The first six months: San Jose Councilmember Peter Ortiz
San Jose Councilmember Peter Ortiz has introduced 23 memos, of which 80% have been adopted during his first six months in office. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    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.

    San Jose Councilmember Peter Ortiz is a fighter—and has been his entire life. He beat the odds to turn his life around and now fights to keep the odds in favor of those he represents on the east side of the city.

    Ortiz, who won the District 5 San Jose City Council seat last year, said the fight is personal. With every protest, impassioned speech or proposed policy, the East San Jose native draws from his lived experience.

    Raised by a single mother who picketed alongside labor rights activist Cesar Chavez, Ortiz, 33, became a strong union supporter. But the economic woes also led him to be homeless and involved with a gang during his youth. He still faces housing insecurity more than a decade later and is the only renter on the city council.

    “It is literally tattooed on me,” Ortiz told San José Spotlight. “I have been as low as it can go. Therefore, I’m going to advocate for our working people and poor people.”

    At 23, Ortiz dramatically shifted his life course toward a better path, one that included civic engagement. He became the youngest elected official on the Mount Pleasant School District board at 26, before moving to the Santa Clara County Board of Education.

    Eventually, he set his sights on city council.

    The freshman councilmember beat out four other candidates to replace termed-out Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco to represent District 5. The path to the council wasn’t easy, but Ortiz said he won because his life experiences resonated with voters—experiences all too common in East San Jose.

    “While everyone was asleep, I was out with the community,” Ortiz said. “That is what East San Jose needs—someone who doesn’t pause or wait.”

    It’s been six months since he took office, but his impact outpaces those around him. He’s introduced 23 memos—80% of which have been adopted, according to his office. This includes the creation of a blueprint for a more effective, empathetic approach to dealing with homeless encampments. He fought to protect Measure E funds for affordable housing. He has helped lead community engagement to prevent racist policing and to fight blight by shaping the FAST program.

    Ortiz also secured $300,000 for his district in the recently approved budget, the maximum allowed per councilmember. The dollars fund security cameras at Alum Rock Village and a feasibility study to increase lighting along the Mayfair pedestrian bridge to enhance safety. Funds will also support education programs for local Latino youth and enable the power washing of storefronts on Alum Rock Avenue, King Road and Story Road.

    Ortiz has not only used his sharp words to fight for policy, but to protect workers by lending his support to unions—and others have taken notice of his commitment to serving underrepresented communities.

    Former state Sen. Jim Beall, who Ortiz calls his mentor, said he’s not surprised Ortiz aims to uplifts groups like the working class, homeless and disenfranchised youth. And Councilmember Sergio Jimenez said Ortiz’s “realness” is refreshing.

    “The way things have been historically done—not just in San Jose—is you get white men who are lawyers and tiptoe around issues and all this decorum,” Jimenez told San José Spotlight. “That class of politicians is not used to people speaking as directly as Ortiz and sometimes it makes people uncomfortable, but that is not a bad thing. People are not used to politicians being real.”

    He said East San Jose residents needs someone outspoken to highlight their plight, and Ortiz has hit the ground running in a way uncommon for newer councilmembers.

    “It’s obvious to anyone paying attention that he reads all the memos, he knows his stuff. He is also strong on the dais and always speaking up,” Jimenez said. “I grew up in his district. I know firsthand that they need their voices amplified.”

    While the council is out for the summer, Ortiz is hosting several community events—Mariachi Day on July 29 and various district cleanups. He is also working on policy to ensure residents are hired for public works projects, protections for local storefronts if a historic building is sold and resolutions to support local Native American tribes.

    “We could do many cleanups or events—and we will—but it’s not going to change the trajectory of the east side,” Ortiz said. “Our communities were essentially disinvested in and ostracized by the city through policy, through redlining. So the only way to solve it is by directly addressing those those issues through direct policy. That is why I am here.”

    Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or follow @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.

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