Addressing a class of seniors at Clark Magnet High School in Glendale as part of a series of high school voter-education events, Secretary of State Alex Padilla said on Wednesday that politics was the last thing on his mind when he was their age.
It was only with the voter approval of a California ballot initiative in 1994 — which would have prohibited immigrants living in the country illegally from receiving public benefits such as healthcare and public education — that he really began to tune in to politics.
While the initiative, known as Proposition 187 was ultimately struck down by the court, that’s when the voice of his government teacher at San Fernando High School, who taught him about representational government, started ringing in his ears.
“[I realized], if I don’t vote, I’m forgoing my opportunity to decide the future of my community, and I didn’t want my community, geographic or otherwise, to continue to be harmed,” said Padilla, who is the son of parents who emigrated legally from Mexico.
At the time, Pacoima-raised Padilla was working in aerospace after earning an engineering degree from MIT.
“I began organizing before I knew what organizing was,” he said, helping people register to vote and volunteering for political campaigns.
About five years after the passage of Proposition 187, Padilla was elected to Los Angeles City Council.
At Clark Magnet on Wednesday, booths were set up outside the school’s auditorium, where students could opt to preregister to vote after the one-hour assembly.
Under an initiative helmed by Padilla, 16- and 17-years-olds have been able to preregister since September 2016. Once they turn 18 years old, they are already set to vote. Two years after the program went into effect, 200,000 16- and 17-year-olds had registered to vote, Padilla said last September.
With registration forms in hand, 17-year-old Shelia Mgrtichian said prior to the assembly she hadn’t given much thought about voting but is committed to cast a ballot as soon as she’s eligible.
“I’ve been finding out more so what my beliefs and ideals are,” said Mgrtichian, adding that she became more politically aware following the election of Donald Trump. “If I can vote and make a change, 100%, I would do it.”
Abdullah Hassan, Clark Magnet’s student body president, said his interest in politics started earlier, beginning his public service in middle school — as his class vice president.
According to Hassan, inspirational stories like Padilla’s are the best ways to “touch the hearts of people who are out of it in politics.”
It’s the first time the school has hosted a preregistration voting event like this, said Nick Doom, who teaches U.S. government at Clark Magnet.
While there’s a core group of students who are deeply engaged in politics, nationally and otherwise, the vast majority “aren’t as motivated or don’t understand,” Doom said.
“So we have to educate them about the importance of living in a republic, the importance of voting and the difference they make,” Doom said. “Once you spark that interest, that will carry them the rest of their lives.”
Padilla is making a handful of stops at high schools across the state over two weeks to mark High School Voter Education Weeks, the state’s twice-annual push to promote civic education among high school students. Previously in Anaheim, he will be speaking at high schools in Inglewood, Van Nuys and Montebello before heading back to Northern California, according to one of Padilla’s staff members.
It made sense for Padilla to stop at Clark Magnet, given its ethnic and socioeconomic diversity, according to Glendale City Clerk Ardashes Kassakhian, who has served on the Secretary of State’s language accessibility committee for several years.
Also, because of Clark’s status as a science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, magnet, “it didn’t hurt” that Padilla’s background is in engineering, in terms of having his story resonate with the student body, Kassakhian added.
Pointing out that Padilla is Latino and was elected to public office at a young age, “It’s an honor … to have someone who has just been a real role model for a lot of Californians, to come here and energize and excite these kids about what the future can hold if they get involved, if they get active, if they vote,” Kassakhian said.