Phil Serna was first elected to the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors in 2010 and made history by becoming the first Latino since the county was established in 1850. In June of 2014, he was voted to serve a second term and last year, he was elected as the board’s Chairman.
Serna is a graduate of Christian Brothers High School in Sacramento. He completed his undergraduate studies at California State University, Sacramento and earned a master’s degree in city and regional planning from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo in 1994, graduating with honors. He and his wife Roxanna, also a Cal Poly graduate, have been married for 20 years and live in North Natomas.
Serna, 48, grew up in Sacramento’s Curtis Park neighborhood and attended local schools. He is the son of Sacramento’s first Latino mayor, Joe Serna, Jr. From an early age, he developed an appreciation for public service. His respect for his family’s humble beginnings and their efforts working with César E. Chávez to secure rights for farm workers also shaped his desire to serve. In an interview with Vida en el Valle, Serna describes his work, passions and the importance of civic engagement in the Latino community.
1. You have been a Sacramento County Supervisor since 2010 and are the only Latino on the Board. What has your experience been this far?
“I’m not just the only Latino on the Board. As far as I know, I am its first since the county was established in 1850. I was seated to the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors in 2010. During the past 5½ years I’ve come to love serving in the position more than I ever thought possible. The honor of being one of five members of the Board of Supervisors for a county like ours is a very unique opportunity, especially when it’s your home county, where you grew-up.
Sacramento County is home to 1.5 million residents and is nearly 1,000 square miles. We are a very urbanized county with seven cities but nearly 600,000 people living in the unincorporated area. That means we serve to govern both countywide and municipal services for the broadest constituency of any local government in the region. As our Latino communities continue to grow and comprise a greater percentage of our total population, I continue to lead and shape local public policies I know are important to everyone including my Latino constituents, and this has proven to be extraordinarily rewarding. That’s the beauty of serving as a county supervisor; occasionally you get to see the fruits of your labor, and know what you do helps people.”
2. What are some of the most pressing issues facing the County of Sacramento and the district you represent? Which have been top priority for you?
“I serve a very unique district. District 1 includes the area from the Sutter County line south to parts of Florin Road, and from the Sacramento River east to stretches of Watt Avenue. Most of the district overlaps with the city of Sacramento, with all or parts of 6 of 8 city council districts lying within District 1. As such, only about 3% of the people in the district I represent live in the unincorporated area. The district’s population distribution provides the supervisor representing it a rare opportunity to tailor attention to issues that I continue to insist are absolutely critical and that demand the full attention of all board members and our staff. Examples include: addressing a history of disproportional deaths in our county’s African American childhood population; redesigning our mental health continuum and fortifying our resource base for behavioral health services; and most recently reconstituting the provision of health services for our county’s most disadvantaged individuals regardless of immigration status. With all of these initiatives, and more, I have been able to play a prominent role, and much of it I attribute to the fact I’m able to focus mostly on countywide services since most municipal services in District 1 are provided by the City of Sacramento.”
3. What challenges are there to your job and how do you face those challenges?
“The greatest challenges I regularly face can be most accurately characterized as being idea rich and resource poor. Many people know me as the “activist supervisor,” which I take as a compliment. I take this to mean that I can be very aggressive in the pursuit of change whether it’s relative to flood control, smart growth, economic development and job creation, and/or addressing homelessness. Most of my frustration comes from developing what I and others feel are appropriate policy directives affecting these and other subjects, but then having to work in an environment with very limited resources to carry out those directives. That is why it is so important to understand the $3.6 billion budget over which the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors provides oversight.”
4. Can you point to the work you have accomplished and are most proud of as a Sacramento County Supervisor?
“I’m very proud of the work we have accomplished. I say ‘we’ because I don’t know of a single elected representative who has accomplished anything without the people who support them. In my case, I’m extremely fortunate to have a very supportive wife and incredible staff. So I guess first and foremost, I’m most proud of the people with whom I work, and who help me serve the people of District 1 and Sacramento County.
In terms of specific initiatives I’ve lead or been closely associated, there are many:
▪ Our work to reduce disproportional African American child deaths
▪ Bringing health services to county residents regardless of immigration status
▪ Working with private enterprise and the County’s economic development staff to increase the number of new jobs in our county, especially at McClellan Business Park, Metro Air Park and Capital Commerce Center (formerly Campbell’s Soup)
▪ Challenging status quo urban planning assumptions to promote more responsible growth patterns
▪ Establishing a Cesar E. Chavez County holiday and day of service
▪ Protecting the environment by developing a reusable grocery bag policy
▪ Expanding the availability of child welfare and family services to disadvantaged communities
▪ Focusing on quality of life improvement for some of our county’s most economically challenged neighborhoods
▪ Developing policies and appropriating resources to bring people out of homelessness
▪ Establishing public safety and natural resource protection protocols to enhance the character and experience in the American River Parkway
▪ Overhauling our mental health continuum of care
▪ Shaping critical urban planning policy documents such as our General Plan and Zoning Code
▪ Advancing higher levels of flood protection for our communities, especially in the Natomas basin
I’m also very proud to play bass guitar in Sacramento’s most politically correct R&B band, ‘UnSupervised.’ Since playing together, we’ve raised over $200,000 for various charitable organizations across the region, and a couple of years ago we even established our own nonprofit called ‘Music on a Mission’ to better connect our musical and philanthropic pursuits.”
5. You were first elected to the Board of Supervisors in 2010 and re-elected to a second term in June 2014. What most surprised you when you were seated to the position?
“The most surprising thing you learn as a newly elected Sacramento County Supervisor is that you weren’t just elected to serve in that capacity. With it comes your service on many other boards and commissions. Last time I checked, I’m on approximately 30+ boards and commissions, many of which I’ve already had the opportunity to serve as chairman. I currently chair the First 5 Sacramento Commission and Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District Board of Directors, and am seated as the vice-chairman of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments. In 2013, Governor Brown appointed me the first-ever Sacramento area representative to serve on the California Air Resources Board, which required Senate confirmation. All of these subject- and geographic-specific boards and commissions require hours and hours of preparation, so believe me you do lots and lots of reading. When you run for the one office listed on the ballot, prospective candidates should understand that much more comes with the responsibility you’ve asked the voters to grant you.”
6. You are the son of a former (and still) distinguished Latino mayor of Sacramento, your father, the late Joe Serna, Jr. Has there been any pressure to live up to him?
“Sure there’s been pressure and I expect there always will be, and I get that. Joe Serna was a beloved mayor, and an incredible father and role model. That said he always wanted me to be my own man and follow my own aspirations; to live my own life regardless of the shadow he cast. I think I’ve accomplished how my father would have wanted me to mature into my own, and I suspect he would also be extremely proud that, like him, I’ve pursued the honorable vocation of public service. Not a day passes when I don’t reflect deeply about my father, and I feel the best way to honor his memory and influence is to occasionally borrow from his playbook, which I’ve done and will continue to do. I love, respect and miss my father, but I’m not trying to be Joe Serna. I think I’m succeeding at being Phil Serna, his proud son.”
7. There are many Latinos rising in the ranks of political power in Sacramento. How do you feel about this trend?
“First of all, I would challenge the statement that there are “many” Latinos in, or rising to achieve political power in Sacramento. There aren’t enough based on our demographic profile, and there sure haven’t been many historically. There needs to be more, especially Latinas.
What I sense more than anything is not so much pressure but opportunity. Working with people like my good friend Sacramento City Councilman Eric Guerra, what I feel most is a growing optimism about the future of a new Latino political presence that is not just reserved for elected leadership, although that will be a critical component of how I see change occurring. That “presence” must start from the ground-up, meaning more Latinos in our community must register to vote and exercise their right to choose leaders who will best represent what is important to them. People like Eric and I have an obligation to encourage that, and we take the obligation very, very seriously. Doing so is a great example of taking a play from Joe Serna’s “playbook.””
8. Are there any sacrifices that come with being in elected office? Do you have future plans of continuing your work in the political realm?
“There are many sacrifices that come with serving in elected office. The most notable are time and privacy. You don’t run for any office if you’re not fully committed to serve which requires an extraordinary amount of time away from other things you love, like being with your family. And as for privacy, you basically forfeit that when you decide to thrust yourself into the public spotlight. Elective politics and governance is not for the faint of heart. My plans are clear. I want to continue serving to be the most effective county supervisor I can be.”
9. Many people do not attend Board of Supervisor meetings. What is the importance of community engagement and why should the community attend these meetings?
“Serving as an effective local elected representative can be distilled down to this: I am elected to represent the best interests of my constituency, and to achieve that objective, I must balance the application of my own conscience with a clear understanding of what’s important to the people I have the honor of representing. Without that clear understanding – that second key piece – I’m hamstrung. It is only with community engagement and the civic participation of a constituency that I am fully capable of doing the job I was elected to do. It is impossible, for instance, for me to guess the shifting positions or attitudes of the people I represent without their participation and willingness to share with me what’s important to them. That can take many forms. It can be as simple as an email or as organized as a peaceful demonstration. Either way, constituents’ activism and advocacy is absolutely critical to our democracy and representative form of governance.”
10. It is a presidential election year and you have been very vocal with your disapproval of Donald Trump. What is the importance of civic engagement and why should Latinos take it more seriously?
“This is no ordinary election. We have as the presumptive nominee of a major political party someone who has proven himself an outspoken bigot and misogynist, and as someone who has publicly insulted combat-wounded US Veterans and people with disabilities.
Donald Trump is someone who has told us clearly what he thinks, and what he thinks is that Mexicans are criminals, rapists in fact. Every single American – not just Latinos – should be concerned about someone seeking the highest office in the land who thinks like this. It’s beyond offensive and to ensure Trump does not have the opportunity to turn his caustic vitriol into anything more, it is important we not support his dangerous platform. To do that, people must be vocal, they must do more than watch the nightly news about Trump’s latest antics and dismiss it as anything other than a very real threat.
If you feel as I do, register to vote, educate yourself about his discriminatory platform, and speak-up and exercise your conviction when it counts most by voting.
Lastly, I will say too that it is important we hold those who are supporting Trump accountable, especially individuals seeking higher office. I’ve recently engaged a social media campaign to respectfully communicate to Sacramento County Sheriff and Congressional candidate, Scott Jones why I, and so many others, are so disappointed he has chosen to support Donald Trump. I encourage your readers to visit my website, www.philserna.net to learn more, and to consider signing a letter requesting Scott Jones to retract his support for Donald Trump.”