SYLMAR, Calif. — Luis J. Rodriguez’s life has always been full of contradictions.
His parents — one of them “an emotionally-charged, border woman,” the other a “stoic, unmoved, unfeeling intellectual” — were a “dichotomous couple” whose “two sides created a life-long conflict in my breast,” Rodriguez wrote in “Always Running,” his best-selling memoir about growing up in a tough, gang-ridden barrio of Los Angeles.
Mexican immigrants, he recalled, “were invisible people in a city which thrived on glitter, big screens and big names.”
In his youth, Rodriguez embraced the gang life, or “la vida loca,” as a way out of the poverty and despair, joining in the mindless mayhem of gang warfare, spending time in jail and shooting up on heroin. It was only after he discovered books and art that he started to distance himself from his “homeboys.”
“[Y]ou have to make a choice now,” a counselor at a community center told him. “Either the craziness or the violence — or here, learning and preparing for a world in which none of this is necessary.”
Four decades later, Rodriguez is running again — as a third-party candidate for governor of California.
While the incumbent Democrat, Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown, is widely expected to be reelected to a second consecutive four-year term, Rodriguez says he is willing to sacrifice the stability of his life as a writer, public speaker and owner of a bookstore and cultural center in the L.A. suburb of Sylmar for the turmoil of politics because he wants to help resolve the polarizing contradictions of California.
“It’s about my love for the state and seeing [the state] being completely undermined,” he told MintPress News during an interview at his Tia Chucha store. The richest state in the Union, he noted, has the highest poverty rate, and the state that is home to the entertainment industry has the lowest funding for the arts.
“I’m looking at all these contradictions,” Rodriguez said.
His progressive campaign manifesto calls for, among other things, imposing a severance tax on oil companies, providing free education and free health care, and overhauling California’s prison system with an emphasis on “real” rehabilitation. The Green Party of California has endorsed his candidacy.
“The Green Party rejects the austerity approach in fashion in Sacramento and Washington,” a party spokesman said in a statement. “Another California and another United States is possible, and our endorsed candidates will carry forth that message in 2014.”
Rodriguez believes he can win enough votes in the June open primary election to out-poll the Republican candidates and then face Gov. Brown in a fall runoff. He has no fear about his unusual background becoming a campaign issue, saying he has already disclosed any “skeletons in my closet” by writing his books. His most recent work, “It Calls You Back,” is the sequel to “Always Running.”
But if Rodriguez is to reach his lofty political goal, he will have to overcome another contradiction — running for statewide office on a shoestring budget.
“I’m not getting any corporate contributions,” he said. “I really want it to be a grassroots thing.”
Overcoming the odds
No third-party or independent candidate has won a statewide office in California for a century — since Gov. Hiram W. Johnson was reelected as a Progressive in 1914. In the last general election, the top third-party candidate for governor, Chelene Nightingale of the American Independent Party, got only 166,308 votes, or 1.7 percent of the turnout, while the Green Party’s Laura Wells came in fifth with 1.2 percent of the vote.
This year, in addition to the heavily-favored Gov. Brown and six Republicans, Rodriguez’s opponents include candidates for the American Independent and Peace and Freedom parties and five independents. In an open primary, voters, irrespective of party registration, choose from all the candidates and the top two vote-getters proceed to the general election.
Brown has already assembled a campaign war chest of nearly $20 million and the leading fundraiser among the GOP candidates, Neal Kashkari, has collected more than $900,000 in contributions. Rodriguez has raised only $15,000 so far, making his claim that he can win two to three million votes in the primary seem far-fetched at best. But he is undaunted.
“I’ve always had a snowball-in-hell chance to do anything,” he said. “I had a snowball-in-hell chance of getting out gangs, I had a snowball-in-hell chance of kicking heroin.”
Rodriguez certainly has overcome the odds in getting this far. His family left Mexico when he was two years old, settling initially in the Watts section of Los Angeles and then in “Las Lomas,” a hillside barrio east of downtown L.A. By age 12, he was running with the local Chicano gang in their forays against their enemies, his gang moniker “Chin” after his prominent facial feature.
Gangs satisfy needs “through collective strength — against the police … against poverty, against idleness, against their impotence in society,” Rodriguez wrote in “Always Running.”
The young Rodriguez survived beatings, stabbings and drive-by shootings. Some of his friends weren’t so lucky — by age 18, he had lost 25 of them. “Once you’re in Las Lomas, you never get out — unless you’re dead,” he wrote. He barely avoided a lengthy prison term in an attempted murder case, in part because community members who admired his literary talents wrote letters of support to the judge.
“Always Running,” which was first published in 1993, got a lot of attention for its graphic depictions of violence, sex and drug use. The American Library Association included it in a list of the 100 most censored books in the U.S. But the controversy over its content obscured to some degree its intent. Rodriguez wrote it as a cautionary tale for his son, who had joined a street gang at age 15, and as something of a political manifesto.
“This work is an argument for the reorganization of American society — not where a few benefit at the expense of the many, but where everyone has access to decent health care, clothing, food and housing, based on need, not whether they can afford them,” he said.
These days, Rodriguez, 59, looks like something of an elder statesman, his ample chin now partly covered by a salt-and-pepper goatee, his forehead lined. Tia Chucha, which sells copies of his 15 books as well as those of other Chicanos, is a visible manifestation of his belief that the arts can help divert young people from “la vida loca.”
“When I was in a gang, it was because of a lack of imagination,” he told MintPress. “I was limited by a world that limited me. When I learned I didn’t have to think that way, I stopped the heroin, the gang violence.”
Poor communities, Rodriguez lamented, are “culturally barren,” noting that Sylmar, a community of 91,000 that is nearly 75 percent Hispanic, does not have a movie theater.
Rodriguez ran for a seat on the board of the Los Angeles Unified School District when he was 22 and, more ambitiously, for vice president of the United States on the Justice Party ticket in 2012. He learned from the national campaign that “this country is not a true democracy” because the two major parties are beholden to corporate interests. Green Party of California activists helped convince him to run for governor.
“This campaign is an imaginal poetic journey,” he said at a recent meeting of the party. “But we also aim to win.”
Under Gov. Brown, California has recovered from the massive budget deficits of recent years and is expected to be running a surplus of about $4.7 billion by the end of June. Rodriguez won’t attack Brown personally — “A lot of my friends like him,” he admitted — but he believes the budget has been balanced “on the backs of the poor,” citing cuts in such welfare programs as CalWORKS.
The governor’s latest budget, Rodriguez argues, doesn’t do nearly enough to restore what was cut.
“I’m running against austerity policies that demand the poor and working class do the belt-tightening,” he wrote in a manifesto titled “Imagine a New California.”
Rodriguez envisions an “integral” California where “a strong economy is needed for a clean and green environment, where a clean and green environment is best for a strong economy, and where social justice is inseparable from both.” To help make that vision a fiscal reality, he supports an oil severance tax in California, the only one of 10 oil-producing states that does not have such a tax.
A bill now pending in the state Legislature would impose a 9.5 percent levy on oil and natural gas extraction, raising perhaps $2 billion a year.
Rodriguez figures that the Republican vote in the primary will be split between the party’s six candidates, leaving him with an opportunity to finish second behind Brown. Some 20 percent of the electorate, he notes, identifies as independent. But no matter how things turn out at the polls, the campaign will be another step on his personal journey.
“I overdosed on heroin, I was homeless, I was in jail when I was 16,” he said at the Tia Chucha store. “Look at me now … Compared to where I came from, I’m a pretty fortunate person. This is all a blessing.”