Myrna de Vera: The story of a reluctant Fil-American politician

January 26, 2016
Pan de Sal Forum with Vice Mayor Myrna de Vera of Hercules, California

myrna de vera

I had never aspired to be a politician. If my parents were still alive today, they’d be surprised that of all their children, I’m the one who became a politician. I was shy, the quietest among the boisterous seven Lardizabals. Noemi was the strong leader; Lorna, the sociable host of parties, Belen, the yearly honor student. The only remarkable thing about me was that I was known as the “pretty one”. But in a family culture where achievement was valued and vanity discouraged, I didn’t stand out.

In my high school year book, in an effort to give insight to our character, we were asked to indicate – if you were an object, what would you be? I said I was a “doll, loved and protected.” — a sign of my co-dependent tendencies. I loved writing, so I wanted be a journalist, but ended up taking architecture at UP Diliman, one of my dying mother’s wishes.

So when people ask me how I got involved in politics, I say, it was a call to service. Also, I was in the right place at the right time. I live in Hercules, a San Francisco Bay Area suburb of 24,000 residents, where 27 percent of the population area of Filipino descent. The Filipino-Americans, or Filams, is a segment of the population that turns out to vote, motivated by the need to have at least one Filam serve in the city council. Proof of the power of the FilVote are the 6 council members of Filipino descent before me; five of them became mayors. I’m the sixth. In addition, the FilAm leaders practiced the tradition of mentoring new leaders through commission appointments. I’m a product of that legacy of mentorship and the Fil-Am vote.

I started my community involvement in Hercules during the mid-1990’s when I joined the Chamber of Commerce and immediately served on the Board. I volunteered as team mom of my sons’ soccer and little league baseball teams, treasurer of their cub scouts pack, and faith formation teacher for my twins’ classes. I was what you call, a soccer mom.

A FilAm council member urged me to apply for the planning commission because he knew of my Architectural background. The council had 2 members of Filipino descent at that time, and they became my mentors. They predicted I’d move up quickly. When I was appointed to the planning commission, a FilAm newspaper published a 2 page article written by my sister about my oath-taking, and her friends, who were leaders of the Fil-Am community in the larger San Francisco Bay area urged me to “start thinking about running for city council.” I didn’t realize that the planning commission appointment was a step into politics. I thought I was merely serving the community.

As the only woman in a 5 member commission, I felt I had to work twice as hard as my colleagues. I carefully studied the thick volumes of environmental studies and staff reports so I could ask intelligent questions and make the right vote. I was so nervous during meetings, conscious that people were watching on TV. On my second year, I was ready to quit the political world. I hated the political intrigues and conflicts. I wanted to crawl back to my safe simple life.

A turning point came when my sister, Lorna Dietz, dragged me to a Filipina Women’s Network Summit, where I met Marily Mondejar, FWN president. Marily pointed out how we Filipina in mainstream visible positions should take the opportunity to change the image of Filipina women in the USA by moving on to more visible positions of policymaking bodies. I realized then that what I had been called upon to do was not all about me. I had to think of the bigger picture — that what I did as a commissioner in the city was important and could change the perception of Filipinas in a more positive light.

Instead of quitting, I moved on to be the Chairperson of the Hercules Planning Commission. In 2009, I was recognized as one of the 100 Most Influential Filipina Women, Policymakers and Visionaries. I was inspired by the panel speakers during that Summit, and most of all, I met Mayor of Davis, Ruth Asmudsen and Mayor of Colma, Joanne Del Rosario. Meeting them allowed me to imagine, I can be mayor too one day.

I joined and served as Treasurer of the Fil-Ams of Hercules, the local organization known for members who became city leaders. I volunteered as a member of the pastoral council and fundraiser at St. Patrick Catholic Church and for donor drives for the Asian American Donor Program. Through my community involvement, I learned consensus building, independent thinking, and leadership skills. I also built relationships with many hard-working residents, who would later become my most passionate campaigners.

In 2010, allegations of corruption by Hercules leaders spread among blogs and the local newspaper. The city manager owned an affordable housing company, run by his two college-age daughters. The city council awarded $3 million contract to the city manager’s company and awarded affordable housing loans to friends, staff, and council members’ family. A grand jury reported of Hercules city leaders’ nepotism and cronyism practices. Residents clamored for a change of leadership. After much encouragement from residents, I took the plunge and ran for city council with my platform: “The Right Change, based on Competence, Commitment, and Character.”

Fortunately, after many years of civic engagement, I’d built name recognition and a base of loyal supporters. My husband, Manny served as my campaign manager and his strategy was simple: reach out to the Filipino-Americans as our foundation and build from there. Because of my campaign, members from 3 local Filipino American groups worked together for a common cause: to make sure I win with the highest votes.

The Filams were my most ardent and generous donors but I also attracted a diverse group of residents, who knew me from the planning commission, to rally behind me during my campaign. My supporters attended meet-and-greet house parties, casino trips, a dance, breakfast buffets, and other fundraisers to raise $10,000. Donations were typically from $20 to $100 from individuals. Most gave support with one condition: that I serve as an honest public servant. Many supported me unconditionally and with full trust.

Like any typical American campaign, our campaign held precinct walking (walking through neighborhoods to pass out flyers and knock on doors) and phone banking (calling registered voters from a list). Volunteers stood on the streets waving campaign signs to commuters during the cold winter mornings. Yard signs were distributed, then displayed proudly on front lawns. We also mailed postcards to the most-likely to vote residents. My treasurer made sure I followed the donation rules and met reporting deadlines of the Fair Political Practices Commission. She even returned donations that didn’t meet the FPPC rules and our agreed ethical standards.

The two challengers, I and John Delgado, beat the two incumbents, and our victory started true change in Hercules.

I entered the city council at the height of controversy. The situation was worse than I had thought. We were stunned to learn the brutal truths. First, that the city wasn’t flush with money, as our former city leaders had assured us. We discovered the magnitude of our financial crisis ($6 million budget deficit), the mismanagement of funds, the conflicts of interest and rampant nepotism and cronyism practiced in city hall, the rubber stamping of decisions. Then, on top of our local challenges, the State abolished Redevelopment. The city was slapped with lawsuits. Real estate properties and our municipal electric company sold at fire-sale prices. City staff were cut in half. Friday furloughs implemented. Community events cancelled. Angry constituents filled our council chambers at every meeting. During my first term, Council had to deal with a revolving door of 7 city managers, as well the resignation and recall of 3 council members, and another election that booted out 2 of the newer council members who had recalled the former council members. The city was on the brink of bankruptcy. I moved quickly from rookie council member, to Vice Mayor during my first month of office, then Mayor on my 6th month.

As the only woman and Filipina in the City Council, I took on the challenge of changing the stereotyping of Filipina. Some people, even the media, seemed to want to perpetuate the image of Filipina women as passive, submissive, silent, and sweet. I can be sweet, but certainly not passive, submissive or silent. I wasn’t afraid to speak out, ask the questions no one wants to ask, and vote with my conscience. Many times I was the lone opposing vote. Because of my efforts to speak for my constituents, I earned the appreciation of many residents. But my actions defying the Filipina stereotype disturbed some people.

As a way to communicate with my constituents, I participated in the neighborhood blog, called the Hercules Patch. I read the blogs daily because I wanted to be engaged with my constituents. At the same time, I was monitoring what they were saying about me. If someone attacked me, I’d counter with a comment, hoping to get them to my side. In spite of my efforts, racial and sexist slurs against me filled the blogs. I was called Imelda, Evita; I was painted as an evil woman who sought power. My husband and I were told to go back to the third world we came from.

Then there was a blog post. This particular blog post and my reaction to it triggered a slew of events that led to the council’s efforts to strip me of my Vice-Mayor position and to censure me (a public shaming through a censure resolution). Some residents filed complaints to the district attorney and the police department. Contra Costa Times editorial urged me to resign. I was vilified in the newspapers and blogs. That was one of the darkest moments in my life.

Fortunately, my supporters, made up of a diverse group of citizens, crowded the council room, wrote letters to the editor, and shamed the other council members into dropping their censure movement. I survived my trials through prayer and the support of loving friends and family. Instead of defeating me, I used my trials as an opportunity to grow and change. I had sessions with a life coach, then every day I read books on leadership and self-improvement. I’ve made peace with myself and forgave my political enemies for the sake of the greater good. And I stopped reading blogs. Instead I reach out to my constituents through email newsletter updates and community gatherings.

In 2014, with the same machinery I’d used on my first campaign, I ran for re-election and won a second term with the highest votes. I’m slated to be mayor again next year. The City of Hercules is now heading on a positive path to recovery. I’m grateful I heeded the call to service. Although I am a politician, I consider myself as a servant first, leader second and a mentor for future servant-leaders.

I’d like to end with a quote about servant-leadership and mentorship.

“The servant-leader is servant first… Becoming a servant-leader begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first… The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and the most difficult to administer, is this: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”
–Robert Greenleaf