The Fil-Am state assembly hopeful discusses struggles he faced in his early life and his decision to run for public office
GROWING during the pre-gentrification era in Los Angeles’ Historic Filipinotown doesn’t easily lend itself to an easy life, much less grand aspirations of success.
Plagued by street violence and poverty, this area of LA doesn’t come off as an environment for the nation’s future leaders to thrive. One Filipino American, however, built relationships with the community and utilized his values of goodwill to provide him with the drive to achieve.
Alex De Ocampo recently announced that he is running in a special election later this year for the California State Assembly District 51 (AD 51), which includes the neighborhood he grew up in and for which he continues to make strides.
AD 51 — which is currently vacant after De Ocampo’s friend former Assemblymember Jimmy Gomez was elected to the United States Congress — stretches from areas of East LA to Koreatown, incorporating Echo Park, downtown LA and, of course, Historic Filipinotown. De Ocampo now lives in Mt. Washington, also part of the district, with his husband Todd and their foster child.
He served as the managing director at the Saban Family Foundation, a charity with a focus on funding health and social welfare causes in LA and Israel. A prominent figure in LA’s Filipino-American community, the 38-year-old is the embodiment of the neighborhood for which he wishes to serve.
Running on a platform in favor of public programs to assist the less fortunate, De Ocampo’s upbringing inspired him to become the leader that he always wanted growing up, in an area which still struggles with crime and poverty.
“I believe through my life and work experience through the values that were instilled in me from my family that has prepared me to run for the Assembly and become a candidate for this district,” De Ocampo, 38, told the Asian Journal in an interview on Friday, July 14.
“It was because of public education and mentors and public programs that I was able to thrive,” he added. “There was a lot of gangs and drugs and violence where we grew up, but I owe a lot to all the mentors and teachers and family members that encouraged me to do well and go to school and eventually go to college.”
Humble beginnings as a first generation Filipino American
De Ocampo was born in Los Angeles in 1979 to parents who immigrated from the Philippines in the earlier part of the decade. His family’s story parallels that of many immigrant families in Los Angeles during this time.
De Ocampo described the struggles his father had to endure to bring his mother and three sisters to the United States. His father worked as a dishwasher in a restaurant in Historic Filipinotown, and slept on park benches and sold family heirlooms to save money.
Once the family was brought over and when De Ocampo was born, his parents worked 80 hours a week and all seven members of his family lived in a studio apartment.
To make matters even rougher, his father was diagnosed with cancer when De Ocampo was 9 years old, and because of their lack of health insurance, his father had to move back to the Philippines to seek care. But by the time his father got back to the motherland, the cancer had spread and he passed away, leaving his mother to pick up the burden of raising a family on her own.
The De Ocampo family lived all around the area comprising AD 51 and struggled to keep everyone afloat.
“Growing up, it was always hard in the sense that we had to hustle really hard in making sure there was food on the table [and] making sure we could help my mom as much as possible,” De Ocampo recalled, adding that as a teenager, he cleaned toilets, scrubbed floors and found odd jobs to help the family.
He recalled a time when things got so rough that he sold chocolates and cookies door-to-door to buy glasses.
“That time really shaped my view on life and about giving back and helping the community,” De Ocampo said of his inspiration to become involved in charity work.
He eventually was introduced to the Youth Entertainment Summer program, which motivated him to pursue a career in the arts and entertainment.
After graduating from Cal State Northridge, he utilized his connections and experiences to rise up the ranks of the Saban Family Foundation, which works with a $400 million budget to provide health care, medical research and educational programs for disadvantaged youth.
Political from the get go
For De Ocampo, politics and the importance of public service were instilled in him at a young age.
“My parents always said to make sure that your voice is heard and that you always give back to the community that has helped you,” he said, adding that his values always aligned with those of the Democratic Party.
In school, he was the first Filipino American to be elected president of the California Young Democrats. At CSUN, he was the president of the California College Democrats and was heavily involved in rallies and pushing for progressive issues. Although he both worked and went to school full time, he managed to stay involved in the “political realm of activism.”
“I never really slept in college,” De Ocampo remarked with a chuckle. “I kept on going because I was driven by this idea of doing good work for the community and for California, in general. It was exciting and there were a lot of public policy issues that were affecting the state that I wanted to be a part of.”
In 2013, De Ocampo was one of 22 candidates running for the 13th District of LA City Council. He came in third in the race, which was eventually won by Mitch O’Farrell, but this experience inspired the young, politically-minded De Ocampo to work harder to become a leader in the community.
A progressive platform and the race for AD 51
When former Assemblymember for the AD 51, Jimmy Gomez, was elected to the U.S. Congress, De Ocampo saw the chance to give back to the area and to the state which has provided him with opportunities.
“I think California should be a place — no matter where you’re from or what your background is — that if you work hard and play by the rules you can succeed,” De Ocampo said of his overarching goal as a state assemblymember. “I want to make sure that, in the state assembly, that rings true and that we continue the progress that California has given so many people and that California dream that has attracted my parents to come here is still well and alive and everyone is welcome.”
De Ocampo is running on a platform of issues which he knows are the district’s most pressing. Even before he announced his campaign, he has met and interacted with the district’s constituents and leaders to find out which key issues need the most attention, including providing high-quality public education, stronger economic opportunity, and affordable childcare, among others.
As a way to serve the surroundings that have helped him thrive, De Ocampo hopes to bring issues which strongly affect the Fil-Am community to the forefront in the state assembly, including and especially health care and protecting the Affordable Healthcare Act (ACA) and Medicaid.
“With the ACA being dismantled by this administration — which is quite shocking — we need to protect our most vulnerable, which includes Filipino seniors,” De Ocampo said. “We need to ensure that they continue to have access to quality and affordable health care, which resonates with our community because health care is so costly. We need to make sure [the ACA] is protected and I will be a voice on that issue.”
Immigration reform and advocating for undocumented immigrants are also important to him, as he hopes to use his office as a resource for the undocumented population.
“I’ve walked through this district and met so many undocumented Filipinos who are living in fear, and by using the office to advocate for them and tell them what their rights are is going to be important, and I’m going to continue to do that once elected: to provide full resources for all undocumented immigrants need,” said De Ocampo.
Since announcing his campaign earlier this summer, De Ocampo has garnered the support of several Fil-Am community members and endorsements from a handful of lawmakers, including Assemblymember Rob Bonta (D-Alameda), who is currently the only Filipino-American represented in the state Legislature.
With De Ocampo’s election, he would be the second Fil-Am and the first assemblymember of full Filipino heritage.
Bonta noted how it is De Ocampo’s “time” to be an elected official, citing the latter’s leadership skills.
“I’ve known Alex for some time now and really believe in his leadership and his ability to step into the role on day one and hit the ground running and make a difference and represent the values of the district and all its beautiful diversity. He’s very skilled and experienced and he’s been involved in several endeavors and I know that he’s ready. He’s extremely smart, has great interpersonal skills and has cultivated wonderful relationships, which truly impact your ability to be effective as an assemblymember,” Bonta told the Asian Journal.
Given that Filipinos are the fastest-growing group in California, Bonta emphasized the importance of having another qualified Fil-Am represent the community throughout the state.
“Having been the first Filipino elected in the state Legislature, I promise also to not be the last. Helping other great leaders who have a path to be in the Legislature and supporting and mentoring them or having their back has been a top priority for me and supporting Alex, given this election and the timing, is a top priority for me. It’s always been important to me, making sure we get another Filipino in the same office,” Bonta explained. “I’m very proud and honored to support and endorse him.”
Also endorsing the young state Assembly hopeful is his former LA City Council opponent and current Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell, who praised De Ocampo’s experience with the Saban Family Foundation in providing opportunities to underprivileged youth in the arts.
“Alex De Ocampo understands firsthand that the entertainment industry is an economic driver of Los Angeles’ economy,” O’Farrell said in a statement announcing his endorsement. “Alex knows that a strong entertainment industry can provide an opportunity to rise out of poverty and into the middle class. As a member of the state Assembly, Alex would be a great partner to work with to strengthen our arts and entertainment economy.”
U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) and California Board of Equalization member Fiona Ma have also endorsed De Ocampo, citing his immigrant parents as well as his solid experience as a philanthropist as major qualifiers for the state Assembly.
De Ocampo knows that Filipinos are integral to the LA community and have significant pull when it comes to city and state elections.
Eleven percent of AD 51 are Asian American, but Filipinos comprise of the largest Asian American group at more than 10,000 residents (4.6 percent). Moreover, Filipino turnout at the polls is at about 19 percent, which is drastically higher than the highly sought-out Latino voters, who stand at 12 percent voter turnout.
In short, if all Filipinos showed up at the polls, they have the power to decide elections, especially in AD 51.
On the potential of becoming the first Filipino-American to hold state legislative office from LA in decades, De Ocampo takes it very seriously and is ready to assume the responsibility attached to being the Fil-Am representative for LA.
“I think there is such great responsibility and opportunity to be able to highlight our community and if elected, I vow to our Filipino-American community that our voices will be heard in Sacramento, and I don’t take that lightly,” De Ocampo promised.