There was a record surge of young voter turnout in 2018, in part because we have young grassroots leaders running for office across the country, providing a new wave of energy and fight. That wasn’t a fluke, either.
This spring, as I interviewed candidates running for the legislature in Virginia, I asked their staffers and other activists who else I should highlight. The answer was pretty unanimous: talk to Phil Hernandez, a young candidate from Virginia Beach running for the House of Delegates. It was a lot of hype, but he more than lived up to it.
In his early 30s, Hernandez has the sort of resume that could get him just about any high-paying corporate job he wanted. The first member of his family to graduate from college, he went on to work in the Obama White House, moving up to the Domestic Policy Council. He later went to law school at Berkeley and became a civil rights attorney, working on behalf of low-income tenants and fighting on behalf of other people facing discrimination. He used his policy know-how to develop a bill that would help tackle homelessness in the state and it was eventually signed into law by California Gov. Jerry Brown.
Instead of cashing in on his experience, Hernandez decided to move home to the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, and now he’s running to represent the 100th district in the House of Delegates. What follows is a lightly edited version of our conversation.
How’d you get to this moment and what inspired you to run?
I think public service has always just been in my blood. For me, the first seedling of service started when I was growing up, with my sister who is two years younger than me. She was born deaf and so as a kid, growing up together, a lot of the time I was her official sign language interpreter, a bridge between the hearing world and the deaf world. That was my first experience being an advocate for someone else. Even as a four-year-old, I was making sure that she was seen and heard and included. I was also the first person in my family to make it to college and I was a pretty special opportunity and I decided after that, I was gonna make the most of it.
After I graduated — I studied jazz music and political science, which is a strange combination — there was this guy, Barack Obama, who was running for president, and decided I wanted to go work for him. And I had the good fortune of ending up in the Domestic Policy Council, working on clean energy, fighting for clean air, fighting for clean water. I did that for four years and then became a civil rights attorney. So I think for me there is this long arc of serving, asking how do we make sure that everyone feels seen, heard and included? And I just felt like right now in Virginia, we needed more of that.
How’d you wind up in the White House? A lot of people probably saw Obama running and wanted to work for him, but only so many could.
I was at William and Mary, it was the final year of my studies there. I was finishing up my political science degree and was lucky enough to get an internship in the White House, so it didn’t start off glamorous or anything like that. It was just me working as an intern. And then I leveraged that into a full-time job.
So once you got the job, what were you focusing on?
I sometimes feel like I was the luckiest person in the world to be able to walk through the gates of the White House at such a young age. And it was a fascinating time to be there because the oil spill was still raging in the Gulf of Mexico, that was right after I started. For weeks we were watching black oil gushing into the blue sea, trying to figure out how we could protect coastal communities along the Gulf coast. That is part of the reason why I’m very opposed to off-shore drilling, off the Atlantic, because I’ve seen how devastating that can be.
But I also saw during that time the power of government when it’s trying to solve problems. I felt lucky that I was going to work every day alongside people who were trying to do the right thing, who were true public servants in the fullest sense of the phrase.
A lot of activists run for office, which is great, but at your young age, you already have that experience of actually creating big policy, which I’m sure is pretty rare for a freshman. How do you intend on taking advantage of that?
I’m really thankful to have that experience because I think I understand how policy is shaped and how you can push it forward and how you can really make a difference. But in my opinion, policy has to be influenced from the bottom up. It can’t just be all top-down solutions.
I’m also thankful that I had that experience in the energy and environmental space because that is one of the key issues in the 100th district. My district is at sea level and the sea level rise is happening faster here than anywhere on the east coast. And it’s not just because sea levels are rising, but also because the land here is sinking, so there’s a combined effect.
I was walking around the neighborhood talking to people and this woman in this cute little blue house down the street was telling me that every time it rains, her house floods. And then I go over to the Eastern Shore, which is also included in part of this district. And there was a farmer that was talking about how it’s becoming more difficult to farm every portion of the land that he owns because of sea level rise, because of saltwater intrusion. So he’s losing land to the sea because of this.
So this is one of those issues that impacts everyone. Doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or Republican. It’s impacting the economy, impacting the naval base, which is here. It’s impacting our ports, which are here.
So which other issues really matter to you?
I would say education is incredibly important. For me, that was the great equalizing force right in my life. I was the first person in my family go to college. I also had the very good fortune of having a public school teacher who said, “Phil you did really well on your SATs, you’ve got good grades. Did you know about this scholarship called the Gates Millennium Scholarship?” It basically provides full tuition assistance for first-generation college students. I applied for it and I got it, and without that scholarship, I probably would not have been able to afford college.
So that’s all to say I understand the power of a really good public school education. And in Virginia, it’s been a really rough decade for public schools. We are investing less in public schools than we were 10 years ago, even though enrollment is up. We are underpaying teachers by about $9,000 just below the national average, and I don’t think any of us just want to be average. That’s resulting in teachers not wanting to come here, or if they are teaching here, they think it’s too hard economically. And so they’re leaving for other places. They go to Maryland, they go to New York, they go to New Jersey.
I had the good fortune of having two round tables so far with public school teachers in the district. And I just went around and I asked them a couple of broad questions. I said, how many of you are carrying student loan debt right now? Pretty much everyone’s hands up, but how many of you are working second jobs right now? Everyone’s hand goes up. Some of them were working three jobs.
The part that really caught me is that they’re taking the money from the second and third job and putting it back into their students, because there is a decent amount of poverty in this district. And so they’re buying them shoes, they’re buying them jackets when they show up in the winter without them, buying them school supplies. This is the sort of thing we have to get right, so that our kids can have better futures than we have.
I wanted to ask about your civil rights law work — what did that entail?
I worked at a nonprofit that focuses both on civil rights and the rights of working people all over this country. And my specific focus was working hard to make sure that people who had interacted with the criminal justice system in some shape or form were able to get jobs again after they had paid their debt to society.
We make it really difficult to land on your feet after you’ve been through that system, whether it’s getting employment or getting housing or restoring your ability to vote. You lose a lot of rights for a mistake that you maybe made a long time ago. And so we were trying to make sure that people can get jobs again because ultimately that benefits everyone. I think people are surprised to learn that in this country right now, there are one in three Americans that have either an arrest or a conviction record. So it impacts so many of us and it behooves us all to make sure those people can thrive again.
What kind of policy did you work on there? What can be done?
Sometimes it’s through laws and sometimes it’s through building relationships within the community to take away the stigma of having a record. An example of a policy is Ban the Box. When you go to apply for a job, you don’t have to indicate upfront on the paper application that you have been involved in the criminal justice system. The thought is that if you delay that conversation until the interview, then you can at least put it in some context and maybe explain that since that time you’ve gone back to school or you have more work experience that’s relevant or that you’ve done some other things that show you really turned a corner.
On the non-policy side, one of the things we did was focused on apprenticeship programs for people with records. They would get training sometimes with union groups. You just needed them to be able to have a foot in the door.