(Editor’s Note: The questions and answers have been paraphrased for brevity and clarity)
Jacqui Irwin was first elected to the Assembly in 2014 after serving 10 years on the Thousand Oaks City Council, including two stints as mayor. She was the first Democrat elected in Thousand Oaks in many years, and replaced Republican Jeff Gorell in the Assembly, as he ran for Congress instead of seeking reelection.
Where did you grow up and were there any defining moments in your youth?
I was born in the San Fernando Valley to Dutch immigrants. We actually moved back to Holland for several years when I was very young, but then we returned to the San Fernando Valley and we lived in Woodland Hills, which is where I was raised.
I wouldn’t necessarily say it pointed me into the political arena, but I was a swimmer when I was growing up and when I went to Taft High School, they only had a boys swim team. In 10th grade, I had to compete against boys. As you get older that becomes much more difficult, so every day I would go to the principal’s office and tell him we needed a girls swim team. First he said we didn’t have the money. He eventually gave in and established a girls team. We ended up being very successful and came in second in the Los Angeles City Finals. And in fact, the relay team I was on won the championship.
I have to say that opened my eyes to how important it is to fight for women’s rights. It made me realize how important Title IX was for women (federal regulation requiring schools to treat girls equally with regard to sports teams.) It was a game changer. A very high percentage of women CEOs in corporate America competed in sports in high school or college.
Did you continue to compete when you entered college?
Yes I did. I went to UC San Diego where I swam for four years, did two years of rowing and two years of water polo. I graduated in five years and there was not a semester when I wasn’t involved in sports.
What was your major in college and tell me about your early work history?
My dad was an engineer with a very inspirational story. He came to California from Holland and worked his way up the ladder in the aerospace industry with no bachelor’s or master’s degree. He always talked about the importance of getting a technical degree, which would allow you to do anything you wanted in the future.
I majored in systems engineering and worked in engineering for a number of years. I first worked in Maryland at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab. Then I worked at Teledyne Systems until I quit to raise our three children.
How did you get involved in politics?
I am someone that also has to be involved in something. When I was home with the kids I started an after-school enrichment program. Eventually my boys got involved in football and I became the president of the youth football league. I didn’t know the rules of football…and still don’t…but I love what sports do for kids.
As my kids got older, I noticed that the high school football field (in Thousand Oaks) was not in good shape and was actually dangerous to play on. I started working with others on this project and eventually we brought together all three schools and a huge group of parents and kids and went to the city council with a proposal to build brand new sports facilities. The city partnered with the school district and we got it done.
At the time I was not thinking about a career in politics, but some people urged me to run for city council. I did so and served for 10 years from 2004 to 2014. When Jeff Gorell decided not to seek reelection, I was urged to run for the Assembly and I did. It seemed like a good fit for me.
Was it a difficult decision?
When I was on the City Council, I never really thought about running for the Assembly. It is very different. When you are on the city council, it is non-partisan and you are just concerned about getting things done locally. When you are in the Assembly, people make automatic assumptions about you because of your party affiliation. That’s very different.
I am a problem solver and I have no problem working across the aisle. In Thousand Oaks, I was the first Democrat elected in 25 years. My Assembly District might be the most balanced district in the state.
Did you come to the Assembly with an agenda?
I had three main things on my agenda. First was education. I think education should be the top priority in the state. We need to spend sufficient funds for K-12 education as well as for the Cal State Universities and the UC system, which is the finest system in the entire country. We have income inequality in California which affects education. We need to make education our top priority.
The second thing was the budget issue and the third was creating more jobs in the state. Some businesses are moving out of California and we need to figure out what we can do to change that.
Agriculture is a big part of your district. Were you well versed on the subject before taking office?
I eat. Thousand Oaks has no agriculture so I was not involved in that community when I was on the city council. Although we do have Underwood Farms in our area and every kid takes that trip while in school.
But now that I am in the Assembly and represent Oxnard, I certainly see the value agriculture has for the state and our county. I do represent agriculture in the State Legislature. I think if you surveyed the people in my district they would tell you that agriculture is very important for Ventura County.
We do have a fairly unique situation as we have quite a bit of farmland and also a very urban district. I know that can create conflicts. When I see a field running up to the boundaries of a school, I know we are going to end up with some conflicts. We need to create buffer zones between the urban areas and the fields.
But I think agriculture in Ventura County is very progressive especially in areas of sustainability and water conservation. We have farms such as Houweling’s Tomatoes that has a tremendous solar installation. And Gills Onions is cutting edge when it comes to using waste to produce energy. We have a company called Agromin that is doing some very innovative things with soil and CoolTerra has some byproducts that allow for very efficient use of water.
When talking to the agricultural community in your district, what do they tell you is their biggest issue?
The biggest issue right now has to be water. I do have an ag advisory committee and we have talked about potential solutions. We put together a group and are currently talking about using the water purification plant to deliver waste water to farmers. The problem was there was no infrastructure in place. Someone came up with the idea of using the “brine line” to deliver this treated water to farmers and we are trying to put that together. I talked to the state water control board and I think by November we are going to have the first water deliveries.
What is in your political future?
I am not looking beyond my next election. I believe that increased term limits have given us a great opportunity to serve and get things done. Under the old term limits, the average term in the Assembly was three and a half years. Now Assembly members can serve for 12 years. Instead of just pushing a lot of bills, that allows the Legislature to be more thoughtful and fill the oversight role of government that we are meant to fill. In the long run, I think this will be better for California. I am very excited about what we can accomplish.
Our members and many of your constituents produce some of the best fruits, vegetables and nuts in the world. Do you consume our products and do you have a favorite?
I have to say that the strawberries out of Oxnard are the best in the world. I love strawberries from our roadside stands and farmers markets. And you can’t beat Ventura County avocados. They are the best.