‘Citizens should be able to have a sense of trust and pride in the member they elect, and I intend on providing just that.’
By Matt Nagle (Tacoma Weekly)
In the primary race for the Pierce County Council District 4 seat, Javier Figueroa won his place on the Nov. 4 General Election ballot. With 29.28 percent of the vote, he will be facing off against Ryan Mello, who received 30.04 percent. Given the primary turnout, it will be an interesting contest come November, and Figueroa is determined to provide an independent voice on the County Council.
As an Independent, Figueroa sees this as another way in which he can work outside of the box and make decisions more freely. “When you say that you are Republican or Democrat, it’s because you believe in their platforms. I cannot believe in either platform solely,” he said. “As an Independent, I feel that I can choose the best of both and how it can work in our communities. Running as an Independent grants me the freedom to do that.”
In terms of the areas of the county Figueroa would represent, District 4 encompasses University Place and Fircrest, parts of Tacoma (north and south ends, Hilltop and downtown) and the Port of Tacoma. He is well acquainted with University Place and Fircrest as a member of the University Place City Council, mayor pro tem and mayor of U.P., and his community service reaches further: Board Director for Tahoma Audubon Society, The Grand Cinema, and State Council on Aging; Pierce Court Appointed Special Advocate; Arbitrator, Better Business Bureau; and the White House Task Force on Climate Change during the Clinton Administration. He is also past elected president of the Rainier Communications Commission.
Figueroa’s overall position on issues facing the county is best outlined by this statement from his campaign literature: “Quality of life begins with a livable wage that includes medical and retirement benefits. In light of the pandemic, we must focus on putting people back to work in a new economy by restarting small businesses and expanding larger businesses in a way that is safe for the public. Unemployment is creating hardship for our families and communities. As a County Council member, I will focus on jump-starting our economy that will provide employment opportunities for all.”
With an eye to the environment, Figueroa is mindful of climate change and energy sustainability to preserve the natural resources in our state. He promotes quality education for all children because he knows personally of its transformative powers and said that he would continue to push for stronger elder abuse protections from his position on the County Council.
Having a job and earning a living is the foundation of our communities and families, according to Figueroa, and the decision to close small businesses with employee layoffs over these past months put everyone in a dire situation.
“If businesses are not up and running and people are not working, society cannot afford anything,” he said. “Yes, there are safety nets, but they are not sustainable, especially with our tax base – our businesses are being strangled to death. Institutionally, we’ve set the whole system up for failure. You don’t have to pay your rent now, but nobody is talking about six to nine months from now. The bill is going to come due and how will people pay the bills that accumulated during those months?”
Right now, the County Council is made up of four Republicans and three Democrats, and there are four district seats open for election. For District 2, Republican Hans Zeiger outdistances Democrat Sarah Rumbaugh by nearly 10 percent of the vote; in District 3, Republican Amy Cruver, at 42.58 percent of the primary vote, is ahead of Democrat Marcus Young’s 21.04 percent; and in District 6, it’s neck-and-neck between Republican Jason Whalen at 49.18 percent and Jani Hitchen at 50.64 percent.
For Figueroa, he said that the District 4 race is about not letting extreme political ideology drive residents out of Pierce County.
“I certainly don’t want a mini-Seattle City Council member mentality take control of the council. When you have extreme, excessive principles and policy making that tax you out, restrict businesses from starting and/or expanding, or allow for a community to suffer with poor street conditions, homelessness, and people camping in front of retail shops, that’s bullying. Those policies allow our communities to go downhill.”
Figueroa asserted that no county resident should be forced to consider relocating just to get away from the results of poor decision making. “If the County Council gets controlled by an extreme liberal left, people will say, ‘I’ll just move.’ The heck with that. Why should I move? I love Pierce County, University Place and the home I live in. I didn’t choose to live in U.P. and Pierce County because it’s a Seattle. We need to fight to keep our communities a place where we can raise a family, work and play; otherwise, we will become a mini-Seattle. I won’t be bullied out of my community.”
Figueroa has made a great life for himself and his family. He is a disabled Army war veteran from his term in Vietnam and tour in Korea, Figueroa makes it clear that he is not in the running for County Council for the money or medical and retirement perks.
“To me, this is not about money or benefits,” he said. “It’s time for unity more than ever before in our communities. Whether it’s Republican or Democrat controlled, it’s about the principle of being on the County Council to help keep our hometowns strong.”
Javier Figueroa was born in Monterey, Mexico. When he was four years old, he moved to Texas legally with his mom and three siblings, and settled in Bay City, just outside of Houston. There, he was introduced to a work ethic that stayed with him throughout his life, starting in cotton fields when he was six years old.
“I remember not only getting up a 5:00 in the morning to work in the fields; I also remember shining shoes, selling the newspaper… We did everything,” he said.
When his mom remarried, this upped the number of family members to 10, so there were a lot of mouths to feed. Putting food on the table was a family effort.
This was 1950s Texas, and people like Figueroa and his kin were not looked upon favorably. Mexican Americans and African Americans were already considered third class citizens, but Mexican nationals who came across the river and into Texas were treated worse even if they came into the country legally. On top of this, little Javier was born mute and didn’t speak until he was five years old.
“I stuttered heavily. I definitely was looked at very differently until I was 14 years old,” he said.
He was bullied constantly, including by members of his own family. “No one has an idea of the amount of bullying I received in my lifetime in so many different ways. My brain worked really well; I just couldn’t communicate like everyone else.”
When he reached third grade, a Spanish speaking Caucasian teacher, Alfred Nelson, took notice of Javier, and this began a new journey for the boy.
“He said to me in Spanish, ‘I know you understand. I will teach you how to speak English, understand it and write it better than any other gringo if you let me help you.’”
Mr. Nelson gave Javier a book, telling him to read it out loud then come back and tell his teacher what the book was about.
“He said he would know whether I read it aloud or not by the way I expressed what I had read. You have no idea what it took for me to read that book out loud. I would read to geese flying over, to a pile of ants, a dog…. I was a stutterer trying to read and I did my best. I was reading out loud because I believed him.”
Every time Javier moved to a new grade in school, or to a new school altogether, Mr. Nelson would end up being his teacher. Figueroa sees it as nothing short of God working in his life that Mr. Nelson was somehow always there. “He was an angel. I believe in God, in miracles and in prayer, and I was blessed that this guy’s eyes were opened up to me.”
As Javier grew into his teenage years, he found numerous jobs to help support his family. After school, he worked at a gas station, then cleaned a nearby laundromat, stocked shelves at an H-E-B supermarket then walked home at 1:00 in the morning. During the summer months, he was on maintenance duty at a dam levy in the rice fields.
He worked all these jobs throughout four years of high school, continuing to earn much needed money for his mom and four siblings.
Javier dreamed of becoming a full-fledged U.S. citizen. In his mid-teens, he decided to go for it, and Mr. Nelson helped him with this, too. “He gave me all the books I needed to take my citizenship test – about the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, governance…all that. I read every one, out loud.”
For two years, Javier studied for his citizenship test. On the big day, he hopped on a Greyhound bus and went to Houston, rather scary for a young man who had never been to a big city before. He didn’t tell anyone, even his mom (but he had to tell his employers because he would have to miss work). Javier aced the citizenship exam, and the judge granted him a legal name change in the process. Born Javier Hugo Rodriquez Rodriguez, he chose to be known by his stepfather’s last name of Figueroa.
“I was about 16 years old now – and I never stuttered again,” Javier said proudly.
After high school, Javier joined the Army and kept supporting his mom and family. “I promised her that every penny of every check would come to her. I stayed in the barracks because I never had any money to spend on anything. She got every check.”
As a child, Javier never received a single piece of new clothing until he was handed his fatigues in the Army. “I couldn’t believe it. I was the happiest guy. New T-shirt, pants, shoes and socks… That was my first new clothing ever.”
Being in the military brought Javier to the Pacific Northwest and this is where he stayed. Serving his country became a way of life for him, as he was so inspired by what he read while preparing for his citizenship test back when he was a young man. Community service and business related pursuits provided him with experience to run for public office, which led him to the University Place City Council and the first naturalized citizen from Mexico to be elected in Washington State. Later, he was elected by his peers on the council to become mayor of U.P. Today, at 68 years old and in the running for a seat on the Pierce County Council, he continues on his journey to make life better for his fellow citizens.