Antonio Lopez knows how to sound persuasive.
He talks as if he's spreading wisdom behind a lectern and waves his hands with flourish when he makes a point. It's a useful tool, or at least one he hopes is helpful, for convincing skeptical voters who question if a 26-year-old doctoral candidate in literature at Stanford University, with no formal background in local politics, is prepared to govern a city of around 30,000 people.
"If you have the desire to make an impact, no matter what your age, you can do that," said Lopez, explaining how he felt inspired to pursue a career in public service by his peers at Oxford University, where he was enrolled through the Marshall Scholarship program after completing his undergraduate degree at Duke University. "I felt very encouraged being in that environment."
He's a writer by background, the East Palo Alto native said. His first collection of poetry with the nonprofit publisher Four Way Books is set for release next year. Writing has always been his tool for social justice advocacy, he said — whether it's through his poetry or through guest opinion columns at his college newspaper.
Coming back to the Gardens neighborhood from some of the most prestigious universities in the world, Lopez said he feels he's now in a position of privilege that he's obligated to use to guide a city that's improving but still has many vulnerable residents.
"It is absurd that we are in one of the wealthiest regions — not in the entire country but in the world — and we have people who are homeless," Lopez said. "It's just laughable that you can have extremely affluent companies in our midst, especially in the heart of the Silicon Valley, and can have these issues. To me, it is a horrible satire."
Lopez sets out more progressive actions compared to his fellow candidates when it comes to the issues of affordable housing and the city's efforts to mitigate the impact of COVID-19.
On his campaign website, which outlines a "10 Pt. Program," Lopez says he wants to put an end to East Palo Alto's single-family zoning and suggests building apartments in those residential areas.
When asked how much affordable housing the city needs, Lopez said, "As much as possible."
He also proposes that the city seek out avenues beyond philanthropic efforts to provide low-income residents with "comprehensive rent forgiveness."
Resident displacement is an ongoing concern in East Palo Alto, but Lopez fears the problem may have worsened during the pandemic as many renters could be facing crippling amounts of debt with a creeping due date since the city's eviction moratorium expired on Sept. 30. (State Assembly Bill 3088, also known as the "Tenant Act," currently protects residents from evictions if they pay 25% of any missed rental payments between Sept. 1 and Jan. 31, 2021. East Palo Alto has a later repayment period that starts on March 1, 2021.)
"If Facebook donates a million dollars, that's admirable, but it's not enough," Lopez said. "And frankly, when we think about the dignity of this community, waiting for our wealthy tech companies to give us money, to me ... that's insufficient."
Lopez didn't offer concrete ways in which the city could pursue rent forgiveness, but he said it would need state and federal aid and that he would look into all other possibilities.
For the youth community, Lopez is determined to help set students on the same four-year college track he experienced. That could come in the form of city-sponsored internship programs, he said, or pushing for more funding to local education nonprofits like the Thiebaut Method, according to his campaign website.
"When we think about uplifting our community, it starts from the bottom," Lopez said. "That's why this campaign is heavily about investing in our youth."
During the COVID-19 pandemic, when many seniors are homebound due to the health risks, Lopez suggested mobilizing the youth through a citywide program — which he would dub the City Ambassador Program — and create something akin to hotline centers, which seniors can contact if they need any assistance in accessing services in the city or on the internet.
He also offers other community-oriented and -powered solutions — characteristic of a city like East Palo Alto, which relies on many nonprofits — when it comes to the issue of food insecurity and the city's lack of access to organic produce. (At a local farmers market hosted by the Fresh Approach nonprofit, several Latino residents said staple supermarkets in their city like Cardenas don't sell organic produce.)
"We need a community garden … several community gardens quite frankly," he said.
Lopez pointed to vacant lots and empty spaces throughout the city, such as the one at the end of O'Connor Street by the Baylands trail, which he claims is a "perfect site" for a community garden.
Another pillar of his campaign is making East Palo Alto's streets safer for pedestrians. Illegal parking on the city's sidewalks often pushes walking residents onto the street, according to his campaign website.
If elected to the council, Lopez said he would advocate for parking permits, one-way streets, speed bumps and the use of empty church parking lots as more residential parking space.
The writer acknowledges that he enters the race with no experience in local politics. But Lopez makes the case that as a young Latino, who came from a low-income family and experienced racial discrimination at his school, he will add an invaluable voice to the council.
"I applaud the work of the incumbents," Lopez said. "But I also think it's important to have that perspective of the next generations coming in line to say, 'Hey, I'm also part of this city. I also want to afford to live here,' and someone who has that direct experience … is super important moving forward."
Read profiles of the other six candidates: