Policymaker Profile: Belen Bernal – City of South Gate

Bernal participates in the 2015 Latino Policy Forum at Cal State-LA.

South Gate Council Member Maria Belen Bernal started her career as a representative for Assemblyman Marco A. Firebaugh, who represented South Gate in the state legislature. As she learned more about Southeast Los Angeles communities, her commitment and enthusiasm to be of service to others grew.
A graduate of the University of California, Santa Barbara, Council Member Bernal also holds a Master of Business Administration from California State University, Long Beach.
Council Woman Bernal was born in East Los Angeles and has been a resident of South Gate for 29 years. She was raised on the West side of the City and attended Stanford and Montara Avenue Elementary schools, South Gate Middle and South Gate High School. She resides in South Gate with her husband Juan and their two children.

Who was your political mentor?

I decided to run for elected office in March of 2009 when a co-worker, and South Gate resident at the time asked me to consider running for City Treasurer. She stated that it would be great to have someone who was raised in our community, earned a degree, and had decided to stay local; run for office. After thinking about this for a few weeks I decided to meet with Council Members who I met during my time as a field representative for Assembly Member Marco A. Firebaugh years prior. I was fortunate to have the support of four, out of the five council members, and decided to pursue this opportunity to serve and learn more about my community and local government.

I soon reached out to an old work colleague, Edgar Aranda, who worked as a political consultant. During this early stage of my political involvement, Edgar provided a much needed introduction to what a campaign process entailed, and explained how voter history and patterns were important to consider. I sincerely appreciate his support, and honest guidance very early on.

After serving as Treasurer for six years, I was asked by an outgoing Council Member to consider running for a seat on the City Council. At the time, Mayor Henry Gonzalez extended his full support, and held various conversations about how the campaign process for this position would be much more extensive. Given Mr. Gonzalez’s 25+ years of service as a local City Council Member, I trusted his intentions as a public servant, and enjoyed listening to his stories about how the City of South Gate came to be what it is today. In retrospect, I see how my conversations with Mr. Gonzalez remind me of the annual visits I had with my grandparents, and where I learned that there is much wisdom in those who have lived much longer than us, and who speak from experience.

Lastly, my parents have been my strongest mentors, it is they who instilled the core values of integrity, and a strong and humble work ethic that have provided me with the will power to make tough, and even unpopular, decisions when needed.


What was the one thing no one told you about being an elected official that you wish you’d known before you were elected?

Believe it or not, because I didn’t run for a Council seat early on, I was shocked to learn about how much money goes to running a campaign. I come from a non-profit sector background and think, “Imagine what $20-30,000 can do to help provide additional services to our communities?”

I always knew that there would be times when the public or others would not agree on every issue, but I never thought that being elected/appointed official meant that you had to allow others to create stories about you, and sometimes deal with criticism from strangers. I have always been someone who opts to explain processes, and provide a context to better understand situations, yet as an official you are not always given the opportunity to respond to every criticism. I have found it crucial to rely on my values of integrity and ethics, and have my actions align with the hope that the community will become informed before making statements.

Describe a project you spearheaded or supported that you’re proud of. Why was it successful (what did it do for residents) and what did you learn from it that helped you be a better policymaker?

Maybe because I served as Treasurer prior to being on the Council, or because I like to understand the “numbers” that help measure an organization’s efficiency, I have asked staff to continue to present as much detail to my Council colleagues and I about our finances, and accounts on a regular basis. Reports on the status of our City’s General Fund are now provided on a Quarterly basis per my request.

In addition, I asked staff to present ways in which we can create a fiscal task force in order to involve residents in the budget, and contract review process. This is one goal that I would like to see come to fruition during my next two years on the City Council.

Lastly, our outgoing Mayor Bill DeWitt was kind enough to work on my request to invite our School District Superintendent Michelle King who will provide a “State of our Schools” address- specifically to learn more about the performance students and schools in South Gate, this Thursday. This is another project that I want to continue to host, and work closely on, with my colleagues and the school district in the next couple of years.

As an elected official you must balance your job, your duties as an elected official and family obligations, not to mention trying to find personal time for yourself. How do you balance all these duties and obligations?

I am blessed to share my life with my husband and our two children, and agree that balance is needed between these important priorities and obligations. During the last two years on Council, I had the opportunity to work as an operations management consultant which provided a flexible schedule, and the opportunity to become acquainted with my new role on Council.

Most recently I accepted a full-time position, and have definitely experience the difference, and make it a point to have my schedule reflect my priorities both with the City, my career, and my family.

Although there are residents who may want to see me at every-single event, I make it a point to do my due diligence and read Council agenda items first. I very much enjoy attending events that provide me with good feel for the pulse of the community, and will continue to attend outside of my regular full-time work hours, while keeping key family commitments as well.

What was the most memorable day of your life?

The days when my children were born. I began as an elected official, when still single, and no children. During my time in elected office, I got married, completed an MBA, and was blessed with two beautiful children. There have been many memorable days in my life, and now that I have my children, I honestly see how the parent perspective allows me to contribute in new ways on similar issues that stood before us in the past.

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