James Aguilar’s next move: State assembly

The youngest elected official in the Bay Area is now running for California State Assembly


James Aguilar, an SF State political science major, is finishing his term as director of Government and Community Relations for Associated Students, and is now running for the 18th district seat in the state assembly. (Kyran Berlin / Golden Gate Xpress)(Kyran Berlin / Golden Gate Xpress)

At 21 years old, James Aguilar is already no stranger to local politics.

In 2018, he became the youngest elected official in the Bay Area at 18 years old when he won a seat on the San Leandro Unified School District Board of Trustees. The political science major is also serving on the SF State Foundation board of directors, and is finishing up his term as the director of Government and Community Relations for Associated Students. 

So when Aguilar announced that he would be running for California State Assembly, he seemed confident that he would be able to balance a political campaign on top of his already busy schedule. 

“I’ve balanced my time for the last five years since being student body president doing a million different things,” Aguilar said. “I think that I prepared myself early for this because I knew what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it.”

On March 26, Aguilar announced his run for the 18th district assembly seat after Rob Bonta, its previous assemblymember, was appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom to be the Attorney General in California, prompting a special election. The district oversees neighborhoods in Oakland, Alameda and San Leandro and has a population of 507,616.

Aguilar joined the race in a field of eight other candidates. Others running include Mia Bonta, the wife to Rob Bonta and current president of Alameda Unified School District’s board; Victor Aguilar Jr. (no relation); vice mayor of San Leandro, Stephan Slauson; an electrical engineer; and Janani Ramachandran, a social justice attorney. 

While Aguilar and those close to him always suspected that he would make a run for state assembly, the special election allowed the 21 year old to do so much sooner than he, or anyone else, could have expected.

“I think the opportunity came a little bit faster than he anticipated,” said Alondra Esquivel Garcia, current vice president of Facilities and Services for AS. “I’m glad he decided to do it; he is the youngest right now individual running in that race, so it’s just really inspirational to see it actually happened.” 

Garcia first became aware of Aguilar through his work as the environmental justice and policy coordinator at AS’s Environmental Resource Center. It was not until Aguilar was elected as a board member on AS that she developed a closer working relationship with him.

He’s just full of energy, which I think sometimes is needed in student leadership positions.”

— Alondra Esquivel Garcia

“I think he’s just so passionate about education and empowering others to get involved civically,” Garcia said. “He’s just full of energy, which I think sometimes is needed in student leadership positions.”  

Aguilar’s first experience with politics came in high school, when Janet Zamudio, SLUSD board president and mentor of Aguilar, pushed him to run for student body government.                                                              

Aguilar ran for student body secretary, and lost by what he said was a “landslide” to one of his friends. He received a second chance at the position when his friend had to step down, eventually putting Aguilar on track to winning the student body vice presidency — and later, the presidency. 

As president, one of Aguilar’s proudest moments came when he established a student representative position on the San Lorenzo Unified School District board.

“At the end of my term seeing a new student board member take hold oh my god, that was amazing,” he said.

His time with the San Lorenzo school board prompted him to run for the school board of trustees in San Leandro in 2018, a position he won at 18 years old and still holds today. 

That same year, Aguilar began attending SF State in the fall. Once on campus, it did not take long for him to turn his sights to student government. Joshua Ochoa, the current vice president of external affairs at AS and president-elect for the upcoming academic year, said that he remembered being initially intimidated by Aguilar when he saw they were running for the same position in 2019.

“I was going to run for [Liberal and Creative Arts] Rep. on the AS board and saw his name on the list of candidates,” Ochoa said. “I looked him up and I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m running against an actual elected official.’”

Aguilar ended up dropping out of the race to focus on his new role at the Environmental Resource Center, but the two soon became close collaborators and friends. 

I see the power that our voice holds when it comes to the future because it’s true that, ultimately, the students of now are going to be the politicians and elected officials of tomorrow.”

— James Aguilar

“James is a solid, solid dude, he knows what he’s talking about,” Ochoa said. “He’s super passionate and dedicated. This entire past year, honestly, he’s been like my right-hand man.”

Voters in District 18 will have the opportunity to vote in the primary election on June 29 and again on Aug. 31 for the general election. Should Aguilar not win, he said that he plans on getting his master’s in humanities from SF State with the hopes of continuing in the field he is most passionate about education. 

For now, however, Aguilar remains preoccupied on balancing his campaign, various board positions and life as a 21-year-old college student. Busy as always, he said that he had no plans to stop advocating for student voices. 

“I care very deeply because I was a student and still am a student,” Aguilar said. “I see the power that our voice holds when it comes to the future because it’s true that, ultimately, the students of now are going to be the politicians and elected officials of tomorrow.”