Editor’s Note: This article is part of a San José Spotlight series examining the newest San Jose councilmembers and their first six months in office.
A drive-by shooting at an elementary school can change the course of students’ lives. For San Jose Councilmember Omar Torres, it sparked a dedication to community organizing.
At 14, Torres witnessed the fatal shooting of a student’s father in front of Washington Elementary School while volunteering for an after school program. The tragedy kickstarted his advocacy to improve disenfranchised neighborhoods like his own. That desire propelled Torres through his college career at San Jose State University where he protested tuition hikes and as a Franklin-McKinley School District board member. He also served as a board member for the San Jose Evergreen Community College District.
Now, as San Jose’s first openly gay Latino councilmember, it is no different.
“What do you do in a neighborhood where you see sex workers and drug dealing all day long? Where you see the major under investments in youth and families every single day, with no traffic lights and no safe places?” Torres told San José Spotlight. “We force ourselves to step up, even at 14.”
The freshman councilmember represents District 3 at a time when downtown faces dozens of vacancies and blighted buildings while lower-income neighborhoods face threats of gentrification. He won the seat last year after former Councilmember Raul Peralez termed out.
In his first six months in office, Torres, 41, has helped shape policies and sponsor public events to revitalize downtown, support the city’s homeless residents and protect working families at risk of being priced out. Torres has authored or co-authored 15 memos, all of which have passed. A policy he passed 10 days after taking office ensured trees removed amid development are replanted in areas with a smaller tree canopy.
“I grew up in a neighborhood where we didn’t have a lot of trees and we need to change that,” Torres said. “We want a safe and clean city of San Jose and that also includes our underserved neighborhoods.”
Marisol Ornelas, community leader and founder of Claridad Strategic Consulting, volunteered on Torres’ campaign and helped create a community outreach plan and leadership training for his staff since he won in November.
“He’s different from any other client I worked with because he was never concerned about his legacy,” Ornelas told San José Spotlight. “He was really focused on meeting with all community leaders, neighborhood groups and stakeholders that may actually have contradictory needs, so that we can actually be as inclusive as possible and respond to community needs.”
Responding to community needs
In an hourlong interview with San José Spotlight, Torres said he’s kept campaign promises to revitalize downtown—much like he revitalized his office by painting it bright gold and blue. He’s partnered with groups like Urban Vibrancy, the San Jose Downtown Association and others to host public events to bring residents into downtown streets and local shops.
Some successful events include the block party at Fountain Alley and his “Selena-bration” in April that brought hundreds of residents in front of city hall to celebrate the famous Mexican-American singer Selena Quintanilla.
Torres has also hosted monthly litter cleanups around District 3, three community coffee meetings he calls “cafecitas” and dozens of one-on-one meetings with residents.
The downtown councilmember was at the forefront of the Measure E fight to preserve millions of dollars for affordable housing. He launched a plan to curb racist policing through stronger communication from police and shaped the FAST program to proactively clean blight on city streets. He has also spearheaded initiatives to ensure contracted city workers have union protections and support the permanent closure of San Pedro Street to cars. Later this year, Torres plans to introduce policy to protect several historic buildings in downtown like the Grace Baptist Church.
In this year’s budget, Torres secured $300,000 to host five park events in his district; a small business program to help 30 small businesses use social media to grow revenue; a gun buyback program to support cost sharing for law enforcement; a grant for Latino students in his district; restoration of the Olinder Community Center mural and replacing concrete dividers with trees along Calle Willow.
Torres is a progressive on the council, often aligning with other labor-leaning representatives like Councilmembers Peter Ortiz, Domingo Candelas and David Cohen. But he has co-signed several memos with more conservative members on the dais like Councilmembers Bien Doan and Dev Davis.
Cohen said Torres is a thoughtful councilmember who works well with his colleagues, even when they have conflicting views.
“He is definitely grounded in values and making sure that the neighborhoods in his district that have traditionally been underserved are getting supported,” Cohen told San José Spotlight. “I don’t think he ever loses sight of that when he’s making his decisions on policy and the council.”
Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or follow @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.