Democrat Tony Cárdenas is poised to be the first Latino congressman to represent Southern California’s San Fernando Valley. The Los Angeles City Council member will represent a new, heavily Latino 29th District.
As the youngest of 11 children of Mexican immigrant parents, Cárdenas was born and raised in the valley city of Pacoima. His father was a self-employed gardener who would take young Cárdenas and his brothers to work with him. While still a teenager, Cárdenas got his first paid job at San Fernando Valley’s Boys & Girls Club through a summer work program. “Every time I got paid, I would give my parents money. I would save some money, and I would have a little money to spend,” he recalled in an interview.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of California (Santa Barbara) in 1986. “I wasn’t the student body this, student body that. I was not much into running for office,” Cárdenas said of his college years. He subsequently went to work for Hewlett-Packard but left just five months later. “There has to be something different for me,” he said he remembered thinking.
He returned home to Pacoima to live with his parents and sold life insurance for a year, then worked as a Realtor for five years before opening his own brokerage firm in the San Fernando Valley. During that time, the valley had become more Latino—but, he observed, political representation did not mirror that change. One day, a friend suggested that he run for political office. He did, and in 1996 became the first Latino to represent the valley in the state’s 39th Assembly District.
Cárdenas became known for his work to reform the state’s gang prevention and intervention programs. In 2000, the state Legislature passed the Schiff-Cárdenas Crime Prevention Act, authorizing funding for local juvenile-justice programs in the state’s 58 counties. Cárdenas says he became interested in gang-intervention programs after many of his childhood friends had run-ins with the law, lamenting, “They weren’t exactly living a life that we had dreamed of.” During its first year, the program was funded for $121 million. It has been funded ever since, although sometimes at slightly lower levels.
In 2003, Cárdenas won a seat on the Los Angeles City Council representing the Sixth District, where he has continued to work on gang prevention. He also has been active in creating opportunities for minority-owned businesses to compete for the city’s bond underwriting work. And he has pushed for policies to fight human trafficking and prevent the mistreatment of animals.
When he decided to run for Congress, Cárdenas was a strong favorite, and he received 64 percent of the vote in the primary. His closest competitor was “No Party Preference” candidate David Hernández, an insurance adjuster and Vietnam veteran. In California’s new jungle election system, the top two finishers in the primary advance to the general election regardless of party, so Cárdenas faced Hernández again in the fall.
Hernández, a perennial candidate for office, criticized Cárdenas for touting his Latino roots. A message on Hernandez’s Facebook page said, “Tony Cárdenas wants to be the first Latino congressman from the San Fernando Valley. David Hernandez wants to be the congressman who represents and brings prosperity to the area which has … suffered under failed leadership.” But in a mostly Democratic district, the attacks barely resonated.
Rosa Ramirez contributed to this article.