"I've been told you're a militant la raza Mexican, and I'm supposed to be a complete racist," Kim McCarthy told Sergio Farias when they met for breakfast at San Juan Capistrano's El Maguey in August. "I think you and I should talk."
You couldn't find two people more opposite in South County. In 2008, Farias ran for the San Juan Capistrano City Council as a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) with a defiant candidate statement defending undocumented residents against checkpoints and deportations.
Meanwhile, McCarthy had railed against illegal immigration for years as a member of SJC Americans, a Minuteman Project-like community group that had fought everyone from the Mexican Consulate to community centers.
But by last summer, Farias was a Democrat seeking a seat on the city council, and McCarthy was focusing more on an anti-establishment message against developers and their council lackeys in Community Common Sense, a newspaper she helps to run. Over chilaquiles, Farias told McCarthy he's now a family man with a small landscaping business—and no longer a socialist. Though still suspicious, McCarthy supported Farias. And then history was made as Orange County elected its first former socialist.
No matter how it turned out, this year's San Juan Capistrano City Council race was going to be historic, as it was the first to use district elections. The new process follows a lawsuit filed by the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project alleging voter suppression against Latinos. Plaintiff attorney Kevin Shenkman had specifically called out Community Common Sense for ginning up anti-immigrant hysteria that hampered Latino candidates, telling the Voice of OC, "By this sort of race baiting—sanctuary cities, illegal aliens and all this other nonsense—they're able to drum up enough support to win elections."
McCarthy laughs at the claim. "I knew that [district elections were] the answer for Councilman Sam Allevato and his friends in order to get rid of three council members who all lived in the same district and swept the previous elections," she says.
How Farias and McCarthy teamed up is a classic tale of opposing sides uniting against a common enemy—but also about the unlikely alliances that district elections can create. A former Catholic choir boy, Farias' first foray into politics was as a precinct captain for Democrat John Kerry's 2004 presidential bid. Disillusioned by the experience, he found his true passion in the anti-war and pro-immigrant rights movements of the Dubya era. He joined PSL, which taught him how to organize and allowed him to invite party leader Gloria La Riva to San Juan Capistrano for a speaking event.
But his dalliance with socialism didn't last long; Farias left PSL and then the Peace & Freedom Party. "After Roseanne Barr was chosen as [Peace & Freedom's] presidential nominee in 2012, I was pretty much done," Farias says.
This year, Farias got involved in the district election mapping process alongside two longstanding Latino organizations in the city: We Are San Juan and CREER, which McCarthy had accused in 2010 of helping to promote "racial division [to] fuel racial tension experienced by non-Hispanic Americans throughout our country." The final map split San Juan Capistrano into five districts; District One, with 44 percent of its population being Latino citizens of voting age, was the first to have its seat up for election.
Farias filed papers to run there and tapped a local high-school teacher to be his campaign manager. "We knew we had an issue if people Googled me," Farias says. He tried to allay any red-baiting fears by going to political coffee chats at Hennessey's Tavern every Friday morning. But potential voters there called him a "militant Mexican," an "ACLU Democrat" and a "socialist." Farias didn't have much better luck with the Democratic Party of Orange County, which endorsed his opponent, Nathan Banda, a member of a powerful Juaneño family. And donors pulled back on promised contributions, calling him an "unknown candidate."
Community Common Sense came to rescue his campaign after McCarthy realized her daughter's best friend was Farias' cousin. She also became alarmed when reading in the Capistrano Dispatch that Banda served as ambassador to the local Chamber of Commerce, a group she stridently opposes. McCarthy and Farias found common ground in opposing a planned expansion of a San Diego Gas & Electric substation in District One residential neighborhoods.
"We hashed out more of our differences," Farias says of their August meeting.
"Hey, who isn't a socialist in college or in their twenties?" McCarthy adds.
During a Chamber of Commerce candidate forum in October, Farias protested a simplistic "support" and "oppose" poster-board-response format. "That's when I knew he was the right guy," says McCarthy, who sat in the audience. "He showed courage. That was in the den of the 'good ol' boys.'"
Community Common Sense held a fundraiser for Farias before eventually endorsing him, writing, "We believe Mr. Farias will work to represent all residents, not just the politically connected few." Farias never stressed his ethnicity during the campaign, while Banda's campaign logo appeared at a local concert featuring Banda Machos. McCarthy also walked precincts alongside Farias' wife, with McCarthy speaking to residents in English and Farias' wife in Spanish.
"The majority of people in District One, regardless of whether they're illegal or legal, white or brown, 80 years old or 20 years old, they're all sick of the same frigging things," says McCarthy.
The District One election wasn't even close: Farias destroyed Banda by a 17 percent margin, albeit in a turnout that saw neither candidate cracking the 1,000-vote mark. That Community Common Sense helped to make it happen has bewildered San Juan Capistrano's political observers and activists. "That baffles me!" Shenkman says. "I still think that some of the stuff that has come out of McCarthy's mouth and that of her colleagues in that group is abjectly racist and disgusting."
Meanwhile, We Are San Juan doesn't see itself working with Community Common Sense any time soon. "We did tell Farias that campaigns are not what we focus on," says organizer Karen Huerta.
Farias says that Community Common Sense hasn't written about immigration lately, and McCarthy dismisses the idea her newspaper is the real kingmaker in town, pointing instead to the Mission Viejo Co., the Chamber of Commerce, and San Diego Gas & Electric-loving politicians.
The two recently sat down for breakfast again. "We're already looking at issues that are going to come up that I know we are going to disagree on," Farias says. "But the alliance will hold as long as they stay true to who they believe I am, and it will be a good one benefiting the Latino community in San Juan."
"Oh, my God, we could be an example for the country," McCarthy adds. "We're all taxpayers, and we can't be divided by the government. If we can get together and talk about this, then it's less likely they can take advantage of all of us."