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She crashed and got a DUI. Now this California lawmaker is on a mission to talk about booze

Photo Pixabay
Photo Pixabay


If Democratic Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo had listened to the standard advice from campaign consultants, she wouldn’t have said much after crashing her car while driving drunk last fall.

She might have issued a written apology and then avoided speaking about her DUI, in the hopes that voters would forget about it as they decided her fate in a hotly contested race for a seat on the Los Angeles City Council.

Instead, for much of the past seven months, Carrillo hasn’t stopped talking about the crash — and her struggles with alcohol — even as she faces an uncertain future in state and local politics.

She placed fourth in the March primary and didn’t advance to the November run-off. She leaves the Legislature at the end of the year. But before she goes, she’s been using her platform and position to tell practically anyone who’ll listen about the harms of alcohol in a society that’s soaking in it.

She also introduced legislation, Assembly Bill 2865, currently pending in the California Senate, that would require high school students to get a crash course about the long- and short-term health effects and other harms of booze.

“I wish I would have known in high school what I know now,” she recently testified before the Senate Education Committee. “I would have made different choices.”

Carrillo’s troubles with booze went public in a big way at 1:30 a.m. on Nov. 3 last year, when she crashed into parked cars in Northeast Los Angeles. Police said her blood-alcohol level was twice the legal limit, according to the Los Angeles Times. A local TV station obtained footage of Carrillo, swaying and slurring her words, as officers gave her a sobriety test. After spending the night in jail, Carrillo said she found TV news crews parked outside of her home.

Addicts in recovery programs often talk about a rock-bottom moment that forces them to change their lives. This was Carrillo’s.

“I had a very public fall,” she told CalMatters. “And it is only by the grace of God that I wasn’t hurt and that nobody else was hurt. But it was really an opportunity for me to look in the mirror.”

She didn’t like what she saw.

The many harms of alcohol

With the City Council primary just weeks away, in late January, Carrillo, 43, pleaded no contest to the DUI. A judge put her on probation, ordered her to attend a Mothers Against Drunk Driving class, perform 50 hours of community service and pay a $2,000 fine.

She started attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and going to therapy. She said she stopped drinking — and she started reflecting. She thought about how much alcohol saturated her life from an early age. She thought of all the adults who encouraged her to drink.

“I became angry at the guy from the liquor store across (from) my high school who sold the 14-year-old version of myself alcohol so that I could drink with my friends and party at football games and ditch school,” she told the education committee. “I got angry at the cool uncles and cousins at friends’ quinceañeras, who gave my friends and I shots of tequila when we were only 13 to 16 years of age.”

She thought about how alcohol is so ingrained in American society. Recent polling shows that nearly two-thirds of Americans drink, with little thought to the documented harms alcohol causes.

“We see it in movies and pop culture and advertisements,” she said. “And yet we are so ill informed of its consequences to our health.”

According to federal health officials, alcohol-related diseases kill 178,000 people in the U.S. each year, and death rates are increasing. Noting that alcohol causes at least seven types of cancer, including bowel and breast cancers, the World Health Organization last year declared that “when it comes to alcohol consumption, there is no safe amount.”

Deaths from alcohol-related diseases, meanwhile, are almost four times higher than deaths from firearms, and researchers have noted that alcohol is often a factor in gun violence.

Plus, booze was involved in nearly one-third of all fatal car crashes in the U.S, and nearly one in four suicide victims had substantial amounts of alcohol in their systems. Carrillo told the education committee that 54 Californians die each day from alcohol.

“I want young people to learn early how something that is so legally and easily accessible can do so much harm if not consumed with more knowledge and more responsibility,” she said.

Her message, as well as her emotional testimony, resonated with members of the Senate Education Committee who voted unanimously this month to advance the bill to the Senate Appropriations Committee. The bill passed the Assembly this spring without anyone voting against it.

Sen. Monique Limón, a Democrat from Santa Barbara, told Carrillo she was turning “a really difficult situation into something that’s going to benefit people.”

“It’s a reminder that what you’ve gone through, you are not alone,” Limón said. “There are many people who go through this and who don’t have the capacity to use their voice to create better, and you are doing that.”

Other Democrats with DUIs

Though her DUI may have cost Carrillo a seat on the Los Angeles City Council, two other aspiring Democratic politicians recently arrested for drinking and driving remain in their high-profile races.

State Sen. Dave Min, a Democrat from Irvine running for Congress, was arrested last year for driving drunk in Sacramento. He pleaded guilty and received a similar sentence similar to Carrillo’s. His office referred CalMatters to a campaign spokesperson who referred CalMatters to Min’s statement after his arrest in which he apologized, as well as an editorial in the Los Angeles Times that endorsed Min.

Meanwhile, Riverside City Council member Clarissa Cervantes, a Democrat who is running for an Assembly seat, was arrested last summer for driving drunk. It was her second DUI in less than 10 years, according to the Riverside Press-Enterprise. Cervantes is seeking the seat held by her sister, Sabrina Cervantes, who is running for state Senate.

Clarissa “Cervantes is approaching a year of sobriety and supports Assemblymember Carrillo’s efforts to promote education and awareness,” Clarissa Cervantes’ campaign told CalMatters in an email. “Cervantes is grateful to be in a healthy space, moving forward strong in her race for Assembly District 58.”

The spate of DUIs among Democratic politicians prompted Republican Assemblymember Bill Essayli, a former federal prosecutor from Riverside, to introduce a resolution last year that would prohibit legislators from driving state vehicles after a DUI conviction. The measure went nowhere in the Democratic-controlled Legislature, whose leaders have endorsed Min and Cervantes over their Republican rivals in the November general election.

For her part, Carrillo said she’s not sure what her career holds after she leaves the Legislature. Before being elected to the Assembly in 2017, she was a local radio host, communications manager for the Service Employees International Union and a communications deputy for the Los Angeles City Council. But she told CalMatters she would consider pursuing a state Senate seat if the opportunity arises.

She said she’s been bolstered by the support she’s received from her constituents who have shared with her similar stories of their own struggles with alcohol or who have seen members of their families go through what she has.

“I am choosing to normalize it, normalize talking about mental health,” Carrillo said. The main thing, though, is she wants to get people thinking – and talking – about the risks of alcohol, despite its overwhelming popularity.

“Let’s have a conversation about booze,” she said.


This story was originally published by CalMatters and distributed through a partnership with The Associated Press.

Article Topic Follows: California News
Wendy Carrillo

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