Hector de la Torre’s gray hair grew near his temples, and he walked slower than before.
But the longtime Southeast Los Angeles politician still looked every bit the citizen boy’s wonder when we met on a recent morning in his hometown of Southgate.
The 56-year-old first gained attention in the late 1990s as a City Council member who helped root out corruption that plagued the city, which went from being majority white to being majority Latino. Voters then sent him to the state Legislature from 2004 to 2010.
That was his last elected office. But his influence continues to grow beyond Southeast LA. Since 2011, he has served on the California Air Resources Board. The commission, his powerful agency known as CARB, seeks to make the state a world leader in reducing emissions and fundamentally change the way residents live.
Will there be no new cars with flammable engines after 2035? Blame it on CARB. Ban chrome plating for decorative purposes? Carbohydrates. An ambitious push to make California carbon neutral by 2045 by requiring zero-emission engines on short-haul ferries and locomotives? CARB, CARB, CARB — and these are just some of the bills that Mr. de la Torre and his fellow board members have created a lot of controversy over the past two years.
I wrote it in this Columna that CARB’s actions are too often perceived as picture-perfect demagogues with no regard for how working-class people can afford to live in a purified paradise; about. That’s why I wanted to meet De La Torre, currently the second-longest serving CARB member.
If anyone can convince me and my fellow fossil fuel outlaws to give up our gas-powered lawnmowers, luminous bumpers, and carburetor-powered cars, it’s him.
He is the son of Mexican immigrants from Jarostotitlan, Jalisco. This is a town where the Southern California diaspora is as strong as Rancho Libertarian. His grandfather was exposed to DDT when he entered the country to work as a bracero in the 1950s. His great-uncle was San Toribio Romo, a Catholic martyr killed by anti-clerical government forces in Mexico in the 1920s.
“When you have a saint in your family, you have to want to do the right thing,” de la Torre said with a laugh.
We were standing on the corner of Tweedy Boulevard and California Avenue. There, his two murals celebrating Southgate’s industrial heyday covered his two electrical boxes. These were companies such as Firestone, Bell Foundry, General Manager, and Mars Chemical, which Mr. de la Torre’s young men led, which created middle-class jobs but lost headcount in the 1970s and 1980s. Cuts and closures have turned southeast Los Angeles into Southern California’s own Rust Belt, leaving it polluted. Region-wide sites.
“I tell people we’re in the middle of the next industrial revolution,” Delatorre said. Diesel trucks and buses roared past us. The stench of their smoke was as thick as fog. We had to speak using outdoor voices over a concerto of horns and engines. “And it’s a clean revolution. We have products to make. We have work to do. And this time, we have to have a purpose.”
De la Torre became an environmental activist by accident. Growing up, he thought other people were suffering from burning lungs from playing outside too long, and that asthma and breathing difficulties were just a way of life in Southern California. His views changed in the mid-1990s, when he was working as the legislative director for the House of Representatives. Richard Lehman of Fresno;
“We had to deal with air pollution,” he says. “And when I got home [as a South Gate councilmember], one of the first problems I had was a trucking company that wanted to build a warehouse. We had the same problem in Fresno. And my position has always been, “No, no, we don’t need a warehouse.” I don’t want all the trucks. ‘ It’s bad enough as it is. ”
In his first year in Sacramento, Mr. de la Torre introduced a clean air bill, but “it was the deathbed of environmental legislation. So everyone was pulling their hair out, freaking out, saying, ‘What’s going on with this?’ Who is responsible?” he said. Who is wasting this bill? ”
He and others founded Green California, a coalition of environmental activists and nonprofit organizations, to align priorities. Mr. de la Torre served as a legislative point person.
“I think the worst we’ve had on these bills in the rest of my time in Congress was 85% support,” he said with an emphatic nod. “It completely changed the dynamic.”
The sun was shining so we moved away from the mural and stood in the shade of a nearby tree.
“It’s amazing that we’ve been in Congress almost twice as long as we’ve been in Congress at this point,” de la Torre said of CARB. Governor Jerry Brown originally appointed him to the board, and former Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon reappointed him in 2018 for a six-year term. “It’s amazing to look back at everything we’ve done.”
He said early on that CARB and others in California’s environmental movement want to introduce dramatic solutions to combat climate change, anticipating resistance from working-class voters. I noticed that.
“The climate change debate isn’t really motivating those communities,” he reasoned. “But what about contamination in your community? Absolutely.”
During his tenure, CARB has focused particularly on reducing air quality emissions, which Delatorre emphasized will save lives. He pulled out his smartphone and showed me his 2012 map of that year’s Multiple Atmospheric Toxic Exposures (MATES) study. This survey is conducted every five years by the South Coast Air Quality Management District. The map tracks where air pollution is worst in Southern California, and it depicts a dark purple band surrounding the 710 Freeway, which runs through southeast Los Angeles.
This is the area where the carcinogenic effects of air pollution are most severe, primarily caused by diesel exhaust fumes. Diesel exhaust makes up 8% of Southern California’s overall emissions, but more than 70% of carcinogenic particles.
Mr. de la Torre then showed me the same map. This time it’s from his 2021 MATES study. The dark purple spots had almost completely disappeared.
Southeast Los Angeles on the map is “still a fuchsia color,” he says. “but [carcinogenic emissions have] It clearly fell. What happened in between? Our regulation happened then. That’s the only difference. people live in the same place. Same highways, same factories, same everything. That’s why I always talk about eliminating diesel with CARB. ”
I said, “It’s great that cancer is going down, and that’s great, but I don’t live near a freeway.” Why should I accept regulations that affect the type of car I drive?
With a laugh, he acknowledged that car culture is strangling California. He himself does not drive an electric car because the current model cannot accommodate his 6-foot-5-inch frame. “But the market is getting there. More than 25% of new car sales in California were zero emissions last time. [quarter]. That’s not us. That’s not our mission. It is up to the consumer to choose. ”
Due to clean air regulations enacted in 2008 at the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, my father took a job as an independent truck driver because he couldn’t afford to retrofit his old truck and was too old to take out a loan. I answered that I had lost it. To buy something new.
Delatorre responded that truck drivers are “currently being strongly encouraged to switch to cleaner vehicles.” He mentioned CalSTART, a CARB-funded nonprofit that offers rebates for switching to greener engines. “Every time we put a lot of money aside for truck drivers, we get oversubscribed. They receive more applications than they have funding. So that’s what’s happening.”
We looked toward the street, where the engine was backfiring loudly.
“We’re not just throwing things away,” he said. “We don’t just put the hammer down. We say, ‘OK, how do we put these pieces together so that we can launch this marketplace and allow everyone to participate?’ ‘I think so.’
Mr. de la Torre was never judgmental during our hour-long conversation, and his final answer to a Luddite like me was completely rational, even empathetic. Ta.
“It’s a matter of habit. We’ve grown up with this stuff, so we think, ‘Oh, that’s the only way.’ But when people talk to me about charging their cars and all that, I say gas stations haven’t been convenient for less than 100 years. We act like it’s always been this way since the days of cavemen. no!
“We’re in the process of transitioning to a different technology, and it’s going to be a little bit of an inconvenience at first. But eventually it will become the norm and we’ll just adapt to it.”
As if on cue, the Prius sped down the alley and scraped the driveway. The driver was a tattooed man with a shaved head.
De la Torre grinned.
“a bit Firmly I’m driving a hybrid. I mean, come on!