Gun control, Cal Grants, and the Dodgers: A conversation with State Senator Kevin de Leon

A visit to many of Alhambra's restaurants may mean running into California Senator Kevin de Leon. The San Diego native — who represents Alhambra, as well San Marino, South Pasadena, and parts of Los Angeles — says his favorite local spots are Frontera's, Charlie's Trio, and 38 Degrees.

De Leon was the first person in his family to graduate high school, and then graduated from Pitzer College. He was elected to state legislature in 2006 and became the first Latino Senate Appropriations Chair in 2013. De Leon talked to Alhambra Source about how to encourage minority populations to vote and participate in politics, what he loves about Alhambra, and his thoughts on Opening Day at Dodger's Stadium.

Who do you represent? And what are some of the challenges of participation?

De Leon in East Los Angeles

I represent probably one of the most diverse districts in the nation — not just Alhambra, also Chinatown, Little Tokyo, and Koreatown. It includes the largest concentration of Guatemalans and El Salvadorians outside of their countries. I also have Filipinotown, Thai Town, Little Armenia and Little Bangladesh. This diversity adds to the strength of the community, so we have to encourage residents to engage in politics and inculcate in them the responsibility to become involved in politics. Because if people don’t become engaged in politics, politics will engage them, in a good way or a bad way. That’s why they have to make sure they have a voice. 

What are key issues?

One issue is gun ammunition. I believe that people who purchase ammunition should have to secure a permit, and I’ve introduced legislation that does this. I think it’s crazy that in California, you need a license to fish or to hunt, but anyone can walk into any gun store and buy all the ammunition they want, no questions asked, without a background check.

Another issue is the Cal Grant program. A lot of kids in Alhambra who make it out to four-year universities, for example, are beneficiaries of Cal Grant B.  The Cal Grant program started back in 1969 and the amount of the grant back then was $900. Now, in 2013, the average award for a Cal Grant B recipient is roughly $1,490. If you were to adjust the amount for inflation, the value would be a little under $6,000, so there’s a big difference and that’s why kids can have a hard time graduating. They incur a tremendous amount of debt, paying for books, paying the rent, food for just daily living. My Cal Grant B idea is a tax credit and will double the Cal Grant B Award at no cost to the state.

De Leon helping to plant a garden in Echo ParkWhat are your thoughts on increasing political participation, especially among the Asian and Hispanic populations?

I think it’s critical, because the largest growing demographic in the state is not the Latino community, it’s the Asian American community. In my opinion, we have to still continue to invest in our youth and senior citizens and engage them to participate civically in a whole variety issues.

Sometimes, with city council races, it’s a little more difficult because the enthusiasm is not there, because when there is a presidential election, there is more excitement. But in the last presidential election, we saw record numbers of Latinos, more so at the national level, and at the same time, we saw record numbers of Asian Americans coming out to the ballot box, so those are positive signs. 

What are your connections to Alhambra?

I go to a lot of the restaurants, like Charlie’s Trio, Frontera’s, 38 Degrees Ale House, and many of the small businesses around the city to be supportive. I’ve attended the Alhambra Educational Fund’s annual dinner for the school district, spoke at the San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District, attended Alhambra Chamber of Commerce events, and many events at Almansor Court.

What’s your impression of the city/makes Alhambra unique and stands out to you?

What’s amazing about Alhambra is its diversity. It’s a beautifully rich mosaic of the different ethnic cultures of California. From my perspective, it’s one of the strengths of the city and should be appreciated and highly recognized, because Alhambra is a large and well-functioning city.

There’s been some discussion on redevelopment in the city.  What’s your perspective on the issue?

Economic development is always good, especially in a very difficult economy, although it is improving albeit slowly. Development and the interests of residents, they’re not mutually exclusive, we have to learn to work together, because with economic development, the tax base grows, and as the tax base grows, you’re able to fund vital services for the city.  Programs for senior citizens, police services, these are critical programs that must be funded and have taken some very severe budget cuts. 

At the same time, you have to represent your constituents and the residents of the city of Alhambra.  It doesn’t have to be polarized, us versus them, and it becomes dysfunctional, whether in Alhambra or elsewhere, and then things don’t work.

Now the most important question, are you a Dodgers fan?

I’m a big time Dodgers fan, I represent the Dodgers, they’re in my district. I thought it was amazing to see Sandy Koufax go out on the field on Opening Day at Dodger Stadium. Now the President Pro Tem of the California Senate, Darrell Steinberg, is a major, major, big time Giants fan.  He and I have a bet that whoever’s team has the best record at the end of the baseball season has to take the other one out for dinner, and it has to be a nice dinner.    

Interview was edited and condensed.

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