Ana Cubas has worked in the education, non-profit, and State and City government sectors since 1995. She holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Sociology with highest honors from U.C. Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Public Affairs and Urban and Regional Planning from Princeton University. As an immigrant and the first in her family to attend college, Ana knows first-hand the struggles of low-income families.
In March of 2013, Ana ran for Los Angeles City Council District 9. Her “back to basics” grassroots campaign focused on empowering low-income communities and garnered much support. Ana advanced to the run off election, losing to her opponent, a state senator whose campaign funds exceeded $2 million, by less than 600 votes. Prior to running for office, Ana worked as Chief of Staff to Los Angeles City Council member Jose Huizar.
Escaping the civil war in El Salvador, Ana was brought to Los Angeles when she was ten years old. She attributes her educational and professional success to her family’s strong work ethic. Her father provided for his family by standing on street corners as a day laborer, and her mother continues to serve as a domestic worker in the Westside.
Ana began her public policy career working for the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C. and then for the California Legislative Analyst’s Office in Sacramento. She moved back to Los Angeles to work in Los Angeles City Hall, first for the Chief Legislative Analyst’s Office as a Legislative Analyst and then for Council President Alex Padilla as a Legislative Deputy. From 2005 until 2008, Ana was appointed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to serve on the Los Angeles City Information Technology Commission and prior to that by Mayor Jim Hahn to serve on the City’s Human Relations Commission.
Disclaimer: This interview was conducted for the Fall 2013 Newsletter
Ana, you have a long history of working in public service. Where did that dedication come from?
There are a couple of events I think that shaped that. The first was personal. I grew up in El Salvador and came to this country when I was 10 years old. My family was escaping the war. Before that, I learned a lot about public service from my grandmother. People were always coming to her door asking for help, and she would always give them whatever help she could. She never turned anyone away. When she died, the entire town of 3,000 people came to her funeral. That made a big impression, and I knew that was the type of person I wanted to be.
Second, a more professional event that led me to public service was when I attended the Chicano/Latino Youth Leadership Conference for high school students in California. Students spend a week in Sacramento and learn about how to get to college and the legislative process. You meet with different people and get a sense of what it’s like to work in that environment. It made quite an impression, and I remember as a Junior choosing that life for myself. I told myself that someday I would be back there in that Capitol building.
How has your involvement in PPIA impacted your life?
PPIA was instrumental in my career path. I had been involved in student government as an undergrad and knew others who had participated in the Junior Summer Institutes. I attended the CMU program and had a great experience. It helped me get on the right path to do what I’ve done and be where I am. At the time, you were required to go straight to graduate school, no time off for work experience. I was at UC Berkeley as an undergraduate and went to Princeton for graduate school.
Throughout my career I’ve been thankful that because of my involvement with PPIA, I didn’t have any debt. This allowed me to take on the public sector jobs that I have had and not have to worry about paying off loans. Other people I know completed their master’s degree and had to deal with large amounts of debt that impacted their job choices. I could really focus on the things that I wanted to do rather than on the paycheck. To this day, I am thankful for that and that I’m not dealing with debt from that graduate school. It’s a big relief. Without that support, I could still be paying off student loans.
Why did you decide to pursue a dual degree in graduate school?
I grew up in LA and have always been interested in urban planning, how people are impacted by their environment and how to improve people’s lives through their environment. I had wanted to minor in urban planning in undergrad but wasn’t able to, so when Princeton offered an opportunity to get both a Master’s in Public Administration and a Master’s in Urban Planning I was excited to do that.
You’ve worked at the federal, state, and local levels. What were those experiences like?
Working at the Federal level as an Education Program Specialist for the Department of Education in Washington, DC was also an amazing opportunity. I’ve always seen myself in public service, and maybe one day I’ll go back to DC to serve in Congress.
I’ve also worked in Sacramento, the state capital of California. It was amazing to walk the halls and be part of that world. My job was to analyze the state budget and advise on different programs. I remember we were always on call because committees would meet at odd hours, and it was exciting and meaningful work that made an impact on communities across the state.
After a while though, I decided to move back to LA to be closer to my family and get involved in the local community. I really like working at the local level because of my urban planning interest. I ran for office because I feel like that’s where you can make the most significant changes to people’s environments. I want to do things that leave a legacy, something tangible that people will remember. That’s also why I’ve created two charter schools. I can always say I built that school where children are still learning and growing. That’s something that will live on, and for me that’s the best part of serving the public.
Why did you decide to run for office and how did you prepare yourself?
Running for office was something I had always wanted to do, but I knew that I had a lot to learn and needed to work my way up. After I moved back to Los Angeles, I worked at City Hall to learn how the local government worked and get a better sense of what it meant to be an elected official there. I also got involved in campaigns to learn about the process and the issues. I built a network that I was later able to tap for support when I decided to run for office myself.
What did you take away from your experience as a candidate?
I definitely have a tremendous amount of respect for what elected officials sacrifice. I resigned my job and gave campaigning my all. If you focus on what you really want, it’s completely doable. I had the experience and the contacts and I was able to raise over half a million dollars for my run. Through this process I learned that I was a viable candidate, but also about the role of money in politics. I was in a tough race against a seasoned and well funded opponent. He certainly had more capital than I did, and that can make or break a candidate. However, even though I faced a better funded candidate, we were only 580 votes apart, so I know I ran a good campaign. If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything. Be prepared for the realities of campaigning and to work very hard and be totally committed to your goals.
What advice would you give to alumni who are thinking about running for office?
I definitely encourage others to run, especially women. In the LA City Council there is only one woman. I would have been number two out of fifteen. Half of the population is women, so shouldn’t half of the representation be women? I would strongly encourage PPIA Fellows to take that risk and jump in and run for office.
What I would say is that you have got to work your way up. Get involved in campaigns; work for an elected official. That seems to be the main way that people get into running for office. You have to pay your dues and learn the ropes. Be helpful, be good at what you do, and never burn bridges. That will help you build a good network that will end up supporting you later on.
What is your proudest professional achievement?
My proudest professional achievement is actually the work I did in establishing the two charter schools. They are alive and well, and there are children who go and learn and are doing well in school. I was involved in every aspect of getting them up and running, and I’m proud of that because it will live on for generations.
What’s next for you?
That’s a good question. I want to stay focused on public service; I will always be a public servant. I’m working on developing a Latina Leadership Academy. The goal would be to convene high school Latina girls and teach them how to run for public office. It would be two, full-day Saturdays dedicated to training with access to different people who work in the campaign world. Then, students would spend one Tuesday on site visits to meet with elected officials and watch them in action. We need to start helping women see running for office as a viable option early on, and that’s what I hope this program will do for Latina girls. Starting this Academy was actually one of the things I pledged to do when running for office, and I am pleased that I can do this even though I wasn’t elected.
Do you have any words of wisdom or advice for students considering public service?
Be ambitious and be bold in your goals. Don’t settle for less than what you want. You should also be ready for the ups and downs of life. As a woman, I knew what my goals were and to achieve them I have put off getting married and having children. I don’t regret that at all, but it’s something that you should think about. As a minority, you always have to work harder and have the credentials to stand out. We have to be ready. Sometimes, you’ll be in a job that is less than ideal. Sometimes you’ll be in a great job, and you need to figure out how you will handle both situations.