Alex Padilla remembers waking up as a kid early on Saturday mornings to the sound of the phone ringing. “Sure, come pick him up,” his mother would say. While his friends slept in or watched cartoons, he says, “Some stranger would show up about 20 minutes later, and off I went to go plant trees, paint over graffiti, clean up alleyways, or volunteer at the park or the church.”
Looking back, Padilla suspects it was a strategy to keep him from getting into trouble in his working-class Los Angeles neighborhood. But those formative experiences instilled in him a passion for public service that sustains him today in his role as president of the L.A. City Council. It’s a big responsibility: with a population of 3.9 million people, the nation’s second-largest city is legendary for snarled traffic, high crime rates, and failing schools. But Padilla wouldn’t trade it for anything.
He didn’t set out to be a politician. His parents are Mexican immigrants–his father is a short-order cook and his mother is a housecleaner–and they stressed the importance of college. Padilla went to MIT to study mechanical engineering, intending to return to L.A. and find a job as an engineer, while helping improve his community as an avocation. Over the summers, he worked at Hughes Aircraft and realized engineering wasn’t his calling. “I enjoyed it; it was technically challenging but lacked the personal satisfaction that I got from community service,” he says.
After graduating, Padilla completed a public-affairs fellowship with the Coro Foundation, worked for U.S. senator Dianne Feinstein for a year, then worked for the California legislature. He was appointed in 1997 to the L.A. Building and Safety Commission. In 1999, at the tender age of 26, he was elected to represent the seventh district on the L.A. City Council. Two years later, Padilla was chosen to serve as president–the first Latino in that role in 130 years. Now in his third term as both member and president, he is still the youngest, as well as the longest-serving, council member.
There are plenty of challenges. Fixing housing shortages, creating jobs, investing in infrastructure, and balancing the city’s budget are all pressing issues. But the most problematic issues, Padilla believes, are education and public safety. L.A.’s public high schools have a dropout rate of 50 percent. Although crime is down overall, crime committed by and against young people is still a serious problem.
Padilla’s MIT background has been an asset in public service. “I get accused all the time of being very analytical and very methodical, and while that may be the exception in politics, it’s been very effective for me,” he says. It’s also helped him tackle technological issues on the job. And since MIT isn’t known for producing many politicians, it’s always a conversation starter.
Padilla also gives back to MIT. He has served as an educational counselor, recruiting promising students for MIT, and he keynoted the annual Alumni Leadership Conference in September, whose theme was “Celebrating Excellence.”
Padilla’s pursuit of excellence in public service has gained attention. The Los Angeles Times wrote, “Padilla’s rise has been nothing short of meteoric, even in an age of rapid political turnover.” And Mark Dierking, executive director of the Children’s Museum of Los Angeles, says, “If you look at elected leaders twice his age, you don’t see the track record he’s developed in just six or seven years. I think his future is very bright.”
Accolades aside, giving back to the community is what makes Padilla’s job so meaningful. He’s particularly passionate about youth initiatives, and in October he will help break ground on a new $22 million children’s museum outside L.A. He’s been involved in rebuilding three libraries in his district–including one in Pacoima where he went as a child after school every day until his parents got off from work. Padilla recalls looking at the crowd at the ribbon cutting and seeing not just constituents but family, friends, neighbors, schoolmates, and Little League teammates. “It was as touching an experience as I’ve had.” – By Elizabeth Durant