September 20, 2018 at 10:20 am PST | by Karen Ocamb
AJ Valenzuela is running for Community College Board

AJ Valenzuela (Photo courtesy Valenzuela campaign)

Lost in the uproar over heady political conflicts and fears of a conflagration poised to destroy American democracy as we know it are the skirmishes closer to the ground, the local grassroots fights over elected seats for the judiciary, controller, assessor, or on water boards and school boards that impact citizens more directly than most voters realize.

Arthur “AJ” Valenzuela Jr., 27, is one such candidate. Valenzuela is a young bisexual Democratic activist running for Ventura County Community College District Trustee Area 1, an area that covers Ventura and Ojai. After incumbent Trustee Stephen Blum decided not to seek re-election, four people qualified to run for that seat. Valenzuela says he was recruited by Blum.

“He thought I would be a good candidate because I used to be the Student Trustee on the Ventura County Community College District Board years ago, back in 2012-2013,” Valenzuela tells the Los Angeles Blade. “I had the experience with higher education at the community college level, was elected President of the California Community College Association of Student Trustees, did some advocacy work for U.C. Santa Barbara and also covered higher education for Assemblymember Das Williams. I was known as a local young activist that probably could give a better understanding of the student youth population when it came to community colleges.”

Valenzuela comes to the table armed with policy positions on such hot button issues as free college tuition, workforce development and building community—and he has the personal experience to back it up. 

“I was that student that struggled with community college back when I went through it. Most of my friends went off to four year universities and I was that person locally who went to a local community college, went up to a four year university, came back and now I’m contributing to the community,” he says. “And I think I do have a lot to offer the community college system here locally as a young professional Latinx LGBTQ youth.”

Valenzuela, a strong advocate for free community college, is in favor of Democratic Socialism—which he says means the government is supposed to provide for the community. In the 1960s, he notes, “education was free until Prop 13 came along and Ronald Reagan.” K through 12 grade education is free now, and community college was free in the past so his plan to “break down barriers” is “nothing radical.” Besides, with the California College Promise that waives certain enrollment fees for eligible students at any community college, “we are halfway there now to providing free community college.”

The California College Promise is a good start. “But let’s go to the next step—let’s see how we can make it two years free and so forth, extending it to four years versus in the long run. So I’m willing to work towards it in the realistic capacity that we have,” he says.

Valenzuela has been involved in California politics since 2012, which accounts for endorsements from out former Assembly Speaker John Perez, State Sen. Kevin de Leon and out California Democratic Party Chair Eric Bauman. “It shows my dedication to the community and to the Democratic Party,” he says. “I think it just shows that my reputation of being effective and progressive works for itself.”

He supports Sen. Bernie Sanders’ view of Democratic Socialism. “It means that people get a fair say in how things are distributed, that it’s done equally,” he says. “But I think we all have to give what we can as individuals. Some of us can give more than others. For example, I do believe that people should pay their fair share of taxes, especially as someone who comes from a family of long shoremen. I do think that we do get plenty of money and we give a good amount back in taxes because we benefit a lot from public taxes that go into contributing to our ports. So for me, as a young professional or a young blue collar worker, we are giving our fair share.”

Valenzuela is highly cognizant of the burgeoning student loan crisis. “The student loan crisis started becoming an issue in California after they started charging students for tuition for attending higher education,” he says. “For me, that just seems like it’s more privatization of community college because in the long run people are gonna have to pay back student debt.”

Valenzuela says he was “very lucky” having to only take out $4,400 while attending UC Santa Barbara. “Once we provide free education for people, we have our Community College Foundation that can help students with the other needs that they have,” he says. “Ideally, I would like to see forgiveness of student loans just from the scratch. But I don’t know if that is politically possible at this time.”

Valenzuela thinks it was “a tragedy” that Donald Trump was elected president. “It was unfortunate that a lot of people didn’t turn out to vote in 2016,” he says. But “I think young people are going to vote when it comes to people that meet their values.”

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