When Karina Dominguez ran for Milpitas City Council in this past November, 2018, election, she did so grassroots-style, mobilizing support from the community by taking a simple yet powerful approach: She listened to people’s stories, and got to learn a great deal about their values, hopes, concerns, and fears.
“I was able to focus on building those relationships with our community members, and I heard about some of the despair they were feeling. There were so many people I ran into that said, ‘My voice doesn’t matter and won’t make a difference,’ ” said Dominguez. “But it’s about the power of community.”
Her campaign started early on in 2018. As far back as early spring, Dominguez and her team were already out knocking on doors. Dominguez estimated that she personally knocked on anywhere between 7,000 and 8,000 doors. Meanwhile, her team on the whole walked the entire city a total of three times, showing up on doorsteps all across Milpitas, all the way up ’til Election Day.
It was a tough race. Eight candidates were running, each with their own strengths and qualifications. Two of those candidates were incumbents Garry Barbadillo and Marsha Grilli, who each had their own followings and had built up trust in the community during their time in office.
Despite all this, Dominguez was undeterred, and consistently kept her focus on cultivating her connection with the community.
And it worked. In the end, Dominguez secured one of two council seats; the other seat went to Carmen Montano, who had previously served on the Council from 2012-2016.
“I think people saw that I wasn’t a traditional person running, but that I was grassroots, and care deeply about the community. I was able to take everyday issues and find solutions while being on the campaign trail. I wanted them to know I’m not just coming with empty promises,” said Dominguez. “My message to the community was: Please give me your trust, and I will make sure your needs are taken care of from Day One.”
The Experience to Lead
At Council Chambers on December 18, 2018, Dominguez was sworn in by her daughter Larissa, who is currently in her freshman year at the University of San Diego. Soon after being sworn in, Dominguez was appointed as Vice Mayor of Milpitas. It came as a shock that evening, as Mayor Rich Tran had previously expressed on social media that he wanted Montano to reprise her role as Vice Mayor, which she held under previous Mayor Jose Esteves. However, Montano graciously turned down the role, instead recommending Dominguez for it.
“I’ve always had this passion for government and how it worked,” said Dominguez, who at the age of 14 started working at the East Valley Family YMCA. It was there, at age 16, that she was able to be a part of a program called Youth and Government, through which students would visit Sacramento and other cities to learn how to pass policy. During that program, she received a Youth and Government pin, which she still owns to this day. In fact, she wore that very pin to her Swearing-In ceremony. And for the past five years, she has sat on the Board for the YMCA.
Having served as a staffer to both Assemblymember Kansen Chu and State Senator Bob Wieckowski, Vice Mayor Dominguez enters Milpitas politics with an arsenal of experience, knowledge, and unwavering commitment. She is well-versed in policy, and understands government matters at both state and city levels. One can see that in the confidence she radiates, in the articulateness with which she dispenses her wisdom, and in her willingness to engage her community in a way that goes beyond the scope of “politics as usual.”
A Fire is Lit
In April of 2017, Dominguez left her position at the State Senate after her friend and co-worker there endured a traumatic experience…the impacts of which still resonate to this day.
“I saw a lot of things around harassment, bullying, and sexual assault, in particular, at the state level,” said Dominguez. “And I will refer to her as Jane Doe…there was someone who I was close with; she was a state staffer in the state senate who was raped. And her experience and her story…it gave me that feeling of: What could I do? I really felt at that point, there was nothing I could do. Because I didn’t have that title or that power; I didn’t have the ability to move policy. I was someone who could influence policy, which was great, but sometimes it can take years to influence policy.”
Dominguez had no idea what the future would hold, but one thing was for certain: She would do all she could to empower women, to ensure that all women who’ve ever had to endure bullying or sexual harassment would be heard and supported.
What happened to her friend had awoken something in Dominguez, had lit a fire within — one that seemed capable of burning on in perpetuity.
In August of 2017, Dominguez stepped in to a new position as a Crime Prevention Specialist with the San Jose Police Department. She felt called to reach out and teach younger people, as well as to understand the law enforcement component of government, so that she could do her part in preventing sexual assault.
In her ongoing work as a Crime Prevention Specialist, Dominguez goes out to schools and teaches kids about cyber bullying, bullying prevention, and drug prevention. And given the prevalence of school shootings, she also goes out to schools and educates students on what to do in the event of an active shooter. In the meantime, as crime rates in the region continue to rise, Dominguez also plays an integral role in keeping the Neighborhood Watch programs running strong.
“Our unit is very unique as it does embed the ability to be an educator as well as a prevention specialist; and also someone who specializes in crime and crime statistics,” said Vice Mayor Dominguez. “I feel that experience is critical for our city, as we see BART coming in, and things like marijuana deliveries, which is something I’m concerned about.”
Taking it a Step Further and Running for Office
Although her job was fulfilling and impactful, Dominguez felt the need to do more. So in January 2018, she jumped into a leadership role in the San Jose Women’s March. She currently serves as part of the Advisory Council for the March, and supported its planning process. During the event, they invited survivors of sexual assault and bullying, particularly in the workplace, to come up onstage; about 50 women were invited, and bravely got up in front of everyone.
Looking up at these women made for a profound moment for Dominguez. She remembers thinking: That could be my daughter, my sister; it could be any one of us. As the #Metoo movement was just starting to come into sharp focus, as women’s stories were finally starting to be expressed and actually heard, Dominguez felt more emboldened than ever.
Then and there, she knew she had to run. And that it had to be in the upcoming November election.
Galvanized by her vision of deeply impacting and uplifting women, as well as the disenfranchised, Dominguez took some bold steps. Steps that she had never taken before. Within a few months, she announced her run for Milpitas City Council, and without missing a beat, she launched her campaign.
“I realized I had the potential to do something,” said Dominguez. “And that I owed it to my friend Jane Doe and to all other women. Because I wanted women, particularly of color, to see somebody…not be that traditional politician that we all see. And to know that they can be empowered. I wanted my campaign to be a grassroots movement, to empower other women and make sure people in power know that if you’re an enabler of sexual harassment or bullying, we’re going to come and take over your seat.”
Dominguez has three top priorities during her time in office:
- Ensuring that our community stays safe.
- Working toward creating more affordable housing opportunities, along with vital related policies, especially those encompassing tenant protections.
- Ensuring that small business owners feel supported, and that strong new businesses are brought into Milpitas, so that the funds they generate can go toward key objectives like road maintenance and a weed abatement program.
Vice Mayor Dominguez also feels strongly about working to ensure that the community feels welcome at City Hall, and that the City operates with transparency.
“We all need to work together and if our community isn’t feeling we’re working for them, then we need to figure out: Why is that?” Dominguez noted. “We want community members to be able to feel they’re part of influencing policy. Because that’s what we’re here to do. We’re here to move policy, and if our community isn’t engaging with us, it’s just going to make our job more difficult.”
In Dominguez’s first 30 days of office, one of her priorities has been to go back to businesses that supported her run, as well as going door-to-door to thank voters for their support. She has also met with the Chief of Police and the Fire Chief, and has done ride-alongs with both departments. She even sat in on a night shift with the Police Department.
Dominguez plans to share a 30/60/90 day plan soon, and also hopes to continue updating her website, so as to include highlights of what gets accomplished every month. One of her main goals is to engage the community, and to aid them in understanding how government works: “I want to empower them to organize, to show up, to know how to communicate with elected officials,” said Vice Mayor Dominguez.
During her campaign, Dominguez received many requests from Milpitas residents, highlighting different issues they were having in the community; she made sure to log each and every single one of them. One of those concerns had to do with an apartment complex which wasn’t being well-maintained; Dominguez and her team started showing up every Thursday to help with the structure’s clean-up. She also acknowledged the great work done by the City of Milpitas staff to address the concerns of those living in the complex.
Strong Women to Look up to
When asked about which women she admired in her life, Dominguez first mentioned her mother.
“She’s a hard worker and came from Mexico at a very young age with nothing, just the clothes on her back. She worked the canneries and the farms in Milpitas many years ago,” said Dominguez. “Her unconditional support…and just her way of helping me through challenges is something I’m giving back to my own daughter.”
In her professional life, Dominguez mentioned Santa Clara County Board Supervisor Cindy Chavez, whom she met years before she ever got involved in government and politics, through a mutual connection. One of Chavez’s cousins was friends with Dominguez, and introduced the two. “Cindy Chavez is kind and respectful. She really has an ability to unite community and really put forward policy that is focused on the goal. Her ability to do that and stay compassionate through the whole process, and her ability to lead and empower other women is something I’ve seen throughout the years,” said Dominguez. “I was fortunate to be able to build that relationship to where she’s now my mentor. I see how she leads, and hope that one day I’m able to lead at the same capacity that she does.”
As the new Vice Mayor of Milpitas, Dominguez now has that very opportunity.