Gloria Romero, the majority leader in the California State Senate and one of Hispanic Business magazine's Outstanding Women to Watch of 2008, sits back in a high-necked leather chair in the middle of her expansive red-carpeted office in the Capitol Building in Sacramento. Behind her hang the flags of the United States and California. Th e office décor reflects the trappings of power and authority. Sen. Romero helps preside over a state that could easily rank as a major world economic power in its own right.
Through her door stroll lobbyists, politicians, industry experts, and business people to plead their causes. They cajole, bargain, and pressure. California politics is not a game for the meek or timid.
You need all your wits and skills to not get eaten up alive, says Sen. Romero. But, after a moment of reflection, she adds with conviction, "At the end of the day, the only way to hold onto your integrity in this rough and tumble game of politics is to remember your roots, what your family taught you, and never forget where you came from."
Representing a sprawling section of East Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley that encompasses approximately 850,000 residents, Sen. Romero won her Senate seat in 2001, after a hard-fought campaign. She quickly developed a reputation as one of the hardest-working, most knowledgeable, and politically skilled legislators in Sacramento. In recognition of her political savvy, drive, and commitment to an agenda of reform, her peers elevated her to the role of Majority Leader in 2005.
Her job as the Senate's second-most powerful official is to manage the legislative agenda and the debate on the floor, along with marshalling support for the passage or defeat of proposed bills.
Among Sen. Romero's signature issues are education and prison reform. If California was a distinct country, its economy would rank as sixth largest, but it would also stand as number 10 in terms of people incarcerated. With an expanding number of inmates and billions of dollars being spent annually on their housing and feeding, California's prison system seems to be always in crisis – always growing, always overcrowded.
As a result, Sen. Romero has become the state's most recognized expert and advocate of prison reform. She has authored numerous pieces of legislation aimed at reorganizing the department of corrections, revising sentencing procedures, and increasing funds for rehabilitation. Once prisoners have served their time, she notes, they will be back on the streets, whether they are rehabilitated or not.
Sen. Romero's ardent support for education reflects her own lifelong love of learning. She grew up "on the other side of the tracks" in Barstow, California. Her mother had a sixth-grade education, and her father was a laborer who worked two shift s to support his family. But he always had time, she recalls, to read to his daughter.
Reading books and gaining an education became Sen. Romero's source of hope and the way to widen her social vista and see the world. To achieve that education, she had to fight the prejudices of her school, which resisted her demand to take the college preparatory exam, and the traditional beliefs of her family, which didn't see as proper or valuable an unmarried woman pursuing multiple degrees in higher education. But fight she did, eventually earning a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of California, Riverside and becoming a professor there.
Although the art of politics today fills up her time, it was education that initially opened up Sen. Romero's world. And, even when fighting the tough political battles from her prestigious Capitol office, she never forgets her childhood days and her debt to her family, schools, and library. That is why the senator remains a strong advocate of making schools and libraries accessible to Hispanic Americans to help them succeed in this society.
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