At the age of 20, Cesar Hernandez was homeless, arrested for assaulting a police officer and believed he was destined for a spell at Rikers Island. Ten years later, the 30-year-old is considered one of Hillsborough County's bright young political minds. As government affairs specialist for Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, Hernandez works with legislative consultants in Tallahassee and Washington D.C. plus local stakeholders on all levels to fulfill objectives.
Previously, he worked as community engagement officer for the University Area Community Development Corp., where he developed an initiative to reduce street crime by using outreach workers, including ex-convicts and former gang members, to mediate and head off violence between gangs.
He then served as legislative aid to then-Tampa City Council member Lisa Montelione.
The former University of South Florida student body president recently sat down with the Times to discuss the birth of his interest in politics and his difficult past.
Who inspired you to get into politics?
My grandmother. I was born in the United States but my family is from Guatemala. My grandmother grew up in abject poverty. She was one of 15 and only five survived to adulthood. She saw siblings die of starvation. She saw political leaders she supported being killed by opposition and thrown in dumpsters.
She decided that was not how she wanted to live her life, so she crossed the Mexican desert to come to the United States of America. And she couldn't have picked a more picture perfect location – South Brooklyn [laughs]. She went from the literal jungle to the concrete jungle. She always worked polls and would bring me with her when I was a kid. She saw a corrupt political system in Guatemala so taught me to prize ours.
Were you directly involved in politics as a kid?
Kind of. In an odd way, I became a mediator. Because I was cool with the gang leaders in the area, I could prevent things from happening in my classes. In my high school, gang members would come into a classroom, beat down a rival and walk right out. If I heard something was going to happen in my class, I talked to the gangs and stopped it. I had teachers who would pass me just to make sure nothing erupted in their classroom.
So, you stayed out of trouble?
Not always. At 20 I ended up homeless. I was riding the train all night and sleeping. I ate once a day, knowing when to eat to curb hunger pains. Then one day I see men surrounding my sister. I grabbed a broomstick and fought them off. As I am walking away a guy grabs me to ask what happened. I tossed him into a Korean nail salon and he pulls out a badge. I was arrested for assaulting a police officer. I'm in the cell and everybody is talking about why they are there. It was a badge of honor for them. And they cheered me for what I did.
But I told myself that's not me. I don't belong here and said to myself if I get out of this I am leaving New York. The next day the detective I slapped told me he would drop the charges because he saw what happened with my sister. I'd looked at Tampa online and it was paradise. It's where I wanted to be.
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How did you get involved in politics at USF?
First thing I did was get active in a fraternity and got super engaged with organizations on campus as a pre-med student. I wanted to change the world. I wanted to take students to Uganda to work with hospitals. I asked the university president for help and she told me to go to the student body president, who then said no because while this is a cool project it doesn't impact all the students. So the election comes up and I decided I'm going to run. And I won.
Did you take students to Uganda?
No. [laughs] When I became student body president I understood the parameters of how money was dispersed.
Any advice to those who want to get politically involved?
Find your wheelhouse. If it's going out and screaming and protesting, that is your wheelhouse. If your wheelhouse is policy, it is your job to listen to those screams and produce a framework that is sensitive to what a community's needs are. Or, take on the responsibility of making sure everyone has a voice even if you do not agree with them. If we don't let all voices erupt that is called fascism.
Contact Paul Guzzo at email@example.com or (813) 226-3320. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.