The Reluctant Politician: Ada Recinos’ journey to becoming the youngest city councilmember in Richmond’s history

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Ada Recinos steps up to the podium to restrained cheers from a small contingent of friends and supporters. She stretches, leans into the microphone, then addresses the Richmond City Council. “Tonight, I am here to share the reasons why I am the best appointment for this seat,” she begins.

Recinos is one of 13 people on this night to present their case for appointment to the council’s only vacant seat. Standing just over 5 feet tall, Recinos is hard to spot from the opposite side of the chamber. But she speaks with a confidence that immediately draws the capacity crowd’s attention.

She finishes her prepared speech without a hitch. But as she fields questions from the council, she starts to sway and lose track of her thoughts.

“I’m sorry, I’m getting a little woozy,” Recinos says, placing a hand on her chest and taking a deep breath.

A member of the crowd calls out, telling Recinos to bend her knees.

“Yeah, that’s what I was doing,” she says, then sighs. “Can you repeat your question, I got really nervous.”

Recinos has plenty of reasons to be anxious. At 26 years old, she would be the youngest councilmember in Richmond’s history, a feat many have told her won’t happen. She also feels the weight of her campaign promise that, as a Spanish speaker, she can connect the council to the city’s large Latino population. She dreads the feeling of letting her community down.    

She answers the last few questions and walks to the back of the chamber. At this moment, she collapses on a bench and catches her breath, surrounded by concerned friends. She’s an introvert, the kind of person who typically loathes being in the public eye.

She’s a long shot to receive the final vote for a seat that seems destined to go to Marilyn Langlois, a known figure in Richmond politics. The crowd waits to hear Langlois’ name called, but councilmember Jael Myrick has other plans. He nominates Recinos for the seat, and before the crowd can even grasp what is happening, she receives a unanimous vote.

A few people in the chamber start to clap — or let out gasps: Recinos wins.

A Heavy Burden

Recinos knew she would face criticism if appointed. Richmond is a city of more than 100,000 people, everyone trying to move forward from its industrial roots and high crime rate. Governing here is no simple task.

As a candidate, she says she looked at the city’s issues in a straightforward manner. That changed quickly after the vote.

“I started to realize how important the historical context is, and I did start to feel vulnerable about my age,” she admitted. “You know, I have only been out of college for a few years. So, a little bit of the doubt set in. Like, ‘Can I actually do this, do I have the skills to be able to do this?’”

A small but passionate group of regulars at city council meetings has made sure to voice its concerns about Recinos’ knowledge of local history and policy. But while the issue of her age is a challenge, Recinos faces a task she feels is far more daunting: representing Richmond’s large Latino community.

Richmond’s population is almost 40 percent Hispanic or Latino, according to the 2010 census, trailing only Hayward and Stockton among Bay Area cities. The city also has a non-citizen population around 20 percent, along with the looming specter of the West County Detention Center, where ICE holds undocumented immigrants.

Recinos is the daughter of Salvadoran immigrants who came to California as refugees of that country’s civil war. She is now one of three Latinos on the council, but the only one who speaks Spanish. She ran on the promise of being able to connect the council to her community, but the weight of this task takes its toll.

“We’re humans and there is no perfection,” she said.

“When you are put up on this pedestal, making a mistake does reflect on your community.”

The Reluctant Politician

It’s a Saturday morning, and a group of church members, students and volunteers gather outside of Andy’s Donut Shop on 23rd Street. Recinos is speaking with the organizer of today’s street-cleanup event.

As the group spreads out around the block, she grabs a roll of trash bags and hands them out. She is quiet by nature, but eagerly chats with the other volunteers in Spanish. This is where she feels most comfortable.

Recinos has spent much of her life volunteering, and it’s not unusual for her to have two or three events scheduled on any given day. Today’s next event, however, is the kind of thing she’s still getting used to.

She drives the short distance to Richmond’s civic center and walks through doors plastered with campaign fliers. Inside, there’s an energetic group of about 15 people wearing matching blue shirts. They are gathered to campaign for councilmember Jovanka Beckles, a Richmond Progressive Alliance member who is running for state Assembly.

“We have some electeds in the house,” a campaign organizer announces as the meeting gets underway.

Recinos is herself a member of the RPA and knows most of the people in the room. But she says she still feels uncomfortable when introduced as an elected official. After speaking briefly, she sneaks to the side to sit with another councilmember.

She is not used to the idea of being a local celebrity, and is not sure she ever will be. “People keep telling me that it’s time for me to put my politician hat on, but I don’t know what that looks like,” she says.

“I don’t know any politicians.”

Raised in Hawthorne, a city in southwestern Los Angeles with a population more than 50 percent Latino, Recinos never thought about a career in politics growing up.

“First of all, high school Ada thought she was going to marry her high school sweetheart at 18,” she said. “So, high school Ada wasn’t even trying to go to college.”

A shy, bookish kid who seemed to come alive when she was dancing, Recinos was given the space to explore herself, but was always brought down to earth by the struggles of life. Her parents worked hard to make ends meet, but still couldn’t prevent the family from being evicted twice.

“It was definitely a balance between, ‘There’s all these opportunities for you to take on, but the reality of my home,’” she said. “And, at the end of the day, what was almost more important was being able to survive with a little speck of happiness.”

Her mother, who comes from a small town in El Salvador and had Recinos when she was 20, convinced her daughter to not get married and pursue something that would make her happy.

Recinos enrolled in community college as a dance major and started working a retail job. She fully expected to make a career out of climbing up the retail ladder.

Then, her father lost his job, so he started taking classes to become a truck driver. Recinos asked to be transferred to a store closer to home, so she could pick up her younger brother from school. Her manager initially approved the request, but it was later denied because Recinos didn’t get it in writing.

“You know, I’m this broken-hearted 20-year-old and I’m like, ‘You promised me, how could you go back on your promise,’” she said. “At that moment, I knew that it just wasn’t going to happen for me.”

She re-focused on school and transferred to UC Santa Cruz. There, she met her partner, Juan Carlos Sanchez, and the two moved to Oakland after college to work at nonprofits. She continues to work as the financial stability director for Prospera, which helps low-income Latina immigrants establish co-op businesses.

Recinos spent a short time in Washington, D.C., as a congressional fellow, and afterward they left Oakland for Richmond.

Sanchez says it took little time for Recinos to start working with the Richmond community. Within a few weeks, she was on the city’s Human Rights and Human Relations commission, eventually becoming its interim chairwoman.

Reminiscing about their time in Santa Cruz, Sanchez is not surprised that Recinos is in the position she is now.

“She always tries to figure out what’s going on, wherever she is,” Sanchez said. “In Santa Cruz, she was always doing community work, volunteering with the SPCA and doing work with the homeless community garden.”

Sanchez was the first person Recinos told when she had made up her mind to run for office. He knew from the beginning that her age would be scrutinized, but believes her life experiences make up for any lack of policy knowledge.

“She knows what it’s like to wait on weekend outings in order to go on a Wednesday or Tuesday night to get the dollar unlimited bowling, that dollar hot dog, dollar nachos, because her dad had lost his job,” Sanchez said. “We may be young, but we know right from wrong, we know that struggle, we know what our people need.”

As for the task of representing an entire community, Sanchez thinks back on a piece of advice his father gave to Recinos:

In politics, someone will always be upset, but if your heart is set on helping other people, do you.

Recinos knows that, regardless of her background, the only thing that’ll quiet her doubters is her ability to create policy. She already has a few items in mind: supporting the Richmond Main Street Initiative, helping formerly incarcerated people become marijuana entrepreneurs, and looking for the ways to bridge the gap between the black and Latino communities.  

“I think that more than anything I want people to think, she took it personally or she had a lot of feelings about that, but she still did the best that she could do. She was effective.”

Coming Into Her Own

Recinos takes her seat at the council dais, puts on a pair of reading glasses and looks out across the chamber. On this night, like most, she is the quietest councilmember, peppering questions sparingly.

For the moment, her goal is to just absorb everything. Throughout the meeting, she listens intently and jots down notes. Recinos knows that if she’s going to defend her seat in the city-wide election next year, she’ll have to get up to speed quick.

She says she thinks about the idea of making politics a career. The question is, how long that career will last.

“I don’t see myself doing it for an infinite amount of time,” she says. “If I were to do it, I would say ‘between this and this year I want to have accomplished this type of legislation, this type of policy, this type of change.’”

Recinos still hears the people who question her ability, but the doubt she had in herself has passed.

She is more worried about the goals she’s set out for herself, and not what people think of her.

“I want to be effective,” Recinos said. “I want people to say, ‘We disagreed about a bunch of things, but she was effective in accomplishing good.’

“Even if people hate my guts.”

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