This close-up look at Pasadena Councilmember and mayoral candidate Victor Gordo is an installment in our series focusing on the 2020 Pasadena mayoral race. “Insiders and Outsiders: A Closer Look at the 2020 Candidates for Pasadena Mayor” is written by Pasadena resident and writer, Doug Forbes.
Mayoral candidate and District 5 candidate Victor Gordo knows about barriers to entry. He knows how the improbable becomes probable. And he knows how to chart a course toward a desired destination. But while his current destination is an expansive second-floor workspace in a Spanish Colonial Revival building, otherwise known as the mayor’s office, incumbent Tornek has absolutely no intention of handing over the keys.
Gordo held a neighborhood rally and walk at Jefferson Park in Pasadena last weekend.
Gordo has led Pasadena’s battle to hold nuisance liquor stores accountable, served as the city’s liaison on the Rose Bowl Operating Company, raised money for the Measure J campaign to help the embattled Pasadena Unified School District and chaired the City’s EDTECH committee, which helped establish the city’s minimum wage ordinance, which will increase to $15 in July.
Gordo was born roughly 1,500 miles south of Rose Parades, revivalist mansions and chichi restaurants, in Zacatecas, Mexico, which was among the bloodiest battlegrounds of the Mexican Revolution. It is also one of the country’s least populous states, rife with small farming towns. By the time he was 3-years-old the man who wants to be Pasadena’s next mayor was working in the fields in one of those towns.
“My job was to walk around with a little bucket of fertilizer and put it about two or three inches from the sugar cane,” he said. “I would not trade my upbringing for any other life experience.”
Gordo’s father Juan left for Pasadena just as Victor began tending to sugar cane and corn. His mother Emerita joined her husband a year later. In the interim, Gordo’s grandparents took care of him and two younger sisters. Some time later, Gordo and his sisters were sent to Pasadena.
“It was a two-or-three-day bus ride—my grandfather brought me,” he said. “It was traumatizing. My parents had left a couple years before, and I got to know my grandparents as parent figures, but now they were telling me I was being sent off.”
The eldest of six—one sibling is since deceased—Gordo said life in Pasadena began in a converted garage where he shared one open room, a kitchenette and a small bathroom with his parents and another baby sister.
The Moss family owned the property on the front lot. Mr. Moss was an American Air Force lieutenant who met his wife while serving during the Korean War. Their son Franklin was Gordo’s first and best friend. Franklin spoke English and Korean. Gordo spoke Spanish. Regardless of the breach, Gordo has fond memories of the two exchanging kimchi and quesadillas.
Pasadena did not offer a bilingual education program at the time, so Gordo learned English by communicating with a neighbor, Mrs. Retana, who also worked as a clerk in the office at Willard Elementary school office.
“There I was,” Gordo said. “I had to find my way through the classroom and the school—I struggled with the material for at least a few years.”
But in the new world Gordo and his family had come to, there was a fear, not of war, but of discovery.
The family struggled with the constant threat of deportation.
“As today, there existed a general fear of people being swept up, legitimately or not,” he said. “Back then there were regular raids—a stigma if you were of Latino descent. You want a sense of instability? There it is.”
Gordo’s position on the Trump administration’s deportation tactics came into question after a February 2017 L.A. Progressive article claimed that he waffled when confronted about an ordinance prohibiting the Pasadena Police Department from engaging ICE. In May 2017, Gordo joined his colleagues in unanimously passing an official resolution which declared that the city “will not enforce federal immigration laws and the city manager will ensure that all city policies are consistent with this declaration.”
Though the resolution did not use the term “sanctuary city,” the City Council assured a standing room crowd that the resolution was a gesture of good faith.
“It’s important for the Council to make its voice known,” Gordo said at the time. “The Council has taken a clear position on this issue.”
Despite the civil unrest of the 1970s, Gordo’s father, like his father before him, secured work by way of the Bracero Program. The wartime initiative granted millions of Mexicans temporary residency and employment in the United States—where they would till fields or tackle factory duties—while young American men were off fighting fascism.
Gordo’s father eventually found steady work at Ranchero Mexican Restaurant & Cantina in East Pasadena, where he recently retired after 50 years. Gordo’s mother worked as a piecework seamstress, or as he said, “there was no other way to put it—she worked in a sweatshop.”
Gordo was a bike-pedaling Pasadena Star-News paperboy whose route helped him better understand the city’s socio-economic landscape. Old Town was a “very rough place,” he said. He also cut lawns, sold flowers on street corners, shoes at the Pasadena Community College swap meet and souvenirs at the Rose Bowl. During nights and weekends, he worked alongside his father at Ranchero.
This same level of industriousness enabled Gordo to become the first member of his family to attend college—Pasadena Community College and Azusa Pacific University.
After graduation, he worked as both coach and physical education teacher for High Point Academy, a private K-8 nestled at the foot of Eaton Canyon Park. Gordo also worked as a Program Director for the Pasadena youth development nonprofit Day One. He continued taking evening and weekend shifts at Ranchero to help his parents and also finance a longtime aspiration—practicing law.
Gordo attended the University of La Verne College of Law and passed the California Bar Exam on his first attempt.
“From a very young age I watched as my family worked minimum wage jobs in difficult working conditions, and it had an impact on me,” he said. “I chose law because of the flexibility that a law degree brings. It’s training that I can use to protect the rights of workers.”
As a labor attorney for nearly two decades, Gordo protects workers’ rights for members of the Laborers’ International Union of North America.
He certainly has had his share of preparation for this mayoral contest.
Gordo’s first brush with city politics came in 1997 after Gordo became field representative for Councilman Bill Crowfoot, the first representative of District 5, redesigned in 1993 to increase Latino voter participation. After Crowfoot resigned, Gordo successfully ran for the same District 5 council seat in 2001 and has since been re-elected four more times.
Gordo’s District 5 has the third best crime rate of seven districts.
“I have been a strong advocate for public safety and for addressing crime. I’m proud that we brought back the neighborhood action team after I advocated for it.”
He also said he believes that City Hall not only needs to continue to embrace ethnic diversity but also gender equality. “I am proud of appointing women to commissions.”
Of 17 District 5 commissioners, two are vacant and eight are women.
Gordo had more than $100,000 in his campaign coffers and well over 100 endorsements a week before campaign season officially kicked off in December.
He describes Pasadena as “a small city trapped in the body of a large city.”
One of Gordo’s proudest achievements, he said, has been to concurrently serve as board president for the Rose Bowl Operating Company. In fact, Gordo served longer than any preceding RBOC chief.
As a staunch advocate of “smart” development, he was a fervent opponent of the NFL’s strong interest in Rose Bowl property rights, despite a half-billion dollar offer. However, under Gordo’s direction, the RBOC by way of the City did invest $180 million and agreed to stage mega-concerts as a supplemental revenue stream.
After local residents began complaining about the impacts of several liquor stores operating in the city that opened shop before city regulations were established, Gordo took up the mantle to battle nuisance liquor stores pushed back against alcohol and tobacco lobbying groups. In 2006, the city drafted the Deemed Approved Ordinance, which allows the city to regulate liquor stores which began operating before the city started issuing conditional use permits.
Several stores later closed and the property was used to create affordable housing.
“That’s an example of a member of the city council working with the mayor [at the time Bill Bogaard] of the city, bringing to bear the city’s resources to solve complicated issues. At the moment, I don’t see that happening.”
Both Gordo and Bogaard have not been shy about taking direct aim at Mayor Tornek for what they said is Tornek’s resistance to greater engagement with fellow councilmembers and even citizens. Tornek, however, ran a successful retail politics campaign in 2015 as he canvassed neighborhoods, knocked on doors and listened to constituent concerns. Tornek is back doing just that in pursuit of another term.
“One of the first actions our current mayor took was to take us out of the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments,” Gordo said. “I am going to put us back, because Pasadena should be a partner. The people of Pasadena should have the right to control Pasadena’s destiny.”
Tornek’s motion to withdraw from the SGVCOG was passed by a 5-3 council vote, three years after Tornek took office.
Gordo said he believes Pasadena is on a collision course with over-development.
“It’s not only the pace of development but the type of development. We cannot, at the expense of the people who live in the city, allow the construction of a city for people who do not live here. And that’s what it is starting to feel like. It’s not a top-down perspective. That’s what the people of Pasadena are concerned about.”
While he sits atop city government, Tornek said he believes year-over-year development growth under his mayoral term has hardly budged above one percent. At an August Council meeting, Tornek was seemingly reviled by state mandates that greenlight unreasonable developer rights and include fewer affordable housing incentives. He said, “I think it’s outrageous.”
Gordo maintains that California will never construct its way out of this housing problem.
“We shouldn’t talk about new affordable housing without also talking about the retention of existing affordable housing.” He noted that the 114 unit La Villa Lake complex on Lake Avenue wanted to take the entire property to market. Gordo said he pushed for the city to instead subsidize a rehabilitation project at a cost far lower than what it would have been to build from the ground up. However, at 400-600 sq. ft. apiece, units are not much larger than a living room and only about 18 percent less per square foot than adjacent rentals.
“It concerns me to hear that the view of anyone at City Hall is that there is no issue with over-development of our city,” Gordo said. “We should not make a determination based on data and plans. We should make a determination based on what the residents of Pasadena are saying to us.”
On the other hand, however, Gordo calls upon data analyses to inform better planning. “We see a lot of development on Foothill Boulevard in East Pasadena, and yet we see an unwillingness on the part of many to measure the cumulative impact of that development.”
One of Gordo’s other priorities, he said, is to reign in what he believes is runaway spending. “I’ve asked a number of times now to conduct a department-by-department review of programs. Sometimes government has a habit of creating a program for every issue that pops up. And then we never revisit whether the program is effective.”
Gordo did not mention any particular programs. However, he did hone in on the nonprofit sector as a whole. He said that the city’s financial and logistical assistance to nonprofits should be predicated upon additional city oversight and assessment before the city signs checks or rallies resources.
This stands in stark contrast to what Tornek described as his nearly unbridled support of Pasadena nonprofits. Tornek recently said his focus has been on the financial well-being of the city because he is “very concerned about expenses outstripping revenues.”
Like Tornek, Gordo has also pledged his support for public schools and said he was proud to have raised a “great deal of the money for the Measure J campaign” which allows the city to donate up to $7 million annually to the school district.
He also pushed for Early Childhood Education Policy and the Office for the Young Child, both programs are early learning incubators. In June, Gordo authored an article which addressed his passion for prioritizing high quality preschools in Pasadena’s pursuit of becoming an “Early Learning City” by 2025.
“Too many kids arrive at our public school steps, before kindergarten and the first grade, not prepared to perform,” he said. “I pressed very hard for the Early Childhood Education policy and the Office for the Young Child.”
He believes his unique life experience is what sets him apart.
“I know what it’s like to not be able to communicate with people and I know what it’s like for people not to be able to communicate with you. I can communicate and relate to people from all walks of life.”
Gordo believes that a mayor must have his or her finger on the pulse of every part of Pasadena and then work with residents and individual councilmembers to address those issues. “We had that in Bill Bogaard. I don’t believe we have that now,” he said.