and recently the grand opening event for Star Wars Land, with the Placentia-based company Audiowest.

During the pandemic, he has pivoted to helping churches and other companies set up to livestream their services.

Yamaguchi started his own production company, Eagle Multimedia, in his senior year at El Dorado High School, right after he got his Eagle Scout award.

It was the Eagle Scouts that gave him the confidence to run for office — where he received the highest total vote count — before he had even completed his degree in political science at Cal State Fullerton.

Jeremy Yamaguchi, 19
In 2008, Jeremy Yamaguchi, 19 at the time, greets attendees at a Placentia Chamber of Commerce event, after being elected to the Placentia City Council.
(Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times)

In high school, he was a representative for the Southern California division of the Boy Scouts, which spanned from Bakersfield to San Diego, and he was on the board of directors for the Boy Scouts of America Orange County Council. Trained in executive-style leadership, he was comfortable running business meetings and reporting up to the state and national levels.

When he first joined the council, Placentia had lost millions of dollars on a failed railroad project, which resulted in indictments against former city officials charged with violating conflict-of-interest laws and put the city on the brink of bankruptcy.

Twelve years later, Yamaguchi feels the five council members work well together and have the best interests of the city at hand.

Laguna Beach
Protesters gather at Main Beach Park in Laguna Beach on June 5. In the last few weeks, there have been peaceful protests across Orange County, including one in Placentia on June 6.
(Raul Roa/Staff Photographer)

Earlier this month, as protests against the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis spread to Orange County, Yamaguchi was frustrated by what he called the disproportionate attention the media paid to the rioting and looting.

“That’s disheartening and frustrating to me, not only because of the victims of that who have to go back and pick up the pieces of their business on top of dealing with COVID-19 but also because the attention isn’t going to the protesters being peaceful and exercising their 1st amendment rights,” Yamaguchi said.

He said that at the June 6 protest in Placentia, the police didn’t need to intervene. If anything, he saw demonstrators self-policing themselves, when anyone got too rowdy, and the police officers helping the marchers walk into roadways safely.

“If somebody says there isn’t room for improvement, they’re being naive,” Yamaguchi said. “At the very least, all elected officials and representatives of the government should take this moment in time to take pause and reflect on where we’ve come, where we are now and how can we make it even better? The cities that are open-minded are the ones showing the best leadership.”

Thousands of protesters have converged in Orange County to speak out about the death of unarmed Black man George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police, as well as other Black men, women and children who have died at the hands of police.

Placentia’s police budget is about 35% of the city’s total, and Yamaguchi said that their officers are among the lower-compensated in the county.

Yet, despite having three gangs in Little Placentia, he said crime rates are low, which he attributes to their community policing, nonprofit groups and community centers that provide after school programs.

For those protesting, many of them youth interested in advocating for political change, Yamaguchi recommends nailing down a unified message and drafting an action plan.

“Anyone can point out a problem,” he said. “But it’s the doers and thinkers that can come up with solutions and present them in a way that can work for public agencies.”

Placentia Councilman Jeremy Yamaguchi
Placentia Councilman Jeremy Yamaguchi speaks at a ceremony in 2012 when the traveling replica of the Vietnam Memorial Wall was displayed in the city’s Tri-City Park.
(Courtesy of Jeremy Yamaguchi)

For young Placentia locals, he recommends applying for the city’s Recycle Teen Team, an annual program he participated in back in the mid 2000s when it first started.

The members advocate for environmental sustainability in the community, attend commission and committee meetings and learn about how City Hall works.

While his own journey in politics has been relatively smooth, he acknowledges that age discrimination is an issue in government.

“Republicans probably won’t like me saying this, but the Republicans eat their own, especially in O.C.,” Yamaguchi said. “And it’s unfortunate that they don’t have a more inclusive environment.

“I’ve been on the receiving end of that energy coming from the Republican Party both at state level and county level, and until they wake up and realize that, they’re going to continue to see their numbers dwindle and their support stagnate.”

He points to how difficult it is to get an endorsement as a Republican if you’ve ever voted for a tax increase or if you’ve ever taken money from unions. Yamaguchi himself recently voted for a tax increase in Placentia because he felt the city wasn’t getting its fair share of revenue coming from online sales.

“In that process, they’re in essence fighting conservatives and moderates from getting into office,” he said.

He feels that his experience speaks for itself. At this point, he is the most tenured council member in Placentia.

And because Placentia recently voted to change their elections to voting by district, the term limits have been reset. This means that while he would have been capped at three consecutive terms of office it’s now possible for Yamaguchi to serve for another 12 years representing a specific district of Placentia.

Earlier in his political career, others encouraged him to run for higher office, and he even interned at a state senator’s office.

But after much soul searching, and especially now that he has a 2-year-old daughter at home, he wants to stay in local politics.

“It’s not everybody’s cup of tea,” Yamaguchi said. “It’s definitely a labor of love.”

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