“I feel I make a difference,” says Jason Dominguez. “I love being on the City Council. I’m able to help people solve deep, distressing problems.”
He’s also the founder and director of the New Civic Forum, which provides youth leadership programs and free advanced health care directives. “I wanted to create a nonprofit that didn’t have any conflicts with my city post,” says Jason. “We did a community needs analysis and found that advance health care directives and youth leadership were needed in the city.”
Though Jason and I frequently cross paths, I’ve never had the chance to get to know him. We finally get quality time over breakfast at Joe’s Cafe at 7:30 a.m. He tells me a story about his Mexican grandfather, who worked at a printing press. The publisher printed articles criticizing the government. “The president’s thugs tried to kill the publisher and tied up my grandfather, who managed to escape to Texas,” he explains. “That may be part of the reason I’m so outspoken. That’s the root of my anti-tyrannical character.”
Jason was raised in Los Angeles. His dad, Edward, was an accountant while his mom, Karen Meyer, was an elementary school teacher. His father didn’t speak Spanish for the family had assimilated. “My goal was to learn all the languages of my ancestors, Spanish and German,” says Jason. He attended Downey High School, learning Spanish and graduating in 1986.
He then went to Stanford University, where he decided to major in psychology after taking one of Philip Zimbardo’s classes. Zimbardo conducted the infamous Stanford prison study that attempted to investigate the psychological effects of perceived power, focusing on the struggle between prisoners and prison officers.
During his junior year, Jason went to Berlin, spending some time in East Germany before the wall came down — an experience he recalls as eye-opening. After graduation, he spent a year in Czechoslovakia with his brother Patrick, setting up a nonprofit organization called “Education for Democracy” that helped teachers secure democracy in the fledgling republic. He got to meet Vaclav Havel.
After returning to the United States in 1991, Jason taught at Warren High School. “Since my mother had taught elementary school, education was important in our family,” he shares.
In 1992, he went to UC Berkeley for a law degree. “I understood some of our political systems were broken and realized a law degree would be useful,” he explains.
In 1993, he traveled to Mexico to take a close look at the North American Free Trade Agreement. Two years later, he went back to Germany on a fellowship to attend Heidelberg University. He wrote his Master’s thesis on European and German law — in German.
Right after law school, he worked for Gil Garcetti and the Los Angeles County District’s Attorney office in the domestic violence court. “Victims generally were targeted because of socioeconomic vulnerability or language barriers,” he explains. “They were victims who’d been systematically abused.”
From 1997 through 2000, he worked for the L.A. City Attorney and managed a nuisance abatement program in the San Fernando Valley. “Each one of these opportunities were an increase in responsibility and a chance to improve the world,” he says
He’s been coming to Santa Barbara with his family since he was a kid. “We’d go to El Capitan and Cachuma for camping and fishing,” he recalls. “I kept coming here.” In 2001, he was hired as Deputy County Counsel for the County of Santa Barbara.
In 2004, he was recruited to be a legal officer for the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal that was investigating the war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia. “I saw some of the most horrific crimes perpetuated by human beings unto their neighbors,” he says.
After spending a few years teaching law at Texas Southern University, a historically black college, and at American University, he returned to Santa Barbara in 2013 to become the director of the community equity initiative at the California Rural Legal Assistance. He was then the executive director of the Legal Aid Foundation.
In 2015, he won his seat on the Santa Barbara City Council. I asked him what he’s most proud of. “Bringing inclusionary housing to workforce families, nurses, teachers, first responders,” he answers. “I’ve been trying to make progress in housing, education, homelessness, and mental health issues. I’m not afraid to rally my colleagues, to challenge the status quo when it’s not delivering to its constituents.”
Dominguez is seeking re-election this November while also running for the State Assembly in the March 3 primary. “That’s really where the roadblocks are and where we can fix some of our stubborn problems,” he declares. “I want to be able to restore local control.”
Jason Dominguez answers the Proust Questionnaire.
What is your most marked characteristic?
Doggedness. Once I start working on a problem, it’s hard to stop until I’ve made progress.
Who do you most admire?
My grandmother Emma Meyer because she was hard working, had a great sense of humor, delivered quotes and songs at just the right moments, and served the poor. My abuelito Refugio Romo, who escaped political tyranny in Mexico and came to America for a new life. He worked hard in the steel mills to provide for his wife and nine children.
Which talent would you most like to have?
To see myself as others see me and see others as they see themselves.
What do you like most about your job?
I love teaching because it enriches students’ minds and improves career opportunities, it keeps me current on global affairs, and it’s great fun! Education allowed me to be successful and I want to give that back to others. I love my city council job because I’m a problem solver and I like to help people.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
A chair, a good book, with my dog by my side. Bicycling through open space or hiking through a forest. Cooking dinner with Kaci and garden parties on hot autumn nights.
What is your greatest fear?
I love to read, both nonfiction and fiction, but am fighting a losing battle — the books are stacking up and I fear I’ll never read what I have collected.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Residing on California’s sunny Central Coast, with the Pacific Ocean and Channel Islands in front of us and the Los Padres National Forest behind us. Majestic open spaces and the wilderness are part of America’s cultural history and worth safeguarding.
What is your current state of mind?
Open to the possibilities that each new day brings and thankful for the abundance in our state.
What is the quality you most like in people?
Decency. When people treat each other with respect, listen to each other, then anything is possible.
What is the quality you most dislike in people?
Dishonesty. Instead of telling people what they want to hear, we would all be better off if we were open about what we wanted from a situation.
What do you most value in friends?
Their sense of humor, drawing on their experiences, and their willingness to tell you when you might be wrong.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
Let’s conduct a needs analysis! What is the goal? Have you seen my keys?
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I would be less of a perfectionist and let things go. I placed a copy of the serenity prayer in our kitchen and the serenity, courage, and wisdom it mentions have followed.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Working on a team of international legal officers and prosecuting war criminals for genocide and crimes against humanity. In this age of populism and majority bullying, I could only imagine how much worse human rights atrocities would be without active intervention.
Where would you most like to live?
We are perfectly happy here. We love our friends, the outdoors, and the ocean. My wife’s hometown is Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and we love to visit, but this is home.
What is your most treasured possession?
Our photo albums. We had many years of great friendships and experiences, including our wedding, before we decided to settle down and start a family. Now we almost never leave the central coast.
Who makes you laugh the most?
Our little rescue dog, Ali. He was stunted at birth but definitely has a full-size personality.
What is your motto?
Leave it better than you found it.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Vaclav Havel. I’m one-eighth Czech, and I had the great honor to meet him when I did nonprofit work in Prague, Czechoslovakia. He showed that dissent is the highest form of patriotism when he was imprisoned for speaking up against a repressive government and later was elected president.
On what occasion do you lie?
When I don’t take responsibility for my own happiness.