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Dawn Ortiz-Legg: I do not have to demonize my colleagues to prove my loyalty

Published in The Tribune April 15, 2021.

I appreciate The Tribune providing me this opportunity to respond to criticism recently directed my way by a Tribune columnist (“Is SLO County’s new supervisor turning her back on her Democratic base?”) and to share a little bit about my background, why I am called to serve, and what I have been doing for the five months since Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed me to the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors.

I grew up in Morris, Illinois, a small Midwestern farming community about half the size of Paso Robles. My parents came from very different backgrounds. My maternal great-grandparents were European, arriving in the early 1900s from Bohemia. My paternal grandparents came separately as young people fleeing the Mexican revolution.

My dad, Dr. Philip Ortiz, truly defines me.

He was ambitious, always striving, and received a scholarship to attend the local Catholic high school. My mom’s family had left Chicago for small town life and, as small business people, they also shaped my character. Dad went on to become an optometrist; my brother Tim followed in his footsteps and now has dad’s practice. We both learned the value of hard work and education from our family.

In 1987, dad, with the support of my mom, co-founded the nonprofit I CARE International, which provides free eye care for farm workers, Native American tribes and rural communities throughout the Americas. As a family, along with many volunteer supporters, we have been doing eye clinics for nearly four decades! These volunteer missions taught me the value of service to others and the need to provide for the less fortunate among us. I bring those moral principles to work with me every day.

I moved to southern California when I was 20, attended community college and then earned a scholarship to Pepperdine University. After college I went to Washington, D.C., to work on solutions for the crisis of hunger in America and around the world. That experience taught me a lot about how government works and how to get things done. I worked for 15 years at the intersection of business, government and international trade, honing my skills in public affairs, regulatory compliance and project management.

With my marriage, I got the chance to move to Cambria and arrived on the Central Coast in 1992. The open space, agriculture and down-to-earth people made me feel like I was back home in Illinois, which is why I sometimes call the Central Coast “the Midwest of California.” Living here for 29 years and raising our daughter, Georgia, here has made San Luis Obispo County our home.

In 2007, I returned to school to get a master’s degree in public policy from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. I learned to listen to all sides; a quote from Sen. Howard Baker, “You might want to listen to the other guy because he may be right,” has been my guiding principle.

In 2018, the late District 3 Supervisor Adam Hill appointed me to the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission. Even though our styles were different, Adam and I shared many beliefs and values, such as protecting our pristine environment, beaches, open space and small-town way of life.

I also share his compassion for the unhoused and believe this is one of my biggest challenges. Clearly, the needs and solutions are complex. That compassion, along with resources and significant coordination and communication with partner agencies and cities, is needed to address this growing and significant crisis.

Upon resigning from PG&E in January, I have spent nearly every day of the past five months learning about the 23 departments that make up our county government. In my role as county supervisor, I am currently serving on the boards of the Integrated Waste Management Association, Air Pollution Control District, San Luis Obispo Groundwater Sustainability Commission, SLO Council of Governments and Behavioral Health Board, as well as the Homeless Services Oversight Committee.

Just a week ago I spent a sunny Sunday afternoon in Mitchell Park talking to the unhoused people there who were receiving meals and medical aid from grassroots organizations. I was shocked and saddened a few days later at the death of one of the men I had met. His memory will continue to motivate me to find meaningful solutions.

Many of the folks I grew up with in Morris were Norwegian and Swedish families who had been farming the rich soil of rural Illinois for generations. My grade school was a farm school with only 13 children in our graduating class and my foundational love of small communities and farmers. However, being one of the few Mexican American students, I was different. But being different has taught me to open and explore lines of communication from the other side I do not have to label, demonize or segregate my community or colleagues to make a point or prove my loyalty to some particular group.

The rhetoric of us vs. them has taken a massive toll on this country, and I hope to counteract it as much as possible by continuing to listen to both sides of every issue to make the best decisions for our community.

Throughout my life I have experienced that it’s much more effective to have conversation and dialogue, and that’s how I intend to represent our community as a county supervisor. I have worked for 35 years on initiatives large and small and learned that collaboration is critical to success, and that I do not always have all the answers, but by listening, doing my homework and building trust, I can learn and get it right.

Like all places, we face our challenges here in San Luis Obispo County.

Finding a balance between housing, jobs and economic vitality while protecting our environment and maintaining our high quality of life is an ongoing challenge. Costs are high, wages not so much. Doing business isn’t so easy. Water and other resources are finite. But here is the good news: Our collective interests are intertwined, and together we can work for the future of this extraordinary region. I believe that government can play a positive role in people’s lives, and by really listening to people and hearing what they are saying, I can better understand the people I represent and find the courageous solutions we need.

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