By Don Greene
In North County politics, Olga Diaz is an anomaly. Currently, as the Deputy Mayor of Escondido, Olga has achieved something that no one else has done in 126 years: She is the first Latina elected to the City Council. That’s nothing to sneeze at. Once named the 11th Most Conservative City in the United States, Escondido can be a lonely place for a Latina, especially if she fits the description of Olga Diaz.
Diaz describes herself as an environmentalist. She as championed the rehabilitation of Escondido Creek, turning it from a concrete, channelized flood control basin to a 7-mile linear park in the heart of the city. She also describes herself as a feminist, a progressive, and, if those weren’t enough, a Democrat.
Being all these things should not be automatic detriment to a candidate or politician, but in Escondido, things are a little different. Recently, at a Republican Central Committee meeting, current mayor, Sam Abed, declared that “Escondido is the Republican capitol of San Diego County.” It is much of that type of bravado that gets the city into a lot of legal troubles. It was some of that legal trouble that launched Diaz’s political career.
How She Got Here
Diaz was born and raised in Salinas, California, a small agricultural community in northern California, not unlike Escondido. She moved to Escondido and opened a business; a very popular downtown coffee shop named the Blue Mug.
One day, Diaz was drawn to City Hall by a group of protesting youth, Latinos who were upset over the Rental Ban ordinance that had been enacted by the city council. Watching the fervor of the youth marching, she knew that she could not sit by and not do something.
Diaz entered the 2006 city council race and lost. She focused the next two years on learning how to run and then running a campaign that found wind in 2008 with the election of President Obama. She displaced council member Ed Gallo (who is running for re-election this year after rejoining the council in 2010) and for the first time, Escondido had a Latina on the council.
Being the lone democrat on a council of very conservative Republicans was lonely. Many of her ideas and wishes for the city were ignored, but that did not stop her from doing what she does best: She listened and advocated for the people.
Diaz is often the only council member that takes time to listen to people speaking before the council; she takes notes and writes down their names so that she can address them personally during discussions.
Throughout her time on the council, Diaz is known for being a listener and friend to the residents of the city. Diaz is often the only council member that takes time to listen to people speaking before the council; she takes notes and writes down their names so that she can address them personally during discussions.
She has made allegiances in strange places: She is well-liked in the mobile home community (a very large retirement population in Escondido resides in mobile home parks), she is well-respected in the environmentalist community and is also able to reach out and hold her own with the “good ole boys”, the developer and building communities.
She is known for doing her homework on issues and asking not only the tough questions, but the right questions.
Diaz has taken a lot of flack from the council for wanting discussion on items at council meetings. Her stance is that the public deserves to hear the elected officials of the city deliberate and make decisions that affect the residents; her colleagues disagree. During the most recent budget hearings, Diaz asked a number of questions about the budget. It was the current mayor who chastised her for taking too long.
The conservative majority on the council has taken further steps to quiet her. In 2010, just after Abed became mayor, the rules of the council were changed so that only items that had two sponsoring council members would make the agenda. This was clearly an attempt to keep her quiet, but Diaz has managed to either work around this road block or drive right through it.
Her signature issue, the Escondido Creek, has been her passion for as many years as she’s been on the council. It was 2010 when real movement began on the project and she has worked tirelessly to find funding for projects, volunteers to help clean the creek and, even recently, worked with the building industry to develop an alternative compliance program for water run off. New state storm water regulations prohibit water from leaving a property and entering the sewer system. The alternative compliance program would divert storm runoff into the Escondido Creek, saving builders money and enlisting them as an ally in completing her dream.
The Work To Be Done
Diaz lists her top three platform issues as: securing a reliable water source for the city; increasing transparency in the local government; and, increasing public engagement at City Hall. There is a large hill ahead of her, but she will take it a step at a time.
To correct many of the problems that have either been created in the last four years, or ignored for the last four years, will take determination and real work. Diaz has never shied away from a tough battle, and she’s had quite a few of them.
Going back to that day in 2006 when she marched behind the Latino protesters, Diaz began a fight against the racial stereotyping and discrimination rampant in local government. The 2006 rental ban, the 2008 parking ordinances and the most recent hunt for illegal garage conversions all were geared towards finding Latino families that were out of compliance and targeting them with code enforcement violations, towing of cars and making Escondido a place that they wouldn’t want to be.
As an outspoken opponent of the very controversial police checkpoints, Diaz has always complained that checkpoints are ineffective – statistics show that saturation patrols are more effective at catching drunk drivers in Escondido – and target certain people. Now that the state has changed the rules about checkpoints and impounding vehicles, the spotlight has shifted slightly from this practice. But racism is still present, albeit subtle, in the council members.
For example, in a recent Latino issues oriented mayoral forum, the mayor thanked the assembled crowd of mostly Latinos for being civil. It was Diaz that very rightly pointed out the hypocrisy of the statement. “Why would you expect a Latino crowd to be anything but civil?” she asked.
…her decisions don’t always come without some controversy. Take her decision on the upcoming Proposition H in November.
It is this common sense approach to governance and dealing with people that wins over most that watch and/or speak with Diaz, and that will move the city towards her stated platform goals. But her decisions don’t always come without some controversy. Take her decision on the upcoming Proposition H in November.
When a real estate investor bought the Escondido Country Club in foreclosure and decided to close it and develop it with homes, the public outcry from the area was great. Diaz voted along with the others on the council to downgrade the acreage to “Open Space-Public.” Now the investor has put Prop H on the ballot to reverse that decision, and Deputy Mayor Diaz supports him.
Seeming somewhat counter intuitive for a Democrat and environmentalist to side with a developer, Diaz has used her common sense approach to the issue. Facing a large lawsuit settlement and the chance to gain amenities for the city (the developer will build an Olympic-sized swimming pool, a 10,000 sq foot community center, tennis courts and put $1 million in an account in the city for development of more open space) that the city could never afford to build on its own, Diaz has opted to support what she calls, “the compromise plan.”
Diaz is always thoughtful and deliberate in her decision making, and always has the best interests of the residents of Escondido in mind. Her goal of securing a reliable water source for the city comes with the complete rebuilding of Lake Wohlford Dam – a major drinking water source for the city. Her goal also includes expanding the reclaimed water (“purple pipe”) infrastructure to provide water to local citrus growers saves the city and the growers money in the long run.
Her goal of making the city more transparent and increasing public engagement comes almost second nature to her. She is always ready and willing to lead a tour of people through city hall. She is mindful that the building belongs to the residents who built it and she provides an all-access look on the tour, from her council office to the council chambers. Her desire to involve as many residents as possible in the decision making process at city hall comes from a true caring about the residents.
When the trees were being cut down at a local mobile home park, she was called and rushed to the park, but not before texting her husband, an Escondido police officer, to be ready to bail her out of jail.
When the trees were being cut down at a local mobile home park, she was called and rushed to the park, but not before texting her husband, an Escondido police officer, to be ready to bail her out of jail. She genuinely cares not only for the people of Escondido, but what they care about, too.
One to Watch
What the future holds for Olga Diaz is unlimited. Politically, if she wins the mayor’s race in November, she could bide her time in the office until something comes along. The County Supervisor seat for District Three will be open in 2020, mid way through her second term as Mayor, and she could run for that position, vacated by Supervisor Dave Roberts when his term is up, from a safe seat. She could also choose to challenge 75th Assembly member, and former city council colleague, Marie Waldron.
On a personal level, Diaz currently works for Interfaith Community Services, overseeing many of the different departments for the non-profit. If she wins the mayor’s race, she might potentially have to leave that position. But if chooses to stay, that position could move her into any high-profile position with a number of companies in the county.
Whatever the future holds for her, it’s a safe bet that she will take along her unfailing dedication to the people that she will serve and her common sense approach to handling issues. Her caring manner and strong work ethic will land her firmly on top of whatever hill she decides to climb next.
She is indeed one to watch.
Don Greene is President of the Escondido Democratic Club