Nury Martinez ’96 (Political Science) remembers well the moment she found her life’s calling. She was in fourth grade at Pacoima Elementary School when her teacher turned the class’ attention to the upcoming presidential election.
The firstborn child of Julia and Isidro Martinez, Nury and her sister, Claudia, were already becoming civically aware through dinner conversations that regularly took a political bent. It hardly mattered that those conversations took place in Spanish, as their parents were immigrants from Zacatecas, México.
The fourth-grade classroom discussion centered on the office of the presidency, the electoral process and the dissemination of background information on the candidates. The youngsters even learned about the differences between the Republican and Democratic parties. That planted a seed for Martinez.
“Whenever I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would say, ‘the governor of California,’” she said. “People would laugh, thinking I didn’t know what that was, but I did and I was lucky enough to have a teacher who talked about civic participation and politics when I was in the fourth grade, and I had parents who are just as active.
“I date it back to fourth grade at Pacoima Elementary, when I got the political bug and it kind of never left.”
Martinez has fed that political bug throughout her life, and it most recently led her to handily win reelection on March 3 for her seat as a Los Angeles City Councilmember in District 6 – she won by 22 percent. She is the second Latina woman on the council — serving the nation’s second-largest city — and the first in 25 years. She first won her seat with a run-off election in July 2013. This is just the latest step in a political career that has included stints as mayor of the city of San Fernando and serving on the LAUSD Board of Education.
“Councilmember Nury Martinez exemplifies the CSUN spirit of dedication to public service,” said CSUN’s Director, Government and Community Relations Francesca Vega. “She is a dynamic leader in our city and I look forward to working with this distinguished Matador alumnus on numerous issues in the future.”
Growing up in Pacoima had its challenges, but early on Martinez’s parents instilled in their daughters the importance of education. Her parents were not well educated and had blue-collar jobs — Julia was a seamstress and Isidro a dishwasher at a restaurant — but they stressed that the path to a better life lay in books and studying hard.
“My mentor was my mom,” Martinez said. “She’s very strong and very assertive. She raised my sister and me to fend for ourselves. The way to do that is by having a good education and not having to depend on anybody.”
College became more of a reality during her time at San Fernando High School, where she took AP courses. It was in an English class with one of her favorite teachers, Sheila Roth, that Martinez discovered that so many young people from similar circumstances were struggling in college because they lacked basic English and math skills.
Roth collaborated with a California State University, Northridge professor on a pilot program in which high school students would come to school an hour early every day to receive additional English instruction. Martinez was tasked with enlisting fellow students to attend the extra sessions. No grades were awarded for the extra work but, by the end of the school year, more than two dozen students were getting to school as the sun barely started to warm the campus.
The CSUN professors’ involvement in her high school piqued Martinez’s interest in the university. She liked the proximity to her family’s home, as her mother was about to be laid off from her factory job because the company was moving its operation to México. Martinez knew that money would be tight, but she felt comfortable in her college choice. Her major was an obvious choice: political science.
In fact, it was her mother’s job loss that opened Martinez’s eyes to the fighting spirit to take on a large entity.
“I remember my mom, in her limited English, trying to advocate for her co-workers,” Martinez said. “She was just relentless. It wasn’t successful at the end of the day. It took three or four years for [the company] to move toMéxico, but my mom fought the good fight. I think it’s because of my mom, a lot of my passion comes from her.”
Getting a college degree was not easy. Martinez worked many hours as an HIV and AIDS educator for the Northeast Valley Health Corporation, a job she started when she was just 17.
“It’s not working in the mall,” she quipped. “It’s passing out condoms and talking about controversial things that good Latina families don’t talk about. A credit to my parents — no one freaked out when I came home and said, ‘Look what I’m going to be doing.’”
Despite attending CSUN at the time of the 1994 Northridge earthquake, Martinez’s passion for public service grew through her political science courses and her professors.
“What I appreciated about the political science department at the time was that a lot of the professors really pushed us to get involved with campaigns,” Martinez said. “They understood you needed real-life experiences. I got really politically involved when I was at CSUN.”
That led to her work on a candidate’s state senate race, and launched her journey through more than a decade holding public office. As she has climbed the ladder, Martinez notes that there has been one common denominator.
“None of my races have been easy,” she said. “I’m probably the poster child for, ‘it can be done.’ Even in the city of San Fernando, there were three open seats. I came in third, and I wasn’t supposed to win then.”
To reach her present office on the Los Angeles City Council, Martinez initially ran for the seat vacated by Tony Cardenas when he left for a spot in the U.S. House of Representatives. In May 2013, she was second in a six-person race, trailing the leader by 19 percentage points. Undaunted, she hit the pavement to get the voters out.
“A lot of people said, ‘You’re not going to win. You’re 19 points down. How are you going to come back from that?’” Martinez recalled. “I came up with a plan to talk to every single voter. I kept telling myself, ‘It’s a brand-new race.’”
Two months after finishing a distant second in the run-off election, Martinez won the general election by 10 percentage points.
Just a little more than a year and a half into her term, Martinez has focused on quality-of-life issues among her constituents, even while spending the last few months on the campaign trail to win reelection. Primarily, she has worked hard at providing basic services, but she also has focused on job creation in her district and making local parks clean and safe for young families like her own. She and her husband, Gerry, have a 5-year-old daughter, Isabelle.
“At the end of the day, I have to deliver for my constituents,” Martinez said. “Having a rapport with them, and them knowing that I’m in City Hall on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday fighting for them – if that comes across and I can deliver, then I’m doing my job.”
Martinez returned to CSUN in November to speak at a symposium titled “Women in Politics,” where she shared tales of public service with fellow leaders Wendy Greuel and Joy Picus. The trio talked about their experiences and times when more women sought political office — during the 1990s as many as five women served on the city council. Martinez is very conscious of the impact of her position on young women, whether they are in her district or not.
“It’s a huge sense of responsibility, not only being the only woman, but the fact that the city of Los Angeles is made up of nearly 4 million people, the second-largest city in the country, and I’m the only woman,” Martinez said. “Gender equity is important, and not only for our daughters. If this is a career where little girls want to run for office one day, they need to see women in office.
“We need to create the opportunities so that women aren’t scared to enter this career. It is very tough. It’s tough for men, too, but women have to take into account whether our partners are going to support the fact that we’re running for office. We do spend a lot of time outside the home, especially those of us who are raising a family. There is a sacrifice there that often your family has to pay. Finding that balance in this chaotic career choice is important.”
Striking a balance between public office and being a wife and mother definitely has its challenges, but all Martinez has to do is look at her daughter to see everything that she is working toward. She wants to see a brighter future for her constituents. She wants more clean, safe parks where young people can play. She’d like to see more jobs in her area, and more career choices. It’s that drive to help others that is as strong today as when Martinez declared as a fourth grader that she wanted the highest seat in her home state.
“Seeing the fruit of your labor and getting to go to open parks and maybe transform communities, seeing the next generation of kids growing up in a cleaner, safer environment is very, very rewarding,” Martinez said. “This is an amazing career. It’s taken me to a lot of places, but more than anything, we need to get more women involved and make sure that they have a seat at the table.”