Jennifer Celaya is not the typical candidate running for Santa Clara County supervisor, but has a penchant for justice and passion to fight for the underserved neighbors she hopes to represent.
Celaya is the latest hopeful to hop into the contested race for the District 2 seat on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. The 42-year-old unsuccessfully challenged veteran politician and current Supervisor Cindy Chavez in 2020. As Chavez terms out next year, Celaya is running against Chavez’s chief of staff, Betty Duong, former San Jose Vice Mayor Madison Nguyen and Alum Rock Union School District Trustee Corina Herrera-Loera.
Celaya is a fresh face in a race full of politicos and is running without the backing of special interests. She is a Native American woman with tattoos, and spent weeks in juvenile hall in her youth. Celaya is aware that’s not what a typical elected official looks like, but is what people in her community look like—she believes they deserve a voice, too.
“I know the biases are going to be there. But if you look at my history, and what I’ve done in the community in the last 26 years, I’ve been there,” Celaya told San José Spotlight. “If you look at the body of elected officials in the last 15-20 years, you’re going to see the same pattern—elected officials that have gone from one scene to another. And they are delivering the same results too.”
It won’t be an easy path to victory, but Celaya said her personal and professional experiences set her apart. Her story starts at age 15, when she said her son was unfairly taken from her by Child Protective Services in Santa Clara County and placed into adoption. At the time she was a troubled teen in the foster care system, she said.
“I feel like I was failed by this faulty system and luckily had the ability to dig myself out of that,” Celaya said.
She put herself through junior college, studied to be a paralegal and took different courses on mediation, childhood trauma and behavioral training. After working in the legal field, Celaya started her own nonprofit in 2019: New Beginnings Family Services, which provides families with food, household items, hygiene products and legal services. The nonprofit, which has won funding and awards from the county, also provides case management and resources residents may need for housing, job training and entrepreneurship.
“I found a way to serve the community, educate people on their legal rights and how to navigate such a huge entity like family court and dependency court when they’re feeling defeated,” Celaya said.
Celaya hopes to use those skills if elected county supervisor. Her top priorities are expanding social services, mental health support and housing across the county.
She said she specifically wants to create resources for children who are removed from their parents. The shelter that used to house foster children closed in 2020, which means Santa Clara County kids are shuttled to centers outside of the area.
“If we’re going to be removing kids, we should keep them local and also have a center where it’s more diverse, more friendly,” Celaya said. “Where parents continue to be with their children under the supervision of social services as they’re working through their case plan, so that the impact of the separation to the children is not going to cause problems down the road.”
Celaya also wants to provide services that will address the problem at the root, so parents are supported to take care of their children and teens in foster care and not bound to a life of poverty, substance abuse or run-ins with the law.
Part of that includes opening more substance abuse treatment centers, Celaya said. At the moment, Santa Clara County has 211 inpatient psychiatric beds and should have 960 to meet the needs of residents. She also wants to speed up the county’s production of affordable housing to improve cost of living.
Sarah Castillo, a paralegal at Alexander Law Group and cousin of Celaya, said Celaya has always been an underdog. She has watched Celaya overcome insurmountable barriers to uplift herself, her six children and her community. Castillo said that is the type of public servant residents need.
“I’ve seen her give money when she’s got no money at all and help people go through the legal system when she has her own ordeals,” Castillo told San José Spotlight. “Residents want that. They look for somebody who can they can relate to, who’s gone through the struggles that everybody else has, because that means they get it.”
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