Why Former East Los Gang Member Luis J. Rodriguez Is Running For Governor Of California

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Luis J. Rodriguez’s career as a writer skyrocketed after the 1993 publication of his memoir, Always Running. The wild kid who many brushed off as a worthless junkie and cholo eventually became a prolific author of non-fiction and poetry, anti-poverty/youth activist, and father.

In November of last year, he announced his endorsement as the Green Party’s candidate for governor of California in 2014. It may seem like a bit of a stretch (okay, a huuuuuuuuge Lifetime movie-of-the-week stretch) that a man whose original claim to fame was a gang-life memoir would run for governor. Then again, who would have guessed The Terminator would take office? Plus, politics, poverty, and justice have been inescapable themes in his life that continue to rear their heads in various ways.

He faced those themes, as well as death, many times as a journalist covering FSLN uprisings in Nicaragua and immigrant labor struggles in the US. He also faced them as a leader in peace and youth development efforts in the USA, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Italy, and England.

In this interview, Rodriguez explains how the fight against poverty has been his life’s work and mission, the necessity of a third party in a two-party system, and how his experiences battling poverty and uplifting local communities through education is key to changing California.

How did you come to decide to run for governor of California?

Green Party activists in the San Fernando Valley have been asking me to run for political office for some time. It’s about having new and strong voices in the political process. The two-party system has failed. I’ve run for U.S. vice-president during the 2012 national elections under the Justice Party with Rocky Anderson for president. At age 22, I ran for Los Angeles school board. I’ve been involved in other campaigns, including for former Mayor Harold Washington in Chicago and in union representation elections at the University of California system. It’s time for us to rally a new movement for political empowerment, deep economic change, and a clean and green environment for all.

What lessons did you learn about politics and the political process during your time with Anderson & the Justice Party?

For one that this country is not a true democracy. Big money makes elections, makes candidates, forces all the issues. When you only have two parties, you are limited in your choices, especially parties that are beholden to corporate sponsors and making deals. The Justice Party, like the Green Party and others, was one of many alternative voices that had no major media attention nor allowed into the major political debates. The American people deserve better. We need transparent public financing of elections so that big private donors don’t control the process.

Do you feel that you’ve come full circle? You mentioned in an interview with Jeff 4 Justice that your father was a political exile from Mexico, which is why you lived in the USA. You grew up in poverty. The center-point of your campaign is the elimination of poverty. None of this seems to be coincidental.

I’ve been riding a thread that has been with me since birth, born on the border of El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. That thread has to do with injustice, poverty, and being locked out of the decision-making processes in this country. I’m committed to changing this for everyone. The poor have no say-so on policy. Yet they fill our prisons and continually get budgets balanced on their backs. That’s what’s happened in California, including with Governor Brown who has a so-called balanced budget that includes cuts of CalFresh, CalWorks, and other needed services. We have the worst education system and are 48th in the nation for arts funding. Despite being the richest state in the union, and the eighth largest world economy, California has the greatest disparity between rich and poor.

I’m running to demand an end to poverty, an end to our poisoned environment, an end to poor schools and a bloated prison industry. I’m for free and quality education and healthcare for everyone. I’m also for having the arts in every neighborhood—music, dance, theater, writing, festivals, public art, and more.

The first goal of your campaign is getting your name on the ballot. How far along are you on your goal of 20,000 signatures and why are you asking for twice the required amount?

We have embarked on a “100 for 200” signature-gathering phase—to gather at least 100 people committed to getting a minimum of 200 signatures. The state requires 10,000 signatures of registered voters for me to be on the ballot. I have to get these during a short window of time—from December 27 of last year to February 20. If we get twice the number, we’ll guarantee enough good signatures. It’s also about a movement—training and fielding leaders and activists. The new state election rules are meant to discourage and undermine third parties and other independent voices. But we’ll turn this into our advantage. Right now we don’t have exact numbers, but we have more than 50 people volunteering to gather signatures in around a dozen counties. More are volunteering every day. We’ll start a process of tracking these and putting the numbers on our website as soon as we can. This is a serious campaign, not symbolic. We aim to win as a grassroots, from the ground up, movement.

What did you mean when you said in your speech at the Green Party Plenary that the Green Party must be against all illusions?

We live in a world of scarcity, of mortgages, of wages, of borders, of financial crises. We are made to believe this is “reality,” God-derived, and out of our control. I say no. Wars are fought around borders and beliefs, both human creations. Poverty is part and partial of the very economic system we extol and live by. The concept of “races” is also unscientific and made up. We need to imagine another way to go—with cooperation, caring, and a comprehensive structural shift in our system of production, distribution and control. It’s time we made our own history, used our own brains and capacities (and the growing advanced technology) to benefit everyone.

Tell me a bit about the Homeless Bill Of Rights. Why is it a part of your campaign? How can it help in the fight against poverty?

This bill is to stop the anti-homeless ordinances and laws sprouting in various California cities. They include no vagrancy, no eating in public areas, no sleeping in vehicles, and more. That’s a key part of the struggle. The main aspect, however, should be to provide a decent roof, a livable income or job, educational opportunities, to end foreclosures, and more. We need to end homelessness, period. As my friend Tiny Garcia of Poor Magazine says, to have “homefullness.”

One of your issues is to “eliminate the California prison system as we know it.” What types of changes would you enact and what would you replace it with? Would you take a page from your work as an activist (Guild Complex, Youth Struggling For Survival, Tia Chucha’s, etc.)?

Absolutely. I’ve had forty years helping youth turn their lives around, including in gangs from East L.A., South Central, Chicago, Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and more. I’ve done this through nonprofits like Chicago’s Guild Complex, based on the literary arts; Youth Struggling for Survival, working with mentors and gang/non-gang youth; and L.A.’s Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural, a full-fledge cultural space and bookstore.

I’m convinced—and I’m not the only one—that punishment does not work as a corrections philosophy. That giving youth isolated prison cells, years and years of warehousing, and inhumane treatment only makes things worse. I would propose turning the tax dollars used to house prisoners—$43,000 per person a year in adult prisons, and $252,000 per juvenile—can be better utilized by providing mental and drug treatment, jobs training, education, restorative justice practices, healing practices, the arts, spiritual engagement, rites of passage, mentoring, and such. It’s about properly filling in the empties in a person’s life, family and community.

Luis Rodriguez reads from his book “Poems Across the Pavement. Photo: LA Times
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The first question everyone asks about any type of universal program is about funding. How would you enact universal healthcare and free education for all Californians if elected?

Again, California is the richest state in the union and the eighth largest economy in the world. Our commercial ports, the largest on the Pacific Rim, alone bring in $38 billion a year. We have the potential of billion of dollars with a fair taxation policy—taxing the wealthy for doing business in the state, including an oil severance tax. Oil companies should be taxed for “severing” the oil from the land (presently California is the only place on the planet that does not have an oil severance tax). This alone would bring in billions. We are also wasting billions of federal and state dollars through “Covered California/Affordable Health Care Act.” This subsidizes already powerful and wealthy insurance companies. We should have a single payer fully subsidized (no more insurance companies) healthcare system for everyone—it would be cheaper than the current system.

As for schools, we can provide free quality education from “head start” through higher learning institutions. All schools should be publicly funded to keep them transparent and within our control. All private profit-oriented organizations would be pushed out of this process. I was recently in Argentina, a country with deep economic problems (they are presently making a turnaround), which provides education to its people for free. Why can’t we?

There are many other ways to go, including a state bank, which doesn’t gouge people and can be beholden to the public. My other state Green Party candidates—Laura Wells for Controller, Ellen Brown for Treasurer, and David Curtis for Secretary of State—are strong on this matter.

Education and healthcare, like food, shelter, and clothing, are necessities. There is money—it’s just being used to benefit the wealthy and powerful. Distribute these necessities to all those who need them, not just to those who can afford them.

To learn more about putting Luis J. Rodriguez on the ballot, visit his campaign website here.