Lena Gonzalez has had a most unusual welcome to the California state Senate.
Gonzalez jumped from representing the First District on the Long Beach City Council to a state Senate seat in 2019, after Ricardo Lara won election as the state Insurance Commissioner. With support from Lara and her former boss Mayor Robert Garcia (when he was First District councilman), she easily defeated Jack Guerrero, 70%-30%, in the June 4, 2019, special election.
She took office on June 12, just as the state legislature finished up the 2020-21 budget. She returned to Sacramento for the fall session.
"I didn't introduce any legislation that first year," Gonzalez said. "I was appointed to the (Senate) Judiciary Committee and (joint) Legislative Audit Committee, so I saw almost every bill that was trying to get passed.
"When we came back in January, I originally had 10 bills," she added. "I ended up with two — SB 1255, the HIV Equal Protection Act regarding insurance protection, which is on the governor's desk now, and a Broadband for All bill. Unfortunately, that one didn't make it this time."
Gonzalez and the rest of the legislature laid the groundwork for the 2020 session, then went home for the Easter or spring recess. And the coronavirus pandemic hit, with Gov. Gavin Newsom issuing the first Stay at Home order on March 16.
"We all wanted to have input, even if we were not in session," Gonzalez said. "I think the governor has been pretty good about asking questions and keeping lines of communication open."
Gonzalez had need of using those lines often — she was appointed chair of the Special Committee on Pandemic Emergency Response in May. She has been conducting oversight hearings, and calls the job her biggest responsibility yet.
In addition to her statewide responsibilities on the pandemic committee, Gonzalez and her staff have responsibilities to the District 33 residents. The district starts at the ocean and runs through central and west Long Beach, continuing north to and including Huntington Park. The district population is more than two-thirds Hispanic and primarily working class and historic neighborhoods, with plenty of heavy industry. The Port of Long Beach is included, and Gonzalez is chair of the Senate Select Committee on Ports & Goods Movement.
"I never thought I'd be seeing my constituents through Zoom," Gonzalez said. "A lot of small business owners want to meet; we have to do it online. We also do a lot through email. My staff is doing a great job.
"Unemployment in particular had a really rough start," she said. "The system is just antiquated… There are just constant meetings. I thought it was bureaucratic in Long Beach — in Sacramento, it's hard to just know who to go to to get anything done."
Gonzalez said she did not feel overwhelmed dealing with statewide issues thanks to her experience in Long Beach.
"Long Beach is a big city, and we deal with big issues," she said. "I still love policy talk, policy decisions. But I'm a local government person at the end of the day. I care about people."
Gonzalez is on the Nov. 3 general election ballot, running for her first full 4-year term. Her opponent is another Democrat, Elizabeth Castillo, who had 205 votes in the primary election as a write-in candidate.
Gonzalez said she expects the coronavirus pandemic (hopefully with a vaccine) and wildfire response to dominate debate when the state legislature reconvenes in January. One of her top priorities, she said, is another push for broadband internet access for all.
"Another big issue we have to tackle is the housing situation," she said. "We need to work with our renters, but our property owners are going to need some help too. If we want a real solution, it has to be the whole economy; the renters, the landlords, the banks. We have to hope for some help from the feds."