Editor’s Note: Both the questions and answers have been paraphrased for brevity and clarity.
Sen. Ben Hueso was elected to the California state Senate in 2012 to represent California’s 40th District which includes the cities of Chula Vista, National City, Imperial Beach, Coronado, a portion of the City of San Diego, Imperial County and the southern part of Riverside.
Where were you raised and where did you go to school?
I was raised in San Diego where I attended Logan Heights Elementary School and later attended Point Loma High School.
How did you decide to run for office?
I was strongly influenced by both of my parents, not necessarily to run for office, but to serve my community. They were role models for me and taught me a lot about community service. My father was a social worker in an underserved community and my mother provided quasi-health care services to the underserved. Even though we grew up very poor, I saw how they helped people in the community and it showed me that you don’t need a lot of resources to help people.
Having learned from my parents about community service, I created a boy scout troop where I was a scoutmaster. I also was a choirmaster for a children’s choir in my church and I started a community development corporation in my neighborhood to do neighborhood revitalization as well as a business association to advocate for disadvantaged businesses in underserved areas. I then went to work for the City of San Diego Community and Economic Development Department doing neighborhood revitalization and business expansion and retention. And that experience was the precursor for me running for San Diego City Council.
You recently had your one year anniversary of being in the Senate. Congratulations! What have you found to be the biggest challenges so far? What have been the most rewarding experience?
One challenge is our state’s diversity. Each community can be very different from each other and have different needs. Communities elect individuals to represent them and their needs and that puts people at odds with each other. Solving problems requires that we work together which can be very difficult at times.
With regard to rewarding experiences, as a rookie I was amazed to be thrown into a very big leadership role providing prison reform; a new education funding formula; and helping to create a new robust economic development program for our state. Last year was exciting and I hope to build on that.
When you are not wearing your legislator’s hat, what do you like to do in your spare time?
I love to fish, kayak, camp, ride horses, and play piano and guitar. I also like to cook a lot. I have had no formal cooking training, but having been raised in a family of nine people — all who enjoyed food and eating — my training came from the school of hard knocks.
Another passion of mine is music. I am a music lover and have been blessed with a diverse interest in all kinds of music. I like all music styles and if I like a song, in particular, I will learn how to sing and play it. Picking a favorite type of music or song to sing or play would be like picking a favorite child among many — it’s hard to do.
Water is one of the hottest topics in the state right now. You currently sit on the Natural Resources and Water Committee. What legislation is the committee considering now that would help farmers who are struggling through this drought?
I think the biggest piece of legislation this year for farmers or anyone else — because it covers all professions, issues and constituencies — is water. The water bond will be the biggest thing we do this year with regard to keeping our state a viable place to live, recreate and do business. There are a number of various bond measures being proposed. I am the author of one of them. We think we have a good bond that is very representative of California interests. But if my bond doesn’t prevail, I believe a lot of what is in it will be in the end product. I felt the need to introduce it simply to insure that we have a water bond that addresses everyone’s issues.
Being from San Diego puts me in a unique position to be objective because the district itself is its own unique environment. I have a district that has two rural counties — Riverside and Imperial — and I also have very urban areas like Chula Vista, National City and San Diego in the western part of my district. So I think I can be very representative of big cities and rural areas. That’s why I think our views on water will be California’s views on water.
In the end, I will be a part of the debate and I plan on being a leader on the issue. I believe that whatever bond is put forth, it will be something that represents all interests in California. We need to find the best bond measure to put on the ballot, not the most politically expedient one — one that addresses our issues, solves our problems and gets California working again.
Prior to your legislative career, you served on the California Coastal Commission. How has that experience helped you in dealing with issues in the Legislature?
The California Coastal Commission was a very enriching experience. Not only did it allow me to become intimately familiar with the state on a larger scale, but it also made me familiar with one of the world’s most beautiful coastlines. The California coastline is unmatched. The commission is a venue where diverse interests collide with tremendous and thunderous opposition. Solving problems at that level, under an environment of enormous stress and conflict, definitely makes it a place to learn how to bring people together to help solve problems in our state. It’s very enriching. I need to reiterate what a great experience that was for me.
Besides the regular committees you sit on, you also are a member of the Latino Legislative Caucus which is obviously important to Western Growers and our members. Can you tell us how you would like to see the Caucus interact with agriculture and what you think that relationship means for the future?
When I meet other Latinos, they are very much like my family — people like my parents who came as immigrants from rural parts of Mexico. You will find immigrants from big cities, but the majority of them come from rural parts trying to escape poverty. But people like my dad worked in agriculture. His father worked in agriculture. And in my experience in particular, my dad brought agriculture to the city. We lived on a 7000 square-foot parcel, but he found a way to plant everything he knew of. Every plant, every tree was concentrated on our parcel. So we learned about agriculture growing up. We had a hands-on involvement in growing things in my backyard in a way that most people can’t comprehend. That’s the environment in which we were raised. So I think I can say it’s in our culture, it’s in our blood and I think I can say that a lot immigrants wind up in agriculture because they end up being very skilled labor in that area. It’s what they know and where they tend to prosper. Latinos bring with them a very thorough understanding of rural lifestyles and agriculture economy. My parents didn’t have a lot of money, but they gave me such a healthy upbringing. Throughout the year we were picking fresh produce from our backyard. Everything was fresh and we grew on our own property. There’s nothing better than that and I think we need to do more so our kids are raised in that type of environment as much as possible. The people who are privileged enough to live in that environment — those who are raised with fresh food around them — it’s just a great lifestyle.
What do you consider the highlight of your legislative career thus far? What would you still like to accomplish?
We have many highlights and all of them are important. I don’t like to say one thing is more important than another. I see myself as a problem solver. We’ve had a lot of success doing that. I believe my ability to obtain leadership positions, whether it was at the council, Assembly or Senate — has allowed me to better solve problems for my community. But also, I think that the biggest accomplishment is the staff I have been able to put together. I have a highly-qualified staff that works extremely well together and they are really good at solving constituent concerns. We have a high rate of solving people’s problems in the district and I think that is what we are there to do. You don’t change things by winning an election. You have to work hard and focus and find ways to work with your colleagues and support the right policies and to do that, I really rely on my staff and they have been the reason for my success and pushing forward a great agenda. The only credit I deserve is that I picked my staff, but other than that, they have been really instrumental in making things happen.
Do you have any mentors you look up to in California politics?
I have a lot of people I look up to, but I always have to talk about my dad. The reason I am here is mainly because of my father. He wasn’t a politician, but he was a community leader and he always found time to help those in need and I always saw that in him. It inspired me to want to help my community. He always found a way to step up and find practical solutions to what were insurmountable problems for people. In a county like ours with such abundance and wealth, it’s easy to forget that biggest solutions are often the simplest ones. He was the kind of person who would roll up his sleeves and do the job if no one else was willing to do it. He was a hands-on, practical type of guy and he was very humble about taking credit for his work. I also learned from him not to rely on anyone else to make things happen. When you can rely on someone, that’s great, but when you can’t, you just have to go out there and do it yourself. It’s going on 20 years now that he passed away, but I think about him often and his life lessons, especially since we grew up in a really tough environment, and it serves me well — even today.
What do you feel are the biggest issues facing California farmers in the near future and in the long-term and are there any practical ways to fix the biggest problems out there?
I do think there are practical ways to fix problems and we’ve been talking about those. A lot of our problems don’t require a “government-only” solution. They require using market forces and working in combination with state and local government. Solving problems requires bringing people together and getting people to be part of the solution. And that requires leadership. We are working at providing that leadership here.
As we talked about earlier, you represent an interesting district. Some of it is urban San Diego, but much of the district is in the Imperial Valley and in Riverside and is obviously agriculture orientated. Although Imperial Valley agriculture hasn’t experienced the extreme water shortage issues like those farmers in the San Joaquin Valley, they have had to fallow thousands of acres due a loss of over a million acre feet to San Diego from to the Quantitative Settlement Agreement (QSA). Do you think the QSA has worked well, and do you think there will need to be another such “settlement” in the future as San Diego’s water needs grow?
Well it depends. QSA appears to work very well for California and Mexico. And as far as the diverse interests of California and Mexico go, they were put in as a priority in the QSA. It doesn’t appear to work very well for Imperial County, and if it leads to the drying up of the Salton Sea, then it becomes a problem for all of California, Mexico and Arizona. All the parties that were supportive of the QSA are going to be affected if the Salton Sea dries up because it’s going to affect all of our environments. Also, if it does dry up, then we are going to have dust storms that will take us back to the Dust Bowl days. That will kill one of state’s most precious agriculture industries in Imperial and Riverside Counties. Our state cannot afford that.
But the problem is that it was not made a priority in the QSA. It’s just one of those things that continue to get kicked down the road. And the onus is on the current Legislature to find a solution. And we have to do that around the QSA, and around all the parties to the QSA, and all the fractured agencies that will look out for their interests and not look for a regional solution. So it’s very difficult and the QSA is going to make it more difficult now. But that’s something I am working on and we can’t throw our hands up in disgust and walk away from the problem. We have to take it on and do our best to come up with the best solution. We can’t afford to fail on this issue.
Our members produce the finest fruits and vegetables in the world. Are you a consumer of our products? Do you have some favorites?
Absolutely. For one, when I cook, I do so using mostly California ingredients. It’s something I like to boast about even when I compete in payaya competitions in Mexico. I do have to call out some of the crops that are emblematic of our state and in particular, those I enjoy the most. It’s a long list: grapes, almonds, mandarins, dates, artichokes, blueberries, avocados from San Diego and peaches. I also want to throw in apple pie and carrot cake — had to throw both a fruit and vegetable in there.
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