If keeping her community swimming pool open meant that third-grade Imelda Padilla would have to become a politician, she would have readily accepted the challenge.
When Padilla was eight years old, a local city council member invited Padilla and her classmates to take pictures at the town’s pool reopening after it had been closed for years. Standing with her classmates posing for the photo-op, she realized that the government not just existed but affected real life — someone had to be in charge for things to run. There, the initial seeds of her interest in politics were sown.
Padilla is one of six candidates on the special election ballot in Los Angeles City Council District 6. As a lifelong resident of the Valley, Padilla hopes to bring her skills from years of experience at nonprofit organizations, county projects and lessons from her own life into the job. Six months ago, she had no plans to launch a campaign soon. Still, despite telling herself to stop caring, whenever she drove around the community, she could not help but notice things she wanted to make better.
“Somewhere in my heart, I’ve always had a knack for wanting to improve our community … I have been in the trenches of getting our community connected with the halls of power,” Padilla said to her supporters at her March 4th campaign rally. “I have worked as hard as I possibly could make sure our stories, our experiences, are considered valid so people at City Hall know what should be permitted in the rules that make up and impact our lives.”
The upcoming election on April 4th was spurred by former City Council President Nury Martinez’s leaked audio tape, where outrage from across Los Angeles County led to her resignation.
With trust levels for politicians sinking across the county over the last few years, District 6 is wary of another Martinez. Padilla, in particular, has come under scrutiny for her ties to Martinez, with some tweets on @LACandidates comparing her to Nury, even calling her “Nury clone 2.0.” Padilla has previously worked under her at Pacoima the Beautiful, where Martinez allowed 22-year-old Padilla to be a community organizer, one of Padilla’s favorite past jobs.
Despite their past, Padilla was angry and disappointed when the audio was released.
“It was a lot of people on there that a lot of people in my circles looked up to, so it hit me like a ton of bricks,” Padilla said. “We’re going to have to mourn this out — [the community is] allowed to be sad and mad and upset.”
Padilla has always kept the community in mind.
The seeds of political interest continued to take root as a young Padilla became more involved in community activism. Padilla, who had rickets, a childhood vitamin D deficiency that can cause bone deformities, struggled with being picked on when her condition was most visible. It was “normal” for people to stare at her at family parties or even in Mexico. Though she credits her experience with making her tough, she created a safe environment when she got to elementary school, where she made a base of very close friends and fell in love with the school and the idea of community.
“[They are the kind of friends] that were like, ‘if you’re going to pick on our friend, you’re going to pick on us,” Padilla said. “That’s why I always loved school — I always had that close-knit sense of community.”
Embracing her love for her community, Padilla followed in the footsteps of her older sisters, Carmen Pilar Padilla and Veronica Padilla, who “gravitated toward community service.” They worked on a private-public partnership project called Clean & Green, which aims to provide community beautification services across the city. When Padilla reached the ninth grade, her sisters introduced her to the L.A. City Youth Council, where youth from across the city can observe and work with local civic and elected leaders. It was there that Padilla was able not only to learn how the city functions but also how the city prioritizes different projects and how the city collects funds. Padilla credits learning all these things from a young age inspired her to study political science. She graduated from UC Berkeley and then went to Cal State Northridge for her master’s degree in public administration.
In high school in Sun Valley, Padilla traveled with classmates, her teacher, Dr. Ron Lehavi, and classmates to Europe. Lehavi, who also taught her a few college courses, recalls how her leadership skills were evident back then. “Always the organizer,” he says, remembering Padilla helping students try new foods and experiences and always being open-minded no matter the circumstance.
After Padilla left school, Lehavi continued collaborating with her on various projects, from establishing Padilla as a founder of Pacoima the Beautiful. This organization focused on community clean-ups and tree-planting events to help Padilla with her unsuccessful LAUSD school board campaign bid in 2017; the pair have worked on various local programs and campaigns over the last 20 years.
Working with her was wonderful, Lehavi said, as he felt like she saw activism as a situation where everyone can win. Instead of excluding voices, she looks at the community as a whole, always trying to add more people and stakeholders rather than “battling and attacking them.”
“Unlike some of the previous people who worked here who saw [the Valley] as a battleground, she sees things as a meeting ground,” Lehavi said.
From founding her nonprofit organization, Together We Do More, which helps middle and high school students consider higher education and professional development, to working on L.A. County Commission on Women and Girls, Padilla learned two important skills she hopes to bring to the office: coalition building and being outcome driven.
“Not only do I like to build the coalitions, but I like to make sure that everybody feels like what they’re creating is sustainable,” Padilla said. “Everything that I do, I’m always thinking six months ahead, three years ahead, seven to 10 years ahead … I want to be intergenerational — consistently be thinking about the future while respecting the past and finding that balance. Plan it out, build the coalitions and make those outcomes come through.”
According to the L.A. City Census, District 6 is a majority Hispanic district also made up of about 10% Asian people, 18% Non-Hispanic white people and 3.2% Non-Hispanic Black people. About 22% live in poverty, and around 35% have not graduated high school.
Padilla’s campaign has already brought together endorsements from District 6, the Valley and greater Los Angeles. From local labor unions in the Valley and community leaders to notable politicians like Congressman Tony Cardenas, Padilla has support from many corners of Los Angeles. As of March 18th, Padilla’s campaign had over $90,000 in campaign contributions and over $150,000 in matching funds from the city.
At her March 4th campaign rally, over 150 people supported her, from Labor 300 members to Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez. The rally was bursting with energy; despite chairs lined around the room’s perimeter, everyone was on their feet, cheering and clapping. Even before the rally began, Padilla welcomed everyone with a handshake or a hug, speaking English and Spanish as necessary. Along with decadent pastries, coffee and other beverages, the walls were lined with campaign posters and a District 6 map showing volunteers exactly where they should go to talk to voters.
Roger Ortiz, a Lake Balboa resident and volunteer with Padilla’s campaign, said it was heartbreaking when Martinez’s tape came out. Despite previous disappointments, he believes that Padilla is running for the right reasons. He knows her as someone whose passion for the community and activism has never been for a title.
Other volunteers and friends at the rally, including Councilwoman Rodriguez, echoed similar sentiments, describing Padilla as a “fighter,” as Rodriguez yelled out to the crowd, “For the love of the valley, for the love of the city of Los Angeles, we need to elect Imelda Padilla!”. In contrast, the rest of the crowd burst into cheers and applause.
Rodriguez has watched Padilla’s activism during the raise the minimum wage campaign and her leading the fight to establish the city’s first youth department. The councilwoman sees Padilla as someone who can roll up her sleeves and do the work that needs to be done for the community. With trust levels at an all-time low across Los Angeles, Rodriguez thinks it’s important for elected officials to understand what it takes to get things done on a street level, not just “espouse” policies. To Rodriquez, it’s more important to “deliver change on the ground,” and Padilla is the one who knows how to do it.
“Whether it was raising the minimum wage or organizing environmental justice, she’s been at the forefront for doing it for the very people that have been her friends and neighbors her entire life,” Rodriguez said.
Padilla’s plans after college always included returning to her community, whether in community activism or policy. Youth programs are particularly important to Padilla, and she believes that the city of Los Angeles needs to do more to ensure young people have something to do after school, a sentiment she shares with Rodriquez.
Her homelessness solution begins with emergency remediation of the encampments and connecting the unhoused populations to essential services that will support them in finding housing, employment and health services.
Padilla also supports controversial homeless measure 41.18, which bars people from camping on streets or sidewalks in ways that block passage but is critical of the policy, seeing it as a tool for extreme cases only.
For public safety, she believes that the city’s goals should be more in line with preventing crime rather than reactionary. The problem is personal for her, as her older brother, Antonio Padilla, fell victim to the school-to-prison pipeline and is still in prison. Her safety plan also includes a pilot program in which police would cooperate with social workers to help answer mental health-related 911 calls.
Padilla self-identifies as “Chicana” and said she is a “first-generation politicized Mexican American.” As a lifelong Valley resident, her mother was a factory worker at AVX filters Co for 30 years. Her father was a gardener all over Southern California until he died in an accident in 2013. She credits her parents for her work ethic, which Padilla considers her biggest strength. She also has a younger brother, Alberto Padilla, who is a chef.
With experience in various sectors, from environmental justice, and economic justice to gender justice at the nonprofit and county level, Padilla said she plans to bring an intergovernmental lens approach if elected.
“There’s only so much you can do with the city on its own — we have to work with the county, we have to work with nonprofits,” said Padilla. “We have to decide who has best practices and hold each other accountable.”