As Jorgel Chavez begins another semester of online learning at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, he faces a new challenge far different from readjusting to Zoom classes and speaking with prospective students as a Price student ambassador: governing the people of Bell Gardens.
In November, Chavez won the election for Councilmember of Bell Gardens by a margin of 899 votes. He successfully ran against four challengers for two seats, including 21-year incumbent Pedro Aceituno.
Chavez, who didn’t make any promises throughout his grassroots campaign, told constituents that “I’m not the trustee, I’m the delegate.” His campaign platform looked to tackle homelessness and community safety while maintaining transparency throughout the process.
It wasn’t long until Chavez’s platform and ideas made him a serious contender in the race, catching the attention of not only his supporters but other candidates and adversaries. Various attack ads against him were issued including mail advertisements calling him a “puppet.”
He received additional comments attempting to delegitimize his run for office, including people stating Chavez was “just a student” and questioning his experience. Chavez often chose not to engage with defamatory comments, instead inviting those challenging his platform to a “civil conversation.”
“I did have my fair share of attacks, even to jeopardize my character,” Chavez said. “At the end of the day, I ran by myself. I still stick by that, and I think our campaign made a huge statement.”
Running without a chief of staff or spokesperson, Chavez often worked with his Spanish-speaking mother, his 15-year-old cousin, and a few volunteers to canvas the neighborhood in hopes of gaining support.
“My cousin had helped me out a lot in my campaign … I’m trying to be a role model to him and [tell] him that there’s a lot of work to be done, and I can’t do it all on my own,” Chavez said. “He got a good amount of experience … knocking on doors and stuff, and I think he’s really interested in this.”
Chavez also relied on a small professional network. He wrote to professional contacts that had accumulated in a “big stack of business cards”he’d collected over the years, and also reached out to other elected officials and even professors for help and endorsements. Some donors offered up to $500.
Much of Chavez’s $6,600 fundraising total was directed towards promotional materials. Because the campaign was run from his home and supported by volunteer efforts, no funds were directed to campaign offices or staffers.
Chavez often skateboarded with the promotional materials, up and down the streets of Bell Gardens. The materials — often just half-sheets of printer paper — would feature his personal cell phone number for constituents to call and discuss issues with him directly.
Canvassing from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. and then 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m., Chavez spent the middle of the day taking classes, including Professor of Public Policy Grace Bahng’s “Foundations of Policy Analysis.”
Chavez shared news about his campaign early on with Bahng’s class and would often converse with Bahng during office hours about the state of the race.
“This is sort of why we do what we do,” Bahng said. “It’s our privilege to walk with students who have ambitions to engage in public policy and create positive change for their communities”
Chavez’s passion for policy and government predates his tenure at USC. He has shown an interest in politics for years, especially during his time at Bell Gardens High School, where he graduated in 2015.
Chavez often worked with Jeff Harris, former CEO of The Junior State of America Foundation, throughout high school. Harris quickly came to pick up on the integrity and empathy Chavez showed as a young leader.
“He has always been someone who wanted to give back, to serve his community,” Harris said. “[He’s] always been really involved and interested in public affairs. I was really excited when he called me and told me that he had decided to run. It just seemed like a natural [fit] for him.”
Rounding out the campaign, Chavez spent the entirety of election day at the polls, particularly those at his alma mater, Bell Gardens High School. His mother and cousin were stationed at the other two polling stations at Veteran’s Park and Dell Records.
“People are lined up and they’re saying ‘Oh, I’m here to vote for you, I’m here to vote for you.’ and I still don’t believe it,” Chavez said. “I’m obviously concerned about what’s going on in national politics and seeing how Joe Biden’s doing … but I was also very concerned about my own election.”
Following his win, Chavez said the realization that he would “serve as a council member every day” finally set in. Two week’s into the job, he said he has recognized the amount of work that needs to be done.
With the new Biden Administration, Chavez said he is hopeful for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants residing within the United States and in Bell Gardens. Chavez also hopes for improved relationships among constituents, the Department of Homeland Security and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. According to the United States Census Bureau, 42.1% of the population of Bell Gardens identified as foreign-born in July 2019.
Chavez also noted additional concerns regarding access to coronavirus resources in the southeast Los Angeles region and hopes for more of a say in vaccine rollout. When it comes to crucial issues like coronavirus testing, Chavez said he is tired of Bell Gardens being “seen as the backyard of the county.”
“I think among the southeast L.A. region, we’ve been neglected,” Chavez said. “I think we need more support. I think we need more resources.”
Having since assumed his seat on the city council, Chavez said he is holding himself to a renewed “sense of responsibility to open the door and pathway for others to get involved.”
“I’m literally sitting down in my office as I speak,” Chavez said. “I have a Mexican flag in my office, I have a U.S. flag, I have the California flag, I have the USC flag and soon to be the [Los Angeles Football Club] flag … I’m just like ‘Wow, I’m just blessed to be here, I’m blessed to have the certificate that said I got elected.’”