By Evan Peng
This article is part of a series of profiles of Stanford alumni in politics. Click here to read the rest of the stories.
On a sunny Monday afternoon, an apologetic laugh permeated the Zoom call as Lorena Gonzalez ’93 earnestly said, “I’m sorry you’re home and not —!” (as if it were her fault the coronavirus pandemic had forced Stanford students to be taking classes virtually). This sort of concern for others is certainly par for the course for Gonzalez.
The Stanford alumna represents California’s 80th State Assembly district in Sacramento as a Democrat, where she is also the chair of the Assembly Appropriations Committee, the first Latina to fill the role. Her district is located in southwestern San Diego County and borders Mexico.
Gonzalez grew up in a largely white community in northern San Diego County; she was the only Latina in honors classes in her high school. She lived with her two brothers and their single mother who worked as a nurse. Her mother, whose higher education consisted of two years of community college to become a nurse, hoped that Gonzalez and her brothers would get a college education.
Gonzalez decided she wanted to attend Stanford after an admissions representative visited her high school. “They had these beautiful brochures, and it looked like summer camp. So, that’s all I can think about,” she said. “I came home and I told my mom, I said, ‘Okay, I found the school I want to go to. I want to go to Stanford.’”
Stanford was a culture shock. On move-in day, her first time on campus, she was sitting at a table in West Lag when the conversation turned to who had written their recommendation letters.
“One woman was like, ‘Well, Sandra Day O’Connor [’50 LL.B. ’52] wrote mine,’” she said. “And then somebody else was like, ‘Well, my grandpa did.’ And somebody said, ‘Well, who’s your grandpa?’ And she goes, ‘Bob Hope.’ And then there is another person at the table. It was Janet Evans. She was an Olympic swimmer who had already won Olympic gold. And I was just sitting there, like, oh gosh!”
Gonzalez’s recommendation letters? One was from her next-door neighbor for whom she babysat since middle school. Her 11th grade history teacher wrote the other. Lacking the access to resources like fancy private college counselors, she credits affirmative action for her admission to Stanford. Earlier this year, she co-authored ACA 5, a bill that created a ballot proposition (Proposition 16) for this past election to effectively reinstate affirmative action in California public higher education and government hiring. “There is no way I would’ve gotten into Stanford without a second look. We couldn’t afford a test prep class, I didn’t even understand the admissions process,” she wrote on Twitter after the bill was introduced. (Proposition 16 did not pass.)
Describing those early days, she said, “I kind of felt like, well maybe they made a mistake.” The transition, to her, was overwhelming and rife with differences from what she was used to. In the dining halls, she came across many foods she had never even heard of, like beef stroganoff and quiche. (“I didn’t think quiche was a real thing,” she said.)
“I really do feel like in retrospect, now, I missed out on so much at Stanford because I felt so out of place, and I felt so nervous about everything,” Gonzalez said. “I always try to talk to kids, especially going to a school like Stanford, because it does seem so big and important — and especially our first-gen kids who are going to college — you’ve got to take advantage of it, you really do. It’s okay, you’re there for a reason, you fit in, you belong there. Because it’s something that I think I missed out on.”
At the end of her first year, Gonzalez decided to try out for the newly-formed cheer team. By her own admission, most of her time outside of classes, classwork and working jobs was subsequently spent on cheerleading. Her time on the cheer team included cheering on the football field for now-Sen. Cory Booker ’91 M.A. ’92 (D-N.J.). It was also on the cheer team that she got to know her future best friend Felicia Borrego Madsen ’93.
Borrego Madsen, who also grew up in San Diego, met Gonzalez on the first day of their first year, in a class on Mexican folk dance (Ballet Folklórico). “You know, I can’t say that she made a really big impression on me in that initial moment,” Borrego Madsen admitted, laughing. “We had different tracks from a major standpoint. I was HumBio, and she was American studies, and even though we probably both didn’t declare for a while, we were just on different paths.” Because of their differing academic areas, Borrego Madsen said, their paths remained divergent aside from that one dance class — that is, until they both joined the cheer team.
The cheer team was new that year and had caused some controversy regarding whether it was necessary (even The Daily’s editorial board argued against the creation of the team), which meant the team became especially tight-knit. Still, Borrego Madsen said, the two of them were not particularly close until partway through their second year, when Gonzalez confided in Borrego Madsen that her mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I remember just seeing her devastated and realizing how important her mom was to her and how scary it was. And my heart really went out to her, and I offered to help — I think it was to drive her to the airport, so she could go to her mom’s surgery,” Borrego Madsen said.
That was the moment, for Borrego Madsen, where she and Gonzalez bonded over the importance of family. “I think that one little act kind of opened up Lorena’s heart to me for the rest of her life,” she said. Gonzalez’s mom recovered from that specific case of breast cancer, and Borrego Madsen eventually became really close with her, even feeling like a part of their family. “Thinking about her mom makes me actually a little bit emotional,” she said.
Gonzalez graduated in 1993 with a bachelor’s in American studies, after which she attended graduate school at Georgetown, earning a master’s in American government in 1995. At Georgetown, she became pregnant. Yet, she plowed ahead, starting law school at UCLA before having her daughter and completing her law degree in 1999 as a single mother.
Gonzalez then joined the staff of the first Latino statewide elected official in more than 120 years, then-Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, a Democrat. Then, in 2005, after others encouraged her, she ran for San Diego City Council in a special election. She lost by only 724 votes. During that campaign, though, she felt disinterested.
“I wasn’t that into it, I have to admit,” she said. “Partially because, at the time, I had been working in state government, and my passion was on state issues. And when you run for city council, you get to talk about the stop signs a lot and whether or not there’s a speed bump somewhere. So I thought, well, I don’t know if I’ll do that again.”
After the unsuccessful race, she went to work for organized labor in San Diego, eventually being elected executive director of the San Diego & Imperial Counties Labor Council, AFL-CIO, in 2007 — the first woman and person of color in the role.
Soon, however, she grew disillusioned by the politics she had to work with on behalf of the workers she represented. “What frustrated me was electing people to office who often would say they cared about worker issues. And they did, they’d answer the questions correctly, and they’d care. But then they get into office, and it’d be like, they cared about a lot of other stuff, right? And then workers would always come last,” she said.
So she decided to run in a 2013 special election for the 80th State Assembly district to be the representative she wanted, one who “wakes up every day to think about working families, to think about workers, to think about how California can do better for workers.”
She won the race with more than 70% of the vote.
I was a cheerleader — not a dolly, a cheerleader. One of the last years that I remember having a bonfire in the lake bed — and I think it was Big Game week — they were burning a Cal Bear, an effigy. It was just so much fun, with the Band, and we were dancing and performing. And it was a year we were doing well in football. For some reason, I think of Stanford, and I think of that idea. There were a lot of really good football memories.
Well, right now, in my district, the unemployment aspect is huge. I have a disproportionate number of workers in Assembly District 80 who are service workers, people who are working in hotels and the tourism industry that are currently out of work and don’t know when they’ll be back. And I think that that’s tough. Obviously, we’ve been working hard to get people unemployment benefits, but without the added extra that the federal government was giving us, it’s not a lot, it’s not enough to live on. So there’s that struggle right now. COVID is a struggle. It’s a struggle all the way around. And I don’t want to, in any way, suggest it’s not. There are tons of mothers like me who are home with kids who are distance learning, and that’s tough. We’re missing out on opportunities to do well in our jobs. We’re going to miss out on advancement opportunities, because it’s hard to juggle trying to help your kids at home and being at work at the same time. And that mainly falls on women, but men as well. I mean, there’s so many of these challenges. But on top of all that a lot of people in my district also have lost their job and don’t know when it’ll get back, and of course, all of us with COVID just don’t know when things will get back.
So, two things. One is, talk to people. I think too many people plan out their lives. They say, “Okay, first, I’m gonna do this, and then I’m going to go join the National Guard because it’ll look good on my resume, and then I’m going to do whatever else.” That’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with good planning. But stop and talk to people and listen to people. The things I tell people when I talk about the things my community needs or the bills I do — I don’t make that up! I actually talk to my community members. I did sick days for California workers because I talked to women who had just organized into a union and asked them what they were most excited about. And you would think, well, they’re going to get more pay, they’re going to get health care, it’s going to be these things. Nope. These moms said to me, “When my son is sick, I don’t have to send him to school and hope he doesn’t throw up. I get to take him to the doctor and not lose my job and get paid anyway.” That’s what they were most excited about. You have to talk to actual people, because those of us who are running for office, we’re not necessarily the people who are facing the real issues that public servants are there to fix. So we have to make sure to do that. The other thing is, learn how to be an organizer. And that can come in a lot of different forms. But learn what it takes to lead by pushing people and allowing others to be leaders. That’s what organizing is: bringing people together so that they can serve their own best interest. But learning that as a skill, I think, is really important if you want to be an elected official as well.
Gonzalez has certainly lived up to her ideals in Sacramento. There, she is known as a staunch advocate for worker’s rights. Her legislative accomplishments include sick leave, overtime for farm workers and protections for cheerleaders.
When asked how Gonzalez has changed since their Stanford days, Borrego Madsen replied, “Lorena’s values then are her values now. The amazing work that she’s doing in Sacramento around workers’ rights, and looking out for working people, and the empathy that so many of her legislative wins and efforts show are the values that she had then.”
“She brings just so much heartfelt emotion and caring for people that is very true,” Borrego Madsen added. “And I think that’s why she actually has done all of the amazing things that she has done, especially in Sacramento, because she is really bringing her true self and has a very strong internal moral compass about what is right for people and is not deterred.”
Gonzalez’s latest and possibly most high-profile fight on behalf of workers is AB 5, a law she authored that requires companies to classify many workers as employees rather than independent contractors. It was targeted at gig economy companies like Uber and Lyft, who then refused to comply and reclassify their drivers, and instead funded a ballot initiative (Proposition 22) for this past election to fully exempt app-based transportation and delivery companies from AB 5.
After a campaign for which Uber, Lyft and other companies shelled out over $200 million, Proposition 22 passed. In response, Gonzalez said, “There has never in the history of the United States been progress in labor that’s just been given to workers. It’s never given to workers. It’s a long, hard fight. And that’s going to continue.”
Meanwhile, in May, as the state was in its eighth week of lockdown, Gonzalez watched as Elon Musk sued Alameda County and threatened to move Tesla’s headquarters out of California over attempts to reopen Tesla’s Fremont factory. In response, Gonzalez tweeted, in her signature outspoken fashion, “F*ck Elon Musk.”
“California has highly subsidized a company that has always disregarded worker safety & well-being, has engaged in union busting & bullies public servants,” she wrote in a follow-up tweet the next morning.
Of course, both Musk and gig apps are huge players in the Silicon Valley ecosystem, which Stanford is also a part of. “The innovation, I’m a huge fan of that,” she clarified, referring to Silicon Valley as a whole and specifically mentioning Musk’s work on electric cars and batteries.
On the other hand, she said, she is not a fan of the mentality that “the rules don’t apply to us” in terms of conditions for workers. Her guess was that this attitude might arise from a difference in perceptions of class. She pointed to her working class background as a reason why she might be more attuned to labor issues, but stressed that it doesn’t mean people in Silicon Valley are off the hook.
“I think just because you do something that’s cool, or you do something that’s innovative, or you’re changing the way things are done — that doesn’t mean that you should not take into account other people,” she said. “The idea of so much of Silicon Valley is: We’re progressive, we care about the environment, we care about progressive values, civil rights, all these things, but we don’t really care about workers. And that, I think, is what I have the biggest problem with.”
To Gonzalez, true innovation would be making “really cool things — and getting rich doing it,” while “everybody who works for you has a chance to simply afford housing and put food on the table.”
Last month, Gonzalez once again won reelection to the State Assembly, meaning she starts her fourth full term this month. Last year, she declared her candidacy for California Secretary of State in 2022, where the incumbent is terming out. One reason she cited for entering the race so early is the fact that California has never elected a Latina to statewide office.
No matter what her future path looks like though, her hope is that, ultimately, her legacy is one that benefits working people. “I just want my legacy to be that I helped people who worked hard, that I created a path for people to help themselves,” she said. “As somebody who was an organizer and now is a legislator, I think government should work for people. I think we should allow people the right to get ahead. I think that there should be some balance between corporations and workers. So I hope that at the end of the day, I’ve made people’s lives a little easier.”
“I think of my mom often,” she added. “The single mom working as a nurse trying to raise kids, just struggling. She worked so many hours. And I hope there’s some single mom out there, at the end of the day who’s like, ‘Wow, I got to take sick days,’ because of the legislation I wrote, or, ‘I got a pay increase,’ or, ‘I was able to have benefits at work.’ They won’t ever know my name, if that makes sense, but it doesn’t matter. I just want to know that there are people out there whose lives are a little bit better surrounding the issues of work or access to the ballot box.”
And Gonzalez is hopeful about the future. She said her time as a cheerleader at Stanford, when the football team wasn’t the best, taught her how to press ahead even in the face of loss. “At the end of the day, I’m a cheerleader; I think we can do it. Setbacks are temporary. Setbacks are part of the game. But you get up and you work again.”
Young people especially give her hope, she said, as she sees the possibility for the country to “move forward in the future to something better” in social movements spearheaded by young people.
“I gotta believe that’s going to happen. If not, why be in the fight? You fight because you believe that. You cheer on because you believe you can win, eventually. But it takes a lot of us. I’m a true believer in the next generation,” she said.
After waiting a beat, she added, “No pressure.”
Contact Evan Peng at pengevan ‘at’ stanford.edu.