Assembly member Blanca Rubio agrees to meet me at Chicory, a coffee shop in Sacramento frequented by members of the Legislature. We’ve never met. I’m going to give her my campaign pitch and see if it feels right to ask for her endorsement. I’ve never run for public office and now am running statewide to be the first woman elected Lt. Governor in California.
Some politicians feel I haven’t earned the right to run. I don’t know if Blanca Rubio is one of those so I plan to tread lightly.
Blanca explodes into the cafe like an electric storm. Thick black hair, intense dark eyes and a huge smile:
“Hello Eleni! I’m so happy to meet you and endorse you for Lieutenant Governor!”
Estela and Sabino Rubio and their four small children – Susan, Blanca, Robert and Sylvia, cross the border into Texas from Juarez, Mexico in 1975. They come on visitor visas, quickly find work, and settle into a new life.
For almost a year the family thrives, their weeks full of hard work and school. Every weekend there’s a family picnic in a park or at a playground. One Saturday, at a local carnival, a man approaches Sabino and starts asking questions. Even though she is just five years old, Susan vividly remembers her father’s face collapsing with helplessness and fear.
Their visas have expired, and the family is immediately deported back to Juarez.
Undeterred, Sabino crosses the border again, this time by himself, ending up in Los Angeles. He secures a job in the City of Industry at Walter Carpets as a “tufter,” hand-cutting industrial grade carpets for hotels. For two years, he works and saves, finally arranging for his family to reunite in Los Angeles.
Estela works during the day as a housekeeper for wealthy Hollywood executives, and Sabino takes a night shift at Walter Carpets. This way, one of them is always available to look after the children. It is a rough neighborhood, but the family – together in their tiny studio apartment – are determined to make it all work.
Mostly, it does. Blanca, Susan and Sylvia all thrive in school. Gifted students from the start, they quickly learn English and shoot to the top of their respective classes.
But it isn’t the same for Robert. He’s every bit as smart as the girls, but struggles with his English. For Susan, Robert’s twin, it’s especially crushing to see him fall behind, farther and farther.
Despite the girls’ clear aptitude and academic success in high school, the school’s college counselor makes assumptions about “girls like them,” that they will start families instead of pursuing higher education. When Blanca has her counseling session, she’s incensed. “The moment the counselor told me that college was not for me, I became 100 percent determined to go.”
Blanca and Susan go to college, earn their teaching credentials, and become school teachers in the San Gabriel Valley — Blanca in Baldwin Park, and Susan in Monrovia.
Their brother’s educational experiences inspire them to be teachers.
“It was so painful for us. We loved our brother and had to watch him slip away. He was a smart kid, but they took him to a special ed school and put him with kids who had severe developmental issues. Robert just needed more time to learn English. But instead, he ended up in an environment that stifled his learning, and he could never catch back up.”
Given their boundless energy, commitment to community and powerful work ethic, it isn’t surprising that Blanca and Susan Rubio gravitate toward public service.
Blanca hears of an opening on the Valley County Water Board. It’s 1997, only three years after she’s become a United States citizen. Still unclear about the process, she registers to run for the board then waits to see what happens.
The morning after the election, she has no idea how to find out the results. So she calls the county registrar and asks who the winner is. In response, she hears her name.
“Really? Blanca Rubio won?” Blanca shouts.
“Yes,” comes the registrar’s reply. “She was really lucky too – only won by 18 votes.”
Blanca serves for eight years on the water board, fighting to bring clean drinking water to her district. Six years in, she also runs for the Baldwin Park school board where she serves for 13 years. In 2016, she wins a seat in the California State Assembly.
Susan is elected Baldwin Park City Clerk in 2005. Her election breaks the record for most votes cast in a City Clerk race. In 2009, Susan wins a seat on the Baldwin Park City Council, where she serves for nine years before winning her Senate seat in 2018.
The Rubio sisters are still in their forties when they take their seats in the California Legislature. But they’ve already served 32 years in local elected office between them.
One night in 2018, the year Susan and I are both on the ballot, Blanca and Susan invite me to an event benefitting the veterans in their community. I drive deep into West Covina, past multiple campaign signs that read simply, “Vote Rubio!”
The room is packed. It has to be at least a three-hour event, with the entire room circling to our table to hug and kiss the Rubios, and meet their new friend who is also running for office. I am swept away by the love, hope and community spirit in the room. By the end of the evening, Blanca and Susan start to call me the “fourth Rubio sister.”
Two and four years into their service in Sacramento, Blanca and Susan have again taken off. Watching them in the Legislature is a master class on how to unearth facts, scrub policy proposals, build consensus and listen to everyone.
Sometimes, they take different positions from each other on bills — and don’t appreciate anyone making assumptions that they always agree.
But when they’re aligned, bringing other members along in support, they’re unstoppable.
The philosophy I see embedded in their policy positions is this:
We know our communities intimately. We know the families struggling to achieve the California dream, and we know the laws we make directly impact their lives.
“I’ve had a job since I was 13. Many times in my life, I had two, or even three,” Blanca remembers. “When we were little, sometimes my dad would be too sick to work, and we would all beg him to stay home. He refused, saying ‘When you have a job, you have to protect it because they don’t come along that often.’ ” The sisters remember him winning an award at Walter Carpets – 25 years without missing a single day.
In 2019, Susan is part of a trade mission I lead at Gov. Newsom’s request, to Mexico City. It was an impressive group of business people and experts in agriculture, green energy and clean technology.
As we walk along a majestic hallway on our way to the Office of the President of Mexico, I turn to Susan, and ask what it’s like to be our delegation’s highest ranking legislator, representing 40 million Californians. She smiles — that broad, electric Rubio smile — and her eyes slightly mist:
“It feels really, really good.”
Eleni Kounalakis is the first woman elected as California’s lieutenant governor.
Prior to being elected California’s 50th lieutenant governor in 2018, she served as US ambassador to the Republic of Hungary from 2010 to 2013.