by Erica Rae Sanchez
photography by Mya-Lin Lewis
Wendy Lau woke up, ate breakfast, worked out, got ready and landed on her couch with her new coworker, her dog, to start her day. This is her new office as a La Verne City Council member, much different than the one she imagined during her recent hard fought campaign.
Wendy was sworn into office April 6, 2020, in what would have normally been a time of huge congratulations and celebration. Instead, current COVID-19 shelter in place orders limited the audience to 10 essential people in the City Hall Council Chambers room, who stood or sat six feet apart from one another.
“It was really weird to get sworn into a virtually empty room; everything was live streamed so everyone could watch it, but it was just very different. It’s the milestones that people are looking forward to like your graduation or prom. It was the end of the election and all of the campaigning. You really wanted to be able to share that with your family and your friends, and you couldn’t. That definitely was a moment where you think, ‘Yeah, things are really different’” says Wendy.
Wendy Lau is a woman who embodies the word community, she has been totally immersed and involved in the life of the city of La Verne and the University of La Verne. Since attending the University, Wendy has stayed close to the city limits, leading an active role on the ULV Board of Trustees, being a member of the city of La Verne Planning Board Commission, serving as an adviser for the University sorority Phi Sigma Sigma, working for AECOM and now adding another commitment to her resume, La Verne City Councilwoman.
Wendy went door-to-door, house-to-house and person-to-person to gain her new role, explaining to the people of La Verne why she thought that she should be the next La Verne councilwoman. Her pitch? Community involvement and empathy. Wendy has spent much of her time giving back to her community as a “thank you” for what she says the city has done for her. Her service is not shy of putting in the effort and showing her face where and when it matters and is needed.
Wendy grew up in West Covina and decided to head down Interstate 10 eastbound to La Verne where she attended the University of La Verne. She fell in love with the city so much that she decided to come back and reside in a neighborhood close to the University.
Wendy recollects how her University sorority sister told her that she needed to come back and live in La Verne because this is where friends live. This statement stuck with Wendy through her campaign. “I fell in love with La Verne while at ULV. Unlike other places, I immediately felt a sense of community and belonging here. This is where you see familiar faces wherever you go, where public safety and services are exemplary, and where people who were once strangers become friends and family.”
With the amount of experience and involvement she had with the city of La Verne, she knew that one day she would be campaigning for herself. “Everyone sort of joked—because I was so involved—saying, ‘Oh, you are going to run for office one day,’ and I thought, ‘Oh, I would probably do it, at some point.’ And I kept saying, ‘At some point, at some point’ until I finally did it.” She decided that this election cycle was a great time to run because her personal life had aligned perfectly, and she grew tired of telling people “maybe next year,” so she took the jump and threw herself into this new adventure.
Her formal involvement with the city stretches back more than a decade. When councilman Robert Rodriguez passed away in 2013, city officials searched for applicants to replace him without hosting an election. Wendy applied, and although she did not get the job, she was offered a position on the La Verne Planning Board Commission. After being in this position for seven years, Wendy’s personal life aligned perfectly where she was able to run for the city council.
The election process is not easy. It takes real courage to put oneself out there and campaign against others. The situation was particularly unique and challenging for Wendy because she was the only woman running for City Council this term.
Wendy is the third woman to sit on the La Verne City Council. “I think it’s a little bit sad, in 2020, that there was only one woman running because you cannot possibly tell me that in this entire city, I am the only qualified woman to run,” says Wendy. “The good thing is that I went into this campaign thinking, ‘If, for nothing else, I am going to be someone whom little girls can look up to.’ I hope that they say, ‘I can do that too,’ because if you only see one thing all of the time, it limits your ability to see options for yourself. So I hope I have opened up people’s imaginations.”
A contested topic was the measure to increase the city sales tax. Many of the residents were split on this issue, just like the candidates. Wendy is in support of this tax measure because she believes it will help promote community growth. This tax, she says, will go straight back to the community and to those who worked for the city.
She was also in support of this tax because it would raise wages for city first responders. At first what seemed like a gain, slowly turned into a loss when the pandemic hit La Verne. Presently, this increased tax is not benefiting the city much after many stores and small businesses have had to shut down due to the governor’s orders.
“With the pandemic all of these businesses that in normal times would have been operating and making a certain amount of money now are closed. Restaurants still have the ability to do some business—they can do take-out and curbside delivery—but that is nowhere close to the amount of money they would be making if people were coming in,” says Wendy.
Due to the many small businesses having to close, the budget has shifted, and the tax is not as effective as it would have been. This tax was supposed to go to the staff and city workers, ensuring that they were being paid in the middle wage range in comparison to the surrounding cities, explains Wendy.
“With the pandemic affecting the revenue we thought we were going to generate from the tax measure, we are going to have to revisit the budget and see what those numbers look like. I hate to say it, but we will probably see some businesses close down. I hope not, but I think that is the reality we have to be prepared for,” says Wendy.
Throughout the election season, there was great animosity between the members running and the people in the neighborhoods. Many were split and stuck in their way of thinking, but Wendy constantly encouraged them to act with open-mindedness and empathy. She pushed the people of La Verne to see their neighbors for who they are and not their political views.
This was key in leading to Wendy’s success; she brought a human connection to a city that was lacking that feeling. During the campaign, Wendy repeated that if she were to be elected, her push would be to get La Verne back to the city that she fell in love with as a freshman in college.
During her campaigning experience, one moment is memorable for Wendy. “I knocked and said, ‘Hello’ to a husband and wife. After chatting for a moment, they asked, ‘Do you want to just come in?’ and I was like ‘OK.’ After a while, my partner that I was campaigning with couldn’t find me. He then saw that the door was a bit opened, so he knocked, kind of peeked in and walked in. We ended up talking for 30 minutes,” says Wendy. “It was a really good conversation. It was nice to meet them, but it was hilarious because I really walked in and sat in a stranger’s house.”
“One of the biggest challenges was getting in front of enough people to get their votes. You can run but ultimately it comes down to how many people will vote for you. It was a second job,” says Wendy. During the campaign, she spent much time as a member on the city of La Verne Planning Board. Once she would clock out, she would have meetings with city influencers and residents to plan strategy to get her voice out into the community. “You always want to meet people because you want them to get to know you and get their vote. Some days, I felt like I said the same thing 80 million times.”
Wendy recognizes how lucky she is to have run in this campaign because of the amount of money it requires just for a name to go on a ballet. “One thing that I learned by running is how politics is still run by a certain class. To run my campaign, we had budgeted to spend about $21,000. Think about that. $21,000 to run a campaign in a city with 32,000 people. So, if you ever wanted to run for assembly, senate, president of the United States, the amount of money required to do that is untenable for many people, even though it’s donations,” says Wendy, with remorse in her voice. Wendy recognizes the divide in power based on purely economics. The more money people have, the better chance they have at winning a political campaign.
She says that during a campaign, a support system is vital, whether it is to get the vote out, to host events or to simply lend a shoulder to lean on when things become too much. “I was surprised in a very pleasant way in how many people voted for me and supported me. My friends who made the shirts wore them everywhere. One family that wore them told me, ‘It’s like the championship. We are not taking them off until you win; we are not washing them.’ It was neat knowing who your friends are, and who you can rely on.”
Not many people run for city council and then a pandemic strikes right before they are seated, but that is what makes Wendy’s story so personal and unique.
The transition was a bit difficult in the beginning. She says the day pajamas turned into the night pajamas, and what once was Wednesday was suddenly Friday. In an attempt to make this a more productive time, Wendy decided to stick to some of her everyday pre-pandemic rituals. This included getting ready for the day, eating at her adjusted times, and making sure to divide her time up accordingly and effectively.
Wendy explains how some days feel very normal because she was used to working from home two out of five days, but then there are these big moments that happen where you are reminded that life has changed.
“By nature, I think that we are all pretty much social creatures, and even if you’re not incredibly social at some points, it has got to wear on you like, ‘I’d like to go into the world for a bit,’” says Wendy. “For me, it is an opportunity for me to think, ‘What can I do better?’”
During this time, Wendy has found herself reflecting on her own life. “I definitely think that we are all going to come out of this like ‘wow, mental health is a bigger deal than I thought’ because we busy ourselves with a lot of things, and we do not always feel our feelings. I mean I know that because I have done that; we’ve all done it. You might be really upset or sad about something, but you don’t want to sit at home and think about it so you call up a friend and say, ‘Hey, let’s go to the movies, or let’s go grab dinner.’ But in this situation, you don’t have that, so you have to sit there and own your feelings and think about what is causing this, and think about how can you change this, if you can,” says Wendy.
She shares on Zoom her perspective on the many ways she has seen the world change and adapt to the coronavirus with her dog on the same couch. Wendy says she has both been restored by humanity and has been disappointed. “It’s peaks and valleys. There are some days where you’re good, you’re in the groove, you’re getting work done, you’re feeling productive, you feel ‘OK, I can get through this,’ and then are the days where it is just a bummer, and I think that’s hard whether you’re living with your family, significant other, or alone, like I am aside from my dog. I think there are just different moments where it hits,” says Wendy. “I am looking forward to a time where we can be back in a room together and do business together and see folks in the city.”