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Ventura County

Needy No Strangers to New Councilman

Gabino Aguirre of Santa Paula says his campaign focus sharpened when he met poor Latinos and recognized himself.

November 24, 2002|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

When Gabino Aguirre was on the campaign trail, there were times when his reasons for running for office snapped into sharp focus.

Like others in this month's Santa Paula City Council race, he wanted to put the brakes on development, spiff up the timeworn downtown and pump new life into the city's sagging economy.

But it was while going door to door in the town's poorest pockets--neighborhoods where the residents are largely Latino and generally underrepresented--that he knew why he had to run, and run hard.

"When I'd see these folks just getting home from work or coming up from the river bottom, where many of them live, to look for work, I could see myself," said Aguirre, 56, an up-by-the-bootstraps continuation high school principal whose farm worker family was shaped by similar circumstances.

"The great thing about canvassing the community is that you see the need; you see people living in hard, hard conditions," said Aguirre, who has lived in Santa Paula for 30 years. "I thought it was important to give those areas of our city a voice."

Long Hours, Clear Goal

And so he has, capturing 20% of the vote in the Nov. 5 election and coming out on top of a field of seven candidates in his first run for public office.

Aguirre said he did it by working long hours after finishing his day at Moorpark Community High School, stumping in old neighborhoods graced by stately Victorians and newer ones boasting luxury homes.

He did it by laying out a clear vision for Santa Paula's future and by being able to stack his academic credentials--a master's degree from USC, a doctorate from UCLA--against all comers.

And he did it by relying on what he calls his reality credential, the expertise that comes from growing up poor and stooping in the fields, life experiences he believes are meaningful to most residents in the working-class farm town of 29,000.

"He is a tremendous success story," said community leader Jesse Ornelas, who urged Aguirre to run for office and worked to get him elected. "I think people saw [that] here was someone with smarts, someone with leadership qualities and someone who would make a fine role model. That resonated very well in our community."

Aguirre's victory solidifies the emergence of a slow-growth bloc on the council at a time when many were questioning the city's development priorities.

It also could help lift a cloud of racial tension that has plagued the city in recent years, bubbling over two years ago in a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit alleging that the city's at-large voting system had discriminated against Latino candidates.

"I was just really looking for a vision of what this town could be and should be," Aguirre said. "I just thought I could be a true hometown representative."

School a Luxury

Born to migrant farm worker parents in Mexico, Aguirre was the fifth of 12 children and the first to graduate from high school, despite having started work at an early age.

Growing up in the barrios of dusty Texas towns, he picked crops and fed chickens to help the family survive.

But he never had to quit school altogether, a luxury his older siblings didn't have.

"When you grow up in a large family like that, the older siblings are obligated to work as a matter of survival," Aguirre said. "By the time it came around to me, the need wasn't as great and it provided me the opportunity to focus on schoolwork."

Aguirre made the most of it. He skipped two grades in elementary school and graduated high school with honors in Arizona. Years later, after stints at a Fresno business college and in the Army, he enrolled at UCLA and worked nights as a janitor to put himself through school.

He graduated in 1974 with a bachelor's degree in sociology and three years later earned a master's in education at USC. He returned to UCLA for a doctorate in social science/comparative education. He graduated in the spring on the day his son, Armando, 23, earned his bachelor's degree from the same school.

In between, Aguirre established a pair of cultural arts centers in Santa Paula, headed a countywide farm worker education project, launched a program to keep kids out of gangs and wrote a grant that founded what would become Clinicas del Camino Real, a nonprofit group of health clinics for rural families.

He also was married, raised two children and held down a job, first as a teacher in Moorpark and then as a principal.

His was always so busy that he gave little thought to suggestions that he run for office.

Late Decision to Run

But that changed in the summer when Councilwoman Laura Flores Espinosa missed a filing deadline for incumbents seeking reelection, forcing her to run as a write-in candidate. Aguirre was serving as one of Espinosa's campaign managers but decided at the eleventh hour to put his name on the ballot.

"It certainly seemed like the right thing to do under the circumstances," said Espinosa, whose reelection bid fell well short. "He is going to be absolutely the best City Council person. He is very well-grounded, sure of who he is and what his role is."

Aguirre has been busy since election day learning his new job while tending to his old one at the 120-student continuation high school, which gives youngsters who have fallen behind a shot at a high school diploma. Few of the students knew of his candidacy or his political success.

It is exactly the way Aguirre wants it, saying his role as an elected official has little to do with his job of encouraging youngsters to achieve, tapping them on the shoulder, asking how they are doing and telling them he would be proud to one day hand them a diploma.

"It comes back to why we do this," Aguirre said of public service. "It's not to toot my own horn; it's to take care of business."

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