Alejandra Sotelo-Solis was in fifth grade at Kimball Elementary School when she made the bold assertion. Asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, she said one day she would be the mayor of National City.
“I don’t know if at 11 years old you know (mayors) work on budgets” or “sit on regional boards,” she said.
What she did know, however, is that a mayor is a “head figure.”
Now 39, Sotelo-Solis fulfilled her longtime goal on Tuesday, when she was sworn in as the city’s first Latina mayor. The oath of office Sotelo-Solis recited was led by none other than her former fifth grade teacher.
As soon as she finished the oath, the crowd at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center burst into a chant in Spanish that means “Yes we can.” “Sí se puede,” the crowd roared repeatedly.
It was a symbolic and historic moment for National City, where about 60 percent of the city’s roughly 60,000 residents are Latino.
“I feel totally humbled, amazing, and ready to get to work,” Sotelo-Solis said in a recent interview, smiling from ear to ear.
Having spent the past 10 years on the dais as a councilwoman — while raising three girls with husband Arturo Solis, a Sweetwater Union High School District trustee, and running a small grant-writing business named La Pluma Strategies — it’s no surprise Sotelo-Solis feels ready.
“Being able to do all of that — in heels and lipstick — has put me and gotten me ready for the job,” she said, with an eagerness in her voice. “I’m ready.”
Her victory in the mayoral race — she drew 46 percent of the vote in a field of four candidates — is an accomplishment that was a long time coming for Sotelo-Solis.
Sotelo-Solis, a Sweetwater High School graduate who received her bachelor’s degree in political science from UC San Diego, ran unsuccessfully for mayor twice before, including at age 27 in 2006, when then-Councilman Ron Morrison won.
Now it’s her time.
Noting she intends to create a 100-day plan, Sotelo-Solis said her priorities include housing and jobs.
Also on her list of priorities is to unite the City Council, which has feuded over the past year on some issues, including term limits for the mayor, a councilman’s building code violations and city funds for the National City Chamber of Commerce.
With a woman as mayor, Sotelo-Solis said, she anticipates the city will see a different style of leadership than in the past.
“I feel we’re more about a team effort,” she said, referring to female leaders.
To unite the City Council, she plans to take a step that is simple, yet symbolic: to bring together council members for a photo to hang inside City Hall.
“We haven’t taken a group photo of the City Council in years,” she said.
Councilwoman Mona Rios, who won a re-election bid in November, said she was excited about the future of National City under the leadership of Sotelo-Solis, a close ally who she described as a “trailblazer.”
“She will inspire us all to dream more, learn more, do more and become more as we work together to move National City forward,” Rios said.
Also on Sotelo-Solis’ team are sitting Councilman Jerry Cano and — in an unusual scenario — former Mayor Ron Morrison, who termed out and ran successfully for a City Council seat.
While Sotelo-Solis and Morrison haven’t always seen eye to eye — they’ve bickered on the dais in the past — both have said they intended to work together.
“I will do my very best to make this thing work,” said Morrison, who already has met with his successor to discuss a range of topics, mostly procedural city matters. “If the council fails, if the city fails, we all fail. We don't want this."
Morrison said his new seat on the council represents an opportunity for Sotelo-Solis to tap into his institutional knowledge and professional relationships.
“I’m hopeful she will use that as we try to move the city forward,” he said.
As the city transitions power, Morrison said, it may take him time to adjust. He said it’s something he’s joked with Sotelo-Solis about, telling her to not misconstrue it as a dig if he accidentally pulls into her new parking space at City Hall.
He said he anticipates a challenge for Sotelo-Solis will be to balance the desires of residents with the interests of community groups she has aligned herself with over the years.
“What can happen all too often in politics is when you have a lot of outside interests invested in your political career, sometimes you have to do the thing that’s most difficult in politics, and that’s to tell them no,” he said. “That’s always a tricky road.”
There are many ideas Sotelo-Solis wants to look into — from mentorship and apprenticeship programs to boost the city’s workforce to the impacts of marijuana businesses to decide whether National City should follow in the steps of other cities and allow recreational pot shops.
Then there is housing.
She wants the City Council, “as the policy-making entity,” to look into possible regulations to address the housing crisis.
It’s a pressing issue for National City, where voters in November narrowly rejected a ballot measure intended to limit annual rent increases and allow evictions sparingly. Measure W, which was defeated by 155 votes, was placed on the November ballot as a citizens-driven initiative.
“It speaks volumes as to the desire of our community wanting something now,” Sotelo-Solis said of the efforts behind Measure W, which she backed.
“I’m ready to get an advisory group of both like-minded and diverse perspectives,” Sotelo-Solis said. “I need renters, I need owners… I want everyone to tell me: what is it that the city really needs to do to be more attractive not only for development but for what we currently have?”
One idea Sotelo-Solis has in mind is for the city to consider whether to regulate so-called granny flats, perhaps by requiring an annual building code inspection and a fee to cover the enforcement costs. The fee, she said, could be a source of revenue for the city.
Although she supported Measure W, which was fiercely opposed by landlords and property owners, Sotelo-Solis said she feels she can work with all sides, including renters and tenants, to address the issue. She said she wants all groups “at the table.”
After all, she said, a key task for her as an elected official is to balance her values with the values of the larger community.
“We all make up National City,” she said, “and my decision-making should incorporate all of that.”
She added: “I’ve been able to sleep like a baby the last 10 years because I’ve done that.”
Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who endorsed Sotelo-Solis when she launched her mayoral campaign in February, said she was delighted with the new leadership.
“Alejandra is National City,” said Gonzalez, whose district includes the South Bay city. “No one has ever been more representative of the community she serves. I’m so proud to have this Latina in leadership as a public servant to a community that embraces her spirit and her values.”
With Sotelo-Solis sworn in, the City Council has 60 days to fill the seat she held as a councilwoman. The options are to appoint someone or call for a special election in November that could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. On Tuesday, the City Council decided to make applications for the vacant seat available to the public.