A Mandate for Monica

By Jeremy Rosenberg Photo by Kevin Burke

As Monica Rodriguez ’96 begins a second term on the Los Angeles City Council, she’s using her voice to bring change to her lifelong home 

Megan Aleman ’96 is laughing hard. Was she surprised that her friend of 30 years, Monica Rodriguez ’96, had gone on to become a Los Angeles city councilwoman? “No way!” says Aleman, who lives in the Boston area. “Monica has known from day one what she wanted to do, and she was always focused. There was no doubt that she was going to be involved in making her community better.”

Flanked by Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas and Mayor Eric Garcetti, Councilwoman Rodriguez speaks at the launch of the Therapeutic Van pilot program in March 2022.
Sarah Christopher ’96, who works as director of development at Mass General Brigham hospital, concurs. When the two first crossed paths during their first year at Oxy, Christopher found Rodriguez to be genuine, candid, and funny. What’s more, Christopher adds, “She was the first person I ever met who said, ‘I’m going to be an L.A. city councilwoman.’”

True to her word, in 2017 Rodriguez became only the third Latina elected to the Council, representing Los Angeles’ 7th District, which is located primarily in the northeast corner of the city’s San Fernando Valley. Often overshadowed by the city’s downtown and Westside power centers, her district is home to the second-largest Latino population of the city’s 15 council districts. 

“My line when I first got elected was, ‘I’m working double time to make up for the lost time,’” Rodriguez says from her office in City Hall, days before the start of the 2023 legislative session. “That is the level of expediency and urgency that I work with, on every issue … because our community has waited too long.”

Even if Rodriguez and her Oxy friends knew where her career would take her, the path to public service still had obstacles. Rodriguez first ran for council in 2007, seeking the seat vacated by future U.S. Senator Alex Padilla (D-CA). Rodriguez finished second in a crowded field to former Councilman and State Senator Richard Alarcon. While running, she says, she heard whispers about her experience—even though she’d already spent nearly half her life in politics and policy. She saw men with fewer credentials receiving more financial support. By the time she’d run again, she’d double down on credentials and networking.

Councilwoman Rodriguez and husband Raul Fontanills at her first inauguration in 2017.
Ten years later, following the departure of Councilman Felipe Fuentes, Rodriguez ran—and won, capturing 53.6 percent of the vote in the general election. Running for reelection last June as an incumbent, Rodriguez won the primary in a landslide, getting 67.7 percent of the vote—well above the 50 percent threshold necessary to avoid November’s general election. “I was elected by the largest margin in the entire city of any election,” she notes. “That sounds like a mandate to me.”

And what does she see as her mandate? “I’m fighting for a cleaner, safer, and more economically prosperous city,” says Rodriguez. “And for my community, I want a city that respects all of our experiences and doesn't prevent anyone from being able to pursue and fulfill their dreams.”

Councilwoman Rodriguez celebrates the creation of the Youth Development Department in 2021.
Rodriguez lists among her accomplishments securing more than $188 million for her district for improvements such as expanding park access, adding public transportation, and infrastructure repair. As someone who has long worked on issues of affordable housing and the unhoused, including introducing safe parking sites for RVs, Rodriguez welcomed newly elected Mayor Karen Bass’ declaration of a state of emergency around the city’s homelessness crisis on her first day in office in December 2022. As chair of the council’s public safety committee, Rodriguez has worked to bring more law enforcement officers to the Valley, as well as changing which type of personnel gets dispatched on mental health-related calls.

First responders have a personal pull in the Rodriguez family. Her father, Ralph Rodriguez, was a firefighter for 33 years with the Los Angeles Fire Department. Both Ralph and Rodriguez’s mom, Alejandra, were born in Mexico and came to the United States at a young age. Ralph, not yet a U.S. citizen, served in Vietnam. Monica was born in 1974, and the following year Ralph joined the LAFD, among the first Latinos to integrate the force following a federal government lawsuit that led to a consent decree.  

“My father was a huge influence in my public service,” Rodriguez says, explaining how he stood up to assist others, all the while enduring racial epithets. “From a very early age, I was learning all those experiences, watching by his example how to protest and fight back in his own way. His method of doing that was to be unquestionably better than anyone else, and knowing his job better than anyone else.”

As a high school student, Rodriguez performed in several shows and daydreamed of musical theater stardom—and after attending a theatrical performance at Occidental, she came away impressed by the beauty of the campus as well as its proximity to home. Despite Rodriguez being student body president at San Fernando High School, her adviser scoffed when she said she wanted to attend Occidental. That reaction was not well received. “Never tell me I can’t do something,” Rodriguez says. “That’s basically when I thought, ‘Oh hell no, I’m going to show you.’”

Around the same time that Rodriguez was accepted to Oxy, the L.A. Riots occurred, and her father’s fire truck was hit with bullets. Rodriguez had a realization: “My voice is not going to be on Broadway, but it’ll be used for a very different purpose,” she says. “I became very wholly focused on how do I learn more about city governance? How do I help be part of the change in our city?”

Rodriguez with her now-husband, Raul Fontanills, during her student days at Oxy.
A first-generation student at Oxy, Rodriguez speaks highly of John Brooks Slaughter, Oxy’s president from 1988 to 1999: “His legacy was to allow someone like me who would not ever be considered for admission on that campus.” To help pay her way through college, she worked multiple jobs—as a bank teller, as a waitress, and at City Hall (interning for then-City Councilman Mike Hernandez ’74). She commuted from home after her first year, bumming rides from her younger sister, Rachel Rodriguez ’98, and her boyfriend, Raul Fontanills, whom she married in November 1997.

After her sophomore year, Rodriguez took a year off from her studies to work full-time for Hernandez (later managing his successful reelection campaign in 1997, following her graduation from Oxy with a political science major). She spent the next three years as a community affairs manager for then-Mayor Richard Riordan. Positions with the Los Angeles City School Board, a consulting firm, and the California Association of Realtors followed, and in 2013, Rodriguez was named vice president of L.A.’s Board of Public Works.

In 2015—two years before she would make another run at elected office—Rodriguez co-founded and was president of Latinas Lead California, a nonpartisan political action committee aiming to increase the number of Latinas in government office. “I saw how we needed to be standing up for one another, because that infrastructure does not exist,” she says. “I wanted to also teach the next generation of young women about how to organize, how to do campaigns, how to be the support for one another.” 

Rodriguez continues: “We’ve always been here, we’ve always had the ability, we’ve been doing the work. It’s just no one’s ever given us a seat at the table. As Shirley Chisholm [the first African American woman elected to Congress in 1968] said, ‘If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring in a folding chair.’ And that’s what we’ve been doing.” 

For women politicians in Los Angeles, those folding chairs are starting to multiply. Karen Bass became the city’s first female mayor following her election last November. All five Los Angeles County Supervisors are female, as are a record six members of the 15-member L.A. City Council. 

Rodriguez is one of two Latinas on the council, which has been roiled by a leaked recording (first reported by the Los Angeles Times) of racist and offensive comments made in 2021 by three Latino councilmembers: former Council President Nury Martinez, who resigned after the recording was released last October; Gil Cedillo, who lost his bid for a third term last June; and Kevin de León, who remains on the council despite numerous calls for his resignation. (Occidental is in de León’s district.)

Councilwoman Rodriguez addresses reporters in November 2022 at a press conference following the election. From left, Councilwoman Katy Young Yaroslavsky; Rodriguez; L.A. City Attorney Hydee Feldstein Soto; and Councilwoman Traci Park.
“It has weighed very heavily on me in particular,” Rodriguez says of the scandal, noting that she was the sole Latino serving at the time not to be part of the recorded meeting. “As the daughter of immigrants, I know what the immigrant community struggles with,” and the councilmembers’ remarks are “not a reflection of who we are as a community.”

Since the recordings surfaced, protests, disruptions, and even a physical altercation between de Leónand several activists have disrupted the work of the council. “Unfortunately, those acts have been weaponized, I think, against the community, and that's been very hard,” Rodriguez says.

She hopes that the council can “forge a path forward” that best serves the city’s roughly 1.5 million immigrants, “because they're the ones—when you demographically look at the struggles—who’ve been affected most by the pandemic.”

Remember when Megan Aleman was laughing at the beginning of this story? This time, she’s deadly serious when she says of her friend: “If Monica decides she wants to accomplish something and she puts her mind to it, she can do anything. The sky’s the limit for her.”

Jeremy Rosenberg is a writer and author based in Los Angeles.

Additional photos courtesy Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez '96.