Meet Lissette Espinoza-Garnica, the nonbinary Chicanx who made Bay Area history on a working-class platform
As young progressives seek to make their voices heard across the country, many have looked beyond protest signs or social media posts to actively seek elected office.
Enter Lissette Espinoza-Garnica, 24—a self-described abolitionist, socialist, feminist—who recently secured the Redwood City Council seat representing District Three via a hyper-local grassroots campaign (which achieved victory despite their rejection of PAC money, no corporate/developer/lobbyist cash or funds from police unions).
Espinoza-Garnica’s modest democratic-socialist campaign followed in the Bay Area’s rich history of progressive politics, queer representation and working-class fight. It’s a remarkable ascension for the recent Santa Clara University grad who was laid off from their job as a pre-school teacher’s assistant, in the wake of the Covid pandemic earlier this year.
In the wake of her recent election victory, the Six Fifty caught up with the Redwood City native—now the first nonbinary elected official in the Bay Area—to discuss how they expect to shape local politics as the youngest member of the city council.
How did you hear that you won?
The way I found out was through Facebook messaging. I knew I had a lead and my lead was growing and counts weren’t all in, but then I saw a message the incumbent [Janet Borgens] had posted on their Facebook that they conceded and then later I was tagged in it.
It was obvious then I was going to take this seat. It was something I was sure I was going to win because I had met all my goals of reaching out to everyone who’s a registered voter in time for ballots to be sent out. With my working-class message, I was confident we’d win.
Can you speak to your emotions about it — were they complicated, were you simply relieved it was over?
I’m certainly proud of myself and this campaign because I was confident we’d accomplish something major not just as progressives, but as socialists: true leftists who advocate for universal childcare, workers’ protections, voter protections, housing for all. We were really community-oriented and grass roots. I’m really impressed and pleased with our community with the way they showed up for this campaign and I’m confident they’ll come out in numbers for the next socialist candidates or candidates guaranteeing housing for all or universal childcare that isn’t including displacement at the same time.
We need people who acknowledge racism and their own privilege and complacency and all that in these positions. And we’re young. I’m really young.
I’m the first nonbinary person to be elected into office in the Bay Area. There’s major accomplishments to be proud of — I’m low-income, I’m a caregiver, I’m part of the working class. I’m confident we’re going to continue to grow and won’t need to be supported by corporate interests or landlords or police to do this and be successful.
You mention being the first nonbinary representative in the Bay Area. Does that crystalize for you even in your early career stage that you’re doing something for nonbinary people with political aspirations to follow in your footsteps?
I hope to really open up the dialogue in our local community to have more nonbinary, trans, Black, Indigenous, people of color that are queer and trans in local office, running these orgs, movements. They ought to have been centered in the first place. I hope to be one of many that are queer, trans, people of color, and I hope that’s the result of this, to encourage that and help people through these obstacles that I faced as much as I can.
A fallout conversation from national-level elections is Democrats asserting “defund the police” was not a successful slogan. Can you touch on your experience campaigning on that?
…Those folks saying this is about messaging are not interested in centering people of color. We have to start there, acknowledge those that aren’t interested in defunding the police as a viable solution are not interested in centering Black, Indigenous, people of color’s best interest or doing anything that’s historical-based, research-based. They’re currently the loudest but they won’t be, always.
As the winter months come around, what can you say about our unhoused neighbors who are high-risk for COVID and also facing being in the cold outside?
We need heating centers. More areas like libraries, gymnasiums, especially since schools are closed, we have to have these places that can be kept warm available to homeless people. As many solutions as possible because we can’t have homeless people on the street during such severe weather, the same way we shouldn’t have had a delay in cooling centers during the summer or having water fountains available in Redwood City during the summer. Keeping open shelters that are warm and safe and free of police so they can have somewhere to be.
Your platform is intersectional so I was curious, among all the issues that entails, was there one that stuck out to you when this became real that you’ll be able to get to work on right away.
Housing. Creating public housing. I think that’s what really set me apart from other candidates running or on the board … talking about long term solutions to housing. It’s me. I really want to implement things like tax on big businesses, create more taxes to build for education funds and art foundations. I think also, I get to do stuff like require developers to pay prevailing wages. That’s what I got really excited about being the one to create these contracts that if you’re going to be building anything you’re going to be paying union wages, giving your workers union benefits or you can’t build.
I will be fighting, having a voice in these conversations about sustainable housing. I hope to have a land uplift tax, a vacancy tax, things that will help regulate the housing market in our area because there are things we can do, locally, that a lot of establishment folks even on council will say you can’t because it’s not in the interest of developers or real estate companies or landlords.
Your district that you’re representing is heavily Latinx. Was there a prevailing issue you heard from them that you’ll be able to carry over into these city council meetings?
I’m not just preoccupied with people who can vote. I talked to Spanish speakers, undocumented people, a lot of folks talked to me about immigration, not working with ICE.
Folks talk about housing and the inability to live here, but definitely immigration. Just being available as someone who is bilingual, trying to cut our ties from ICE, has been a huge turnout of support, even from undocumented people.
…I also hope to find ways to create public, city-funded legal representation. With legal representation from competent, qualified immigration lawyers, many residents who aren’t citizens can find a path to citizenship with a lot more ease because they don’t have to find their own lawyer, come up with funds for their own lawyer. That’s something I’ve seen in other cities they can do to help the immigrant community.
When we spoke last, you weren’t sure if you’d pursue a political career if you lost. Now that you’ve won, what do you see ahead for your political career?
This movement is something I really want to be a part of — the movement for the working class. It’s shown me how much I can do. I’m not certain if I’ll run for any other office, but I definitely want to help campaigns, run candidates that are leftists, socialists in our community. People who are really trying to do the dang thing. I want to stay part of the discourse on what leftist politics look like locally and what we should do, what our community needs are. It’s something I’m getting deeply invested in. I’ll be around to advocate for housing, workers’ rights, addressing racism, all these things that I live with as well.
What would you say to those that were previously unaware of you or those who didn’t vote for you?
I think we can have a society that benefits everyone that isn’t trying to punitively harm each other or tries to ostracize each other for the way we are or where we’re placed into a caste system, impoverished.
That’s my goal, to see where we are aligned and where we intersect to really meet these goals for the common good. That’s why I stump for intersectionality that some may not see but that’s what I hope to push forward, where we do align, and the ways we can come together to support each other and make sure no one’s left behind.
Stay up to date with other coverage from The Six Fifty by subscribing to our weekly newsletter, featuring event listings, reviews and articles showcasing the best that the Peninsula has to offer. Sign up here!