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DOWNEY - Leonard Zuniga has had a passion for education since the age of 12.
"When I was in middle school - well it was junior high school then, I had an assignment to talk to my parents about what I wanted to be when I grew up," said Zuniga. "I talked to my mom - I wanted to do social work, but her response was unfortunately, 'you don't have a choice. You have to support your family when you graduate.'
"I wanted to succeed in college, but I couldn't work full-time and go to school," he said.
Now as a candidate for the Cerritos College Board of Trustees, Zuniga is determined to support local students and make it easier for them to stay in school, graduate, and secure a job afterwards.
Zuniga, a 15-year resident of Downey, is running against incumbent and Board President Bob Arthur for the Area 1 seat, which incorporates South Gate, Bell Gardens, Downey, and Norwalk.
However, this isn't the first time the 51-year-old has stepped into the local limelight.
"I ran for the Cerritos College Board of Trustees in 2003," said Zuniga. "I lost heavily...and I knew something was wrong."
Zuniga claimed that the at-large elections diluted the voting strength of Latinos resulting in political control of the board by a small minority of the college district's residents in Cerritos, although 12 cities are represented entirely or partially within the district's boundaries.
In 2011, Zuniga, along with Tom Chavez and Carmen Avalos, filed a lawsuit against the college stating the Board of Trustees was in violation of the California Voter's Rights Act of 2002, which calls for the dismantlement of at-large elections in communities where it potentially disenfranchises minority groups.
"The board drug its feet," Zuniga said. "Approximately three to six months after we filed with the LA Superior Court, the lawsuit was settled.
"Why the act was overlooked for almost 10 years, I don't know...we have suspicions," added Zuniga who believes several incumbents were concerned they'd lose power as a result of demographic changes.
"President Bob Arthur had the audacity...to blame it all on the attorneys trying to make money from the college. Not on justice or fairness," Zuniga said. "As the president I would assume he knows about the California Voter's Rights Act."
Zuniga, a U.S. Navy veteran, touts 12 years of volunteer service in many community organizations, most notably the Downey Coordinating Council, Downey Sister Cities, Downey Chamber of Commerce, and the Downey Rose Float Association.
For the last 10 years, Zuniga has worked from home as a private representative in cases of social security law.
Labeling several of the board trustees as "complacent" and "negligent," Zuniga has laid out an aggressive agenda he wishes to accomplish if elected.
In addition to increasing graduation and transfer rates, Zuniga hopes to maintain an open door policy for the students who may desire to communicate with him.
Zuniga also plans to advocate for more training and prep classes for students who desire to acquire employment in local businesses and abroad.
"I want to streamline functions to reduce costs and allow better use of classrooms," said Zuniga who graduated with a bachelor's degree from California State University, Long Beach in 1988. "And hopefully we can expand military and veteran's educational opportunities."
One of the most divisive campaign issue this election cycle is the new $350 million bond measure being proposed by the Cerritos College Board of Trustees.
This November, voters living in the Cerritos College district must decide whether to approve the measure, which is slated to use taxpayer funds in order to update technology, math, science and computer labs, upgrade job-training facilities, and repair aging buildings at the college.
While other candidates have publicly denounced the bond measure as untimely and too expensive, Zuniga believes the measure is necessary to finish several upgrades to the campus.
"I'm in favor - we need a new start, a lot of construction needs to be done," said Zuniga. "We need that bond now to complete projects and do some projects that should have been done."
Zuniga has been endorsed by state Assembly candidate Cristina Garcia, former Norwalk Mayor Jesse Luera, Assemblyman Tony Mendoza (D-56), former Assemblyman Rudy Bermudez, State Senator Gloria Negrete-McLeod (D-32), and the Hubert Humphrey Democratic Club.
With months quickly turning into weeks before the Nov. 6 election, Zuniga is mailing out flyers and reaching out to residents for support.
"My chances are very good. The demographics have changed drastically," he said. "Downey is a very educated city that researches candidates before voting.
"I've been very involved for over 12 years," Zuniga added. "I have a lot to give back - leadership, honesty, and fiscal accountability. I will be responsible to the community."
Published: September 20, 2012 - Volume 11 - Issue 23