State Sen. María Elena Durazo, arguably the most powerful female lawmaker in the state Capital despite having served less than a year in her first elected position, did not mince words when talking about how the political system operates.
After years of leading a powerful labor movement in Los Ángeles, Durazo now sees state politics “from the inside.”
“I was right about what I thought was true: Politicians do in fact only move when confronted with the force of organized people who are willing to outlast them, willing to outsmart them, and willing to out-pressure the forces that keep people in place,” said Durazo, the youngest of seven children of migrant farmworkers who was born in Madera.
Representing the 24th District in Los Ángeles, Durazo, 66, proposed expanding MediCal to all undocumented taxpayers.
“I got watered down.”
She proposed banning chloropyrifos, a pesticide known to cause brain damage in children.
“That got watered down into some convoluted, ineffective process that will allow that pesticide to remain in use for years to come.”
Durazo, the keynote speaker at the Oct. 2 Summit on the Central Valley at the UCSF Fresno auditorium, said she “naively thought that I would find the majority of legislators would challenge the powerful and empower the powerless.”
Instead, she encountered a legislative process “that is committed to protecting the status quo while claiming to change.”
Durazo, one of a record 14 women in the 40-member state Senate and co-chair of the Latino Legislative Caucus, figured she’d go back to her labor organizing roots to make change happen.
“What I found is that I was right when I organized and fought the establishment,” she said. “To make my time in the (state) Senate worth something, I’m going to have to continue to do what I’ve always done.”
Durazo pointed out some accomplishments she fought for as the first woman to serve as secretary/treasurer (2006-14) of the Los Ángeles County Federal of Labor AFL-CIO, the second largest labor council in the country.
Organizing immigrant workers – including janitors, hotel security and office workers – into negotiating and obtaining labor contracts.
“There are entire industries and companies that come along with new and innovative ways of keeping workers living in poverty,” said Durazo. “Using independent contractors is one of those strategies.
“Employers have made many people believe that our economy is better off with a poor truck driver who has to pay for gas, for the upkeep, for the repairs, for the insurance, etc., etc.”
If the driver gets sick or hurt, the employer is off the hook for the costs, said Durazo.
That, she said, is why mobilizing community members to fight against corporations and other special interests is vital.
“I believe more in the power of the people than I believe in the power of the government,” said Durazo. ‘And, I think we do the most good for those people when we empower them to do it for themselves.”
Durazo spoke at a summit organized by the UC Merced Civic Capacity Research Institute in partnership with the Central Valley Partnership and the Fresno Madera Tulare Kings Central Labor Council. The main focus was equitable economic development.
After a presentation that showed the Valley ranked among the poorest in the state, Durazo said the situation isn’t much different in other parts of the state.
Her family followed the crops, picking cotton, grapes and peaches from Oregon to Calexico. The family had to work hard, she said, because her father “disliked getting handouts.” Durazo remembers the family sometimes sleeping inside a truck parked along the river “and hope that nobody would catch us sitting on that private property.”
“We would do that during the harvest season so that we could pay some of the bills during the rest of the year,” said Durazo, who has been arrested 23 times while advocating for immigrants on picket lines or demonstrations.