From undocumented teen to powerful leader, David Campos redefines American Dream
David Campos, a Deputy County Executive for Santa Clara County, speaks with his staff Friday afternoon. Photo by Kyle Martin

He went from being a frightened teenage boy crossing the border to one of the Bay Area’s most influential politicians — an embodiment of the American Dream.

As a Latino, a gay man and former undocumented immigrant, Santa Clara County Deputy Executive David Campos has stayed close to his roots, upholding the rights of the communities he belongs to, while championing diversity throughout his career as a public servant.

He understands and has lived through the struggles that consume America’s political conversation, and seeks to break down some of the negative stereotypes that some may have about people like him.

“If I have learned anything — the most valuable thing in politics or life, it is authenticity. Authenticity requires you to be yourself,” said Campos, 48. “People know when you’re trying to be something that you’re not.”

This philosophy and hard work is why Campos had achieved his goals in his life, first as an attorney, then serving two terms on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and now working as a top official in Santa Clara County.

Campos was born and raised in Guatemala until he was 11, when his family first tried — unsuccessfully — immigrating to the United States. He remembers being detained before being sent back home, where he was separated from his father for another three years before heading back to the border again with his mother and two sisters at age 14.

Once reunited with his father and settled in South Central Los Angeles, his parents worked long hours and multiple jobs to try to make ends meet. His father, a meteorologist in Guatemala, had instilled in him the value of an education, and that’s when Campos knew he wanted to go to college.

“College was always something I knew I had to do. Being an immigrant made it easier to realize it was a possibility,” said Campos. “I was a DREAMer before the concept existed.”

And he did — by getting accepted to Stanford University in 1989. But college was met with its own set of hurdles as an undocumented immigrant, and the threat of getting deported was a very present fear in Campos’ life as a student.

Campos remembers the difficulty he had with setting up a bank account without a social security number, the “international” status he was given as a student in order to qualify for financial aid, and the looming fear that someone would find out about his undocumented status — so he’d wear his college sweatshirt every time he stepped off campus.

That way, no one would assume that a Stanford college student like him was undocumented.

This occurred for years before his father was able to get legal status for him and the rest of his family, but even today Campos understands what it feels like to “live in the shadows.”

After pursuing a law degree at Harvard, Campos came back to California and began working as an attorney in San Francisco. Inspired by local leaders such as Harvey Milk, Campos considered running for office. It was during this time that Campos thought about his former status as an undocumented immigrant and coming out as a gay man.

At first, especially within the Mission neighborhood, predominantly a Latino community that he was seeking to represent in office, it was a challenging adjustment.

“It was a scary thing. I went through a lot of self searching,” said Campos. “Even though I was undocumented, openly gay, I chose to be open. I felt that if my parents struggled risking our lives crossing that border to get here, I owed it to them to be honest.

“It was very intentional that as a Latino candidate, I also talked about that I was gay,” he added. “Those of us who are part of these communities have to bridge that gap and connect the dots. By doing so, you break down barriers and make it easier for people to talk about sexual orientation.”

During his two terms as a San Francisco County Supervisor, Campos prioritized policies to protect immigrants and small businesses, helped low-income youth by making public transit free for those under 17, passed an ordinance to guarantee equal pay for women and fought to secure tenant rights in a city plagued by rising rent and increasing costs of living.

At the heart of his policies and political values, Campos said it’s the idea that a society is “only as strong as those who have the least in that society.”

Today, Campos continues to advocate for better representation and diversity in Santa Clara County government as well as help address the county’s growing homeless crisis, through the implementation of Measure A — a $950 million affordable housing bond.

As Deputy County Executive, Campos oversees several departments including the Office of Women Policy, Office of Immigrant Relations, Office of LGBTQ Affairs, the Office of Cultural Competency, the Office of Labor Standards Enforcement and the Office of the Census. Campos values the idea that each department works together to address the concerns of all residents in the county.

Former San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos said that Campos’ identity and voice in local politics “means a lot,” especially in helping other young people from inner city backgrounds achieve their aspirations.

“He’s committed to building leadership especially among women and young people in the Latino community,” Avalos added. “He’s a really dedicated servant and drives and pushes hard to get what he needs to get done — working across the aisle, but holding a high standard to getting that work done.”

Campos acknowledges that there’s more work to do in the communities that he represents. When he thinks about others who are experiencing some of the challenges he faced, Campos thinks about the importance of elected leaders’ ability to relate to their constituents.

“I can’t guarantee that I’m going through every problem you face, but I’m someone who understands, who can relate,” said Campos. “The reality is that something may look good on paper, but it may not make sense in the real world. There needs to be a real perspective on empathy, and a real interest in trying to understand the needs of those who are the most disenfranchised.”

Contact Nadia Lopez at nadia@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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