Mayor Jimmy Dutra shares his political leadership journey that led him to become the first openly gay mayor for the City of Watsonville, California.
You're currently the Mayor of the City of Watsonville, at what point in your life did you realize you wanted to become a leader?
Jimmy: I always knew deep down inside I was going to be a leader. At a young age I was running for leadership positions in my 4-H club and in school government. One summer, my parents took me and my sister to Washington D.C.. We met Leon Panetta, our congressman who represented the Monterey Bay. This was a pivotal moment for me. I remember taking a picture with him and realizing - this is what I really wanted to do. I want to become a public servant.
My passion for politics grew from there. In college I was chosen my junior year to be a White House intern. I also turned 21 in D.C. and had access to the White House Bowling Alley. What was there not to love about politics at 21! Being behind the scenes, a politician’s life seemed picture perfect. Upon graduating from Santa Clara University, I worked for California Governor Gray Davis and later had the opportunity to work for Geraldine Ferraro on her bid for the New York Senate.
After the Ferraro campaign, I pursued another one of my dreams, to work in Hollywood. I have always been a determined person. When I want something, I go for it. You could say I am a dream chaser. In all honesty, Hollywood and politics have a lot of similarities. Eventually, I moved back to my hometown Watsonville, California. Watsonville was where I was born and raised. I was ready to re-establish my roots and create my own political future.
"I always knew deep down inside I was going to be a leader."
What was it like to transition into becoming the Mayor of Watsonville?
Jimmy: Before becoming a city council member and eventually mayor, I had only worked behind the scenes for politicians. I was always working for the elected official, I never was the elected official. The transition from moving from a supporting role, to becoming the face of my community was something that I assumed would be a lot easier.
I didn’t truly understand the pressures public representatives faced, until I was elected to represent Watsonville. Expectations have only seemed to grow these days. We’re such a divided country, and I see that even in small town America. When the public is upset, they look to me; not my staff. That transition and pressure took a lot to adjust to.
How have you worked to solve some of the major divisions we see today in politics?
Jimmy: Looking back on my EML experience, I realize I apply so much of what I learned from the program into my current role as Mayor. Working within a divided community, I often become the middle person. Both sides want me to side with them. This can create extremely stressful situations. If I lose myself in the partisan discourse or other self interests, it will only add to the instability that we are facing. I must remain centered, fair and self-aware.
I found it helps when I focus on using my strengths. Skills such as active listening and self-awareness play into my ability to bridge gaps and bring communities together. I am able to find common ground because I believe people have more in common than they have differences.
"I am able to find common ground because I believe people have more in common than they have differences."
What type of leadership style defines you?
Jimmy: I am a thoughtful leader and I care about my community. Many leadership styles we see today are self-serving. Politicians are always thinking about their next steps or how they can remain elected. For me, community comes first. We should always be doing what is best for our communities. Playing political games with the welfare of those you represent isn’t true leadership. I work everyday to be a compassionate leader. I listen and try to be thoughtful with all my decisions. My goal is to better my community, and every action I take must play into achieving that goal.
"My goal is to better my community, and every action I take must play into achieving that goal."
What is your advice to other leaders who might be looking to get into politics?
Jimmy: Being able to help communities and the people who live in them, is why I was drawn in to civil service. The job can be lonely, but it also can be very rewarding. It is rewarding when I see the lives I have changed or affected, it fills me with both a sense of pride and joy. It is lonely because people sometimes don’t see you as human. They see you as a robot. Something without feelings and that you can order around. Some people want you to align with them 100% or otherwise they make you an enemy. I always try to remind them, I am a human being just like they are - I have feelings too and sometimes we may not agree. It is okay not to agree all the time.
An accomplishment that reminds me why I am an elected official happened during my first term on the city council. I helped put in a community garden in a marginalized part of my city. People who are working pay-check to pay-check oftentimes do not have the privilege to eat healthy food. The garden gave the community a place to grow fruit and vegetables and enable them to have healthy choices. When we did the ribbon cutting, there were tears. One of the neighborhood speakers shared her story about having cancer. This garden gave her the opportunity to be outside and grow her own food. I had an Oprah’s aha moment. This was indeed my calling.
How has the EML program shaped you as a leader?
Jimmy: My EML experience was honestly one of the best experiences I had in my life. Not only did I meet amazing people, but I was able to work on skills that needed fine tuning. When I look back on the classes, they had an unimaginable impact on me. We were taught to get comfortable being uncomfortable. This was something I had never really embraced. I learned that it was in those moments of being uncomfortable that growth actually happened. I am forever grateful. I know EML helped shape who I am today, and that experience has made me a better leader.
Dr. Geffner in particular pushed me to be a better version of myself. She knew my potential. She believed in me. I won’t ever forget that experience or her.
"I know the work I am doing today will help pave the way for future LGTBQ leaders. I recognize the responsibility I have as a leader and someone who is helping open doors for others."
Any final thoughts you would like to share?
Jimmy: At the end of the day, I am motivated to be a leader because I want to leave my community, our country and our world a better place for generations to come. I am the first openly gay Mayor in Watsonville, and the second openly gay Mayor in Santa Cruz County. I know the work I am doing today will help pave the way for future LGTBQ leaders. I recognize the responsibility I have as a leader and as someone who is helping open doors for others. It is not always easy, but the work needs to get done. I am confident EML has given me the tools to accomplish it.