Kevin de León’s campaign trail stop at Fruitvale’s Peralta Hacienda park on Saturday was one of many in his quest to represent California in the US Senate. He’s running against a formidable incumbent—Dianne Feinstein, a ranking Democrat who’s been in the Senate for 26 years. But for many of his supporters and members of Oakland’s Latino Task Force (LTF) who organized the event, it was more than a typical rally. As Alameda County Labor Council Secretary Liz Ortega said from the stage, “We need one of our own, and our own is Kevin de León.”
De León spoke about his life as the son of a single immigrant mother. As a child, de León’s life straddled the border: He spent half his time in Tijuana, Mexico and the other half in Logan Heights in San Diego. He only has one childhood memory of his father, but knows he was partly Chinese and from Guatemala, like his mother. As shown in a new emotionally charged campaign video released by de León’s team, his mother immigrated to the United States and worked as a maid after giving birth to de León. He was the first in his family to graduate from high school. “I say this story because, quite frankly, my story is not unique. My story is not an original story. My story is all of your stories,” he said.
De León attended UC Santa Barbara before dropping out to work at One Stop Immigration Center, a nonprofit immigration advocacy group based in Los Angeles. He went back to school at Pitzer College, graduated in 2003 and ran for public office for the first time in 2006, winning a seat in the state assembly. De León served in the California state legislature for 12 years, first as an assemblymember representing part of Los Angeles and then as president pro tempore in the state senate, the first Latino official elected to that office.
While in office, he authored legislation to make California use 100 percent clean energy by 2050, as well as the sanctuary state bill that Governor Jerry Brown signed into law last year. The sanctuary state bill mandates that local law enforcement officers are not required to cooperate with immigration authorities unless violent or serious crimes are involved. Speaking before the crowd on Saturday, de León said of the sanctuary state bill, “That’s what progressive politics looks like. That’s leading from the courage of your convictions to do everything within your power to make sure that our local police departments don’t become an extension of the federal government or become a cog of the Trump deportation machine.”
While her experience has been a positive talking point in Feinstein’s campaign, de León’s campaign is trying to use it to her disadvantage. During the rally he told the crowd, “I’m sad to say the senior senator helped create ICE [Immigration and Custom Enforcement] with her vote back in 2002 with the [Homeland] Security Act.” Feinstein was one of 90 senators who voted for the act that established the Office of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE. He also reminded the crowd of Feinstein’s vote to invade Iraq after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
De León has campaigned to the left of Feinstein, throwing an “Abolish ICE Cream Social” for delegates at the California Democratic Convention. Feinstein has not entertained the faction of the Democratic Party that is pushing to abolish the department. De León supports single payer healthcare, while Feinstein says she is still concerned about its costs. De Leon, who is 51 years old, has portrayed himself as part of a new, younger generation who stand ready to replace Feinstein, who is 85. Notably, de León won the endorsement of the California Democratic Party in July. For some political watchers, this doesn’t come as much of a surprise—delegates tend to be more progressive than the average Californian Democratic voter—but was still considered a blow to Feinstein.
As de León spoke, members of the Latino Task Force, wearing red t-shirts that read “Raza Sí, Migra No,” listened intently and made sure audience members were comfortable in the heat by offering them small water bottles. “[De León] is talking about our issues. So people will come out and be engaged and vote,” said founding member Mariano Contreras on why the group wanted de León to come speak.
Days before the event, Jorge Lerma, another founding member, sat shaded under the awning of a Fruitvale grocery store, considering what it meant to have de León speak here. “It’s no longer about Cesar Chavez alone and farm workers, although there are issues. It’s about creating a plurality movement for all people of color,” Lerma said. “[De León] is a multicultural person. He embodies the working class, the student class, communities of color, and this new growing community of people who are mixed.”
Lerma said the task force began in 2015 thanks to concerns about Oakland’s new Department of Race and Equity, when he and other organizers worried the office might overlook uniquely Latino needs, such as hiring more Latino teachers in Oakland public schools. Another task force goal is not only to elect more Latinos, but to push for progressive policies that uplift minority groups, such as creating affordable child care centers. Today, the group has roughly 12 executive members who attend meetings three times a month, but they rely on many more volunteers who come and go. Most of the members work other full-time jobs in addition to working on the task force.
Before the rally, Jose Dorado, another founding member, said he supports de León because “It’s time for the old guard to go.”
“I’m hoping people understand there has to be a real shift in the Democratic Party in a far more progressive direction. De León is the real face of that shift,” he continued.
Since the election of President Donald Trump, Feinstein has faced criticism from progressive Californians for not pushing back enough against the new president. When Trump’s first nominations for secretary positions rolled through the Senate for a vote, Feinstein voted yes to all of them, along with nearly all Democrats. Ahead of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ hearing, protestors gathered outside Feinstein’s San Francisco residence to demand she vote against the rest of Trump’s nominations. Supporters of de León say he will push to protect immigrants more than Feinstein will, and will resist Trump by not bending to compromise. “I just think a lot of young people are post-Feinstein. She’s not doing enough,” said Kabir Kapun, one supporter at the rally.
In addition to hosting candidates like de León, the task force also hosts voter education forums. The last one was for the 2016 election, and they provided pretend ballots so new voters could use them to practice voting. “People felt like for the first time, they were really able to understand the different measures and candidates,” Lerma said. “Regardless of their social and immigration status, everybody who came through that door was given a ballot, so they could practice voting. Those that couldn’t vote because of citizenship could have a voice in the building.”
The group’s next voter forum will be October 11 at Fremont High School. Candidates running for office in Oakland will be invited to speak.