California Assemblymember Tony Mendoza, born in South Central Los Angeles, is the second youngest of nine children. As a young man living in a single-parent home, he witnessed firsthand the struggles of working families and the opportunities a good education provides. Passionate about education, he was an elementary school teacher in East Los Angeles for more than 10 years and was involved with the California Teachers Association and the National Education Association. In addition to working diligently on education, health care and family issues, he is focused on making the roads a safer place through measures that oppose illegal street racing.
First elected to the California State Assembly in 2006, Mendoza represents the 56th California Assembly District, which includes the communities of Artesia, Buena Park, Cerritos, Hawaiian Gardens, Los Nietos, Norwalk, Santa Fe Springs, South Whittier/unincorporated Whittier, portions of East Whittier and Lakewood. Last year, Assemblymember Mendoza joined forces with the State Automotive Enthusiast Leadership Caucus, which was founded in 2005 and is supported by SEMA. The caucus is designed as a non-partisan group of state legislators whose common thread is a love and appreciation for automobiles.
Working with state legislatures in recent years, SEMA has sought legislation to overhaul existing statutes and create brand-new programs to safeguard and expand the automotive hobby. These efforts have brought a series of significant legislative and regulatory accomplishments for the specialty-equipment industry on issues ranging from equipment standards to registration classifications to emissions-test policy and hobbyist rights. The State Automotive Enthusiast Leadership Caucus now numbers approximately 400 total members from all 50 states.
SEMA News recently spoke with Mendoza about his work in the legislature.
SEMA News: In addition to being a tenured elementary school teacher, you were the first Latino member of the Artesia City Council and, at 26, the youngest mayor in the history of Artesia. What attracted you to public service at such an early age?
Tony Mendoza: I wanted to make my community safer and strengthen local neighborhoods by providing options for families through the development of parks and recreation centers. I grew up in South Central Los Angeles, where the gang element was strong. I wanted children in my new home town of Artesia to be free of those problems and have alternatives to that lifestyle. Being involved and active as a teacher and serving on boards, I understand that positive change can happen through policy.
SN: SEMA has been fortunate to partner with legislators such as you many times in the past on key issues. SEMA promotes safe and legal alternatives to illegal street racing through its Racers Against Street Racing (RASR) program. How did you become aware of and concerned with illegal street racing in California and in your district?
TM: Public safety has always been one of my main concerns, and street racing can leave devastation in its wake for families in my district and neighboring communities. I recognized the problems it creates in Ontario and San Diego, for example, because of their geographic location and design. Both cities have large industrial zones with straightaway thoroughfares that stretch for miles and are optimum for illegal street racing. I worked with the Ontario and San Diego police departments to ensure that the resources they need are continuously funded to drive programs geared at monitoring and apprehending street racers. Each department had noted increased activity, including fatalities, as funding for their respective street racing programs declined.
SN: California and local governments have reacted to illegal street racing with a variety of new laws. They have increased fines and jail sentences for street racers; made it illegal to be a spectator at an illegal street race; and impounded and crushed cars involved in street racing. What do you think needs to be done to further curb this dangerous activity?
TM: Incrementally, each of these methods has helped curb illegal street-racing activity. Education on the dangers of street racing and the continued promotion of both the consequences and legal ramifications will help further lower incidents. Being able to continue to fund abatement programs with the proceeds from fines will also benefit law-enforcement efforts.
SN: Beyond law enforcement and deterrence, how do we encourage street racers to take their racing to the track?
TM: We need to work to legitimize nonprofessional racing through programs and events sponsored by auto manufacturers, by the Society of Automotive Engineers and by creating statewide racing tournaments at public race courses. SEMA’s RASR program is a great example of how we can try to engage youth and channel their passion for racing to safe and legal track alternatives.
SN: In November, you had the opportunity to attend the 2009 SEMA Show in Las Vegas. The Show is the single largest assembly of specialty automotive manufacturers, retailers and distributors in the United States, many of which are based in your home of Southern California. Please share with us your experience and impressions from the Show.
TM: It was a real treat to be among other auto enthusiasts. As a fan of car shows, I was amazed by the creativity and ingenuity of the products made by SEMA members. To see the innovation of the automotive industry on display and in motion, even after 100 years, was truly inspiring. My recent visit to Egge Machine Co. was likewise a treat and a great opportunity to see firsthand the passion that members of this community have in their industry and hobby.