Maria Nunez is representing District 1 on the San Marcos City Council after being elected last November as the culmination of her first political campaign.
But that representative just as easily could be Arcela Nunez-Alvarez, Maria’s older sister and a fellow Cal State San Marcos alumna.
Or it could be Ana Ardon, another CSUSM alum and, for the last 15 years or so, a colleague of Nunez-Alvarez’s at the National Latino Research Center, an on-campus organization that’s committed to contributing to the knowledge and understanding of U.S. Latino populations.
Or it could be Lilian Serrano, yet another alum (2014) who also works at the NLRC as a research coordinator.
What did Nunez have that the other three didn’t?
“The right address,” she said with a laugh during an interview last month in the NLRC office.
All four of the women have been close friends and activists on behalf of Latino issues throughout North County for many years. When San Marcos, under the threat of a lawsuit, moved to district voting in 2016 in the interest of creating a more diverse and representative council, the group decided that one of them had to run in the new, heavily Latino District 1. But only Nunez fit the requirement of actually living in the district, a narrow strip that cuts through the heart of the city, including the Richmar neighborhood.
“In theory, though, it could have been any of us,” said Ardon, who earned a bachelor’s and master’s from CSUSM and started working at the NLRC as a student assistant in 2003.
There’s a reason why Nunez invariably uses the words “we” and “us” instead of “I” and “me” when she discusses the campaign and her goals as a new council member. The quartet ran as a group – Serrano was the campaign manager, Ardon the treasurer and Nunez-Alvarez the volunteer and outreach coordinator. And, in some ways, they’re now governing as a group.
Nunez, 46, a longtime attorney who graduated from CSUSM in 1995, is the manifestation of a sustained, persistent effort by Nunez-Alvarez and Ardon to elect more Latinos to office. Nunez is the first Latino to be seated on the San Marcos City Council in more than 20 years.
“Ana and I have been part of conversations over many years, thinking through why we don’t have enough Latino or Latina representatives,” Nunez-Alvarez said. “With Maria, not only did she have the address – though that was of course key – but because of the role she has played as an adviser in the community, being an attorney who helps families, it was a combination of finding a way to counteract the negativity that we see in politics and really focus on the people and the need to bring change.
“This is about proposing a candidate who is able to connect to the community, who comes from the community and embodies so many of the issues it faces.”
Nunez’s grass-roots campaign came with an interesting twist: She ran as a No Party Preference (NPP) candidate, in keeping with how she registered when she first became eligible to vote. In fact, all four main members of the campaign team are unconnected to a political party, and they resisted strong pressure from the San Diego County Democratic Party to affiliate in the race against Republican Craig Garcia.
Ardon, who also handled data research for the campaign, pointed to statistics showing that, in District 1, voters are about evenly split among Democrats, Republicans and NPP.
“When we all looked at the numbers, including voter participation, we were like, ‘A party affiliation is really not going to make a difference in this district,’ ” Nunez-Alvarez said.
Local elections typically don’t turn on partisan issues anyway, so the chief effort of Nunez and team was to drive up participation numbers in the district. Latinos make up about 70 percent of the district’s residents, but according to Ardon, less than 4 percent of Latinos voted in the 2014 election.
Determined to boost that dismal figure, Nunez, her team and dozens of volunteers thoroughly canvassed the district, knocking on doors in neighborhoods that they thought had been ignored for far too long. Though their bilingual ability meant that they were usually greeted warmly, they were dismayed by some of the things they heard.
“Most people didn’t know that the city had been divided into districts,” Nunez said. “A lot of people didn’t even know where City Hall was. Many still don’t know what city council does, that meetings are happening and they can be there and have a voice. Nobody has tried to engage. So increasing that civic engagement will continue to be important.”
Buoyed by a Latino turnout that almost tripled, Nunez won with just shy of 50 percent of the vote, outdistancing Garcia at 38 percent. As she settles into her new role, her stated priorities – beyond civic engagement – are to advocate for quality and affordable housing, address community safety and infrastructure needs, and promote economic prosperity.
Her team, meanwhile, continues to supplement its day work at the NLRC with night work helping Nunez and otherwise furthering political activism. They were encouraged by November elections that saw Latinas also win city council races in Escondido, Oceanside and Vista – the Escondido victor was Consuelo Martinez, another CSUSM grad and a friend of the NLRC women – and they’re already eyeing 2020 races in secondary districts that feature underrepresented populations in those cities.
Little did San Marcos know that when it elected Nunez, it was essentially getting four council members for the price of one.
“We’ve been very committed to the same ideals over the course of many years in North County,” Nunez-Alvarez said. “We definitely work as a collective.”
Brian Hiro, CSUSM communications specialist prepared this report that was used by permission. For more, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org | Office: 760-750-7306.