'The new face of politics'
As the third woman ever elected to Santa Maria's City Council, Hilda Zacarias spreads community spirit, one person at a time
BY AMY ASMAN
Hilda Zacarias enters the Starbucks on Betteravia Road and College Drive in Santa Maria and is immediately greeted with an enthusiasm typically not seen outside of the popular 1980s TV show Cheers. Everyone--employees and coffee drinkers alike--knows her name.
While heading up to the counter to place her order, the Santa Maria City Council member runs into a longtime friend, who offers to spring for a cup of coffee and a chocolate cupcake.
In 2006, Zacarias graduated with a master's degree in public administration from the John. F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. The program focused on teaching community dynamics and organization.
|PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER|
Later, Zacarias says that while she does enjoy some of the perks of being an elected official--such as considerable name recognition or the occasional free cupcake--they're not the reason she decided to run for a City Council seat two years ago.
"I believe in community and neighborhoods," she said. "I try to live my life in a way that my work is connected to my community. It's a nice way to live a life.
"And then I have this great gift the voters of Santa Maria have given me: to serve my community."
On Jan. 28, Zacarias received another gift from the community. The North Santa Barbara County Women's Political Committee awarded her its annual Sadie West award. Named after the first female City Council member in Santa Maria, the award is given to an elected official who exemplifies her values and ideals.
"It was time for Hilda to be recognized by her girls," said Rebecca Carey, president of the North Santa Barbara County Women's Political Committee. "She's really an amazing human being. We're very lucky she's here. It's so important to have someone who truly understands everyone in the community."
Zacarias' passion for community well-being was the cornerstone of her 2006 campaign for City Council, which stressed the slogan "Growing Smart. Growing Strong. Growing Together." Zacarias' political platform focused on providing affordable housing, reducing traffic congestion, improving public safety, and empowering people.
"[Building a strong community] was one of the main goals of my campaign," she said. "I knew even if we lost, we would win because we were able to get so many people involved in their community.
"Winning was a bonus," she added, attributing her success to the support she received from voters and volunteers working on her campaign.
Zacarias was sworn into office during December of 2006, becoming only the third woman elected to the Santa Maria City Council in the last 100 years. Since taking office, she's played an active role on the City Council and in the Santa Maria community, working alongside Mayor Larry Lavagnino and her fellow council members to keep Santa Maria running smoothly.
"I have always found working with her a real pleasure. She's a real team player. I think the city is running very well, and she's a key player in that," Lavagnino said.
Some of the current City Council's biggest accomplishments include securing funds to repair the Santa Maria River levee and improve citywide transportation, approving and overseeing construction of the new Santa Maria Public Library, and providing financial assistance to families facing home foreclosure.
However, Zacarias is most pleased with playing a role in another matter.
"My proudest moment to date as an elected official is having the whole support of City Council on the mobile home park issue," Zacarias said. "I especially appreciated Mayor Lavagnino's leadership."
The "mobile park home issue" involves the City Council's approval in December of a proposal to build the Santa Maria Airport Business Park. According to the proposal, the 740-acre development--which would include industrial and commercial office space and a golf course--would bring close to 6,400 jobs to the Santa Maria area.
At first, Zacarias disapproved of the development because it requires the removal of a 90-unit mobile home park located on airport property. Zacarias questioned whether the project's Environmental Impact Report fully addressed the impacts that construction of the Airport Business Park would have on the mobile home park residents.
With Zacarias' urging, the City Council members unanimously voted to adopt a Memorandum of Understanding between the city and park tenants that would ensure that the residents receive adequate housing once they're relocated. The agreement guarantees three-year leases for the tenants, who have been on month-to-month leases in the past.
"We all know that the Airport Business Park will bring the city lots of jobs and money. Who doesn't want to have more jobs and money?" Zacarias said.
"We all want that for our community, but not on the backs of those families [living in the mobile home park]," she said.
Such challenges don't seem to phase Zacarias. She's used to fighting for--and being--the underdog in Santa Maria.
Born to working-class parents, Zacarias grew up in the northwest section of town. Her family's house was located in the area that's now home to the Evans Park housing development.
She attended local elementary schools and graduated from Santa Maria High School in 1979. She later graduated from Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo with a bachelor's degree in business. After college, she focused on being a single parent to her two children, Gabriel and Sophia, and running her own local accounting and tax firm for 12 years.
In 1993, Zacarias became the youngest person to ever serve on the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District Board of Trustees, a position that she held until 1998.
In 1994, Zacarias became a trustee for the Santa Barbara Community Foundation, and drew on her financial experience to serve as the organization's chief financial officer for one fiscal year.
"I have a strong financial background," she said. "I am a practical idealist. I know that if you can't make something happen financially, it doesn't matter how much you want it to happen."
That same year marked Zacarias' entrance into the political mainstream when she decided to run for an open seat in the California Congress. The 22nd district, which encompassed all of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, was divided into two different districts near the end of the 1990s.
"I ran for Congress in 1994 because I wanted to make sure the candidates talked about issues that were important to me and many other local voters, like welfare reform and immigration," Zacarias said.
"I knew I had no chance of winning, but I was actually surprised by how well I did," she added.
While campaigning for the Congressional seat, she met and formed a professional relationship with fellow candidate Walter Capps.
Although Zacarias and Capps ended up losing to Republican Andrea Seastrand, the two did make an informal agreement to work together in the future.
When Capps beat out Seastrand for the same seat in 1996, he didn't forget the agreement.
"When Walter won the congressional seat, he called me and said, 'Okay Hilda, let's do this,'" Zacarias said.
"And I told him, 'Walter, it's tax season! I can't leave now,'" she recalled.
After finishing up the season at her accounting firm, Zacarias went to work as Capps' Santa Maria district representative. The position, she said, allowed her to "get paid to do important social work."
As the Santa Maria district representative, Zacarias acted as a middle person between Capps and his constituents. She also helped disperse Congressional funds to the community.
"That's when I first saw what a difference an elected official could make in peoples' lives," she said.
Zacarias also seemed to make a similarly strong impact on Capps and his fellow state officials.
"Walter and Hilda had a great relationship. They started out as opponents, but they just couldn't be mad at each other," said U.S. Rep. Lois Capps, who won her husband's seat in Congress following his untimely death in 1997.
"Hilda caught the eyes of many people back then as a leader in the making," Capps said.
After Walter Capps' death, Zacarias returned to her accounting and tax firm, but continued her involvement with numerous community organizations.
She served as a board member of the Santa Maria Valley Boys and Girls Club, and the Santa Maria Campfire Boys and Girls.
She was a founding board member and co-chair of the National Conference for Communities and Justice from 2002 to 2005. She was also a founding member and regional director of the Northern Santa Barbara County branch of Future Leaders of America, an organization promoting Latino youth, from 1994 to 2004.
"Nonprofit work is the best kind of people doing the hardest kind of work with the least amount of resources," she said.
In 2005, Zacarias watched as her son, Gabriel, left to attend Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. His academic success, Zacarias said, inspired her to further her own education.
"I wanted to have something else to do besides mourn my empty nest," she said.
As a result, Zacarias applied for and was accepted, with a full academic scholarship, into a year-long program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, where she received a master's degree in public administration.
As one of the program's only two American Latina women, Zacarias learned about community dynamics, organization, and development. Alongside students from nearly 60 different countries, Zacarias worked to organize and develop communities across the world.
"It's one of those programs where you're there with all these brilliant people and you think to yourself, 'What am I doing here?'" she said.
During her time at Harvard, Zacarias was also given the opportunity to partake in an internship that transported her halfway around the world to Istanbul, Turkey. There, she and her fellow classmates helped train representatives from eight fractioning countries on how to create peace.
Upon graduating from Harvard, Zacarias was offered her "dream job" working with the Industrial Areas Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps poor communities organize and improve themselves.
"Then I had a decision to make," Zacarias said. "Did I take the job, or did I take my degree and go back to Santa Maria?"
She chose to return to her roots.
"It was a really hard decision to make," Zacarias said, but added the final deciding factor was that she really wanted to give back to her community.
All of these experiences--or "blessings," as Zacarias calls them--gave her an advantage when running for City Council. They continue to serve her well while in office.
"The best thing I can bring to City Council is my ability to ask a different set of questions. I have a different perspective [than most politicians]," she said. "I grew up very poor. I know what it is to be a single mom, and I know what it's like to be frustrated with policy."
Still, Zacarias said that it's important that she connect with all of her constituents, not just the ones with whom she shares a similar background.
"The development of others has always been very important to me," she said. "I represent everyone in this community, not just one particular constituency."
Zacarias also said that she plans to continue implementing this view of equality into Santa Maria's community dynamics, much as she did during her time at Harvard.
"We need to stop having these fractions based mainly on race or language," she said. "I want people to realize that we don't live alone. We all affect each other, whether we mean to or not."
One way Zacarias hopes to bring the people of Santa Maria together is through the city's proposed Downtown Specific Plan. The plan calls for a wide-scale revamping of downtown Santa Maria over the next few years. The development would divide the downtown area into several distinct districts, each with an established atmosphere and commercial specialty.
Zacarias said that the Downtown Specific Plan, which has been in the works for the last decade, should make it onto the City Council's agenda again in July.
"I'm really excited about the Downtown Specific Plan," she said. "We want to create a space for people to gather, where they can listen to music, go shopping, eat, and talk."
But whether she's working on plans to improve the downtown area or volunteering at a local nonprofit, one thing is certain--Zacarias wants to make sure everyone in Santa Maria has a voice.
"The art of governance is being able to manage competing ideas," she said.
"Some people think because they're elected officials that they have all the wisdom, but I don't think that's true. I will listen to other people, whether I'm voting on City Council or working in the community," she said.
Like when she first entered the political scene, Zacarias' forward-thinking views continue to interest and impress many of her fellow public officials.
"Hilda is the new face of politics on the Central Coast," U.S. Rep. Lois Capps said. "She's just a dynamo. She's very effective. I think her being elected was a wonderful step forward for Santa Maria."
Contact Staff Writer Amy Asman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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