WATSONVILLE—Felipe Hernandez said that something has felt different as he’s walked door to door in the weeks leading up to the June 7 primary.
People that would have quickly closed the door on him when he first ran for Fourth District County Supervisor in 2018 are now telling him he has their vote. And notable politicians, business owners, community organizers and political organizations—including former state legislator Bill Monning, former Watsonville police chiefs Manny Solano and Terry Medina and Gizdich Ranch owner Nita Gizdich—have also given him the nod of approval.
“It’s been a nice surprise,” Hernandez said. “Things have changed quite a bit.”
Three years ago, the former Watsonville city councilman and current Cabrillo College Governing Board Trustee weighed 440 pounds and couldn’t walk more than 10 minutes on a treadmill. Now, he’s weighing in at 270 pounds and starts his day with a rigorous bike or boxing workout.
He says the hours spent burning off the weight at his home gym have served him well as he’s walked across Watsonville trying to drum up support for his campaign.
Hernandez is running against Jimmy Dutra, a Watsonville city councilman fresh off a stint as mayor, and Ed Acosta, a Santa Cruz County Board of Education Trustee.
This is not the first time Dutra and Hernandez have squared off. The two ran against current County Supervisor Greg Caput in 2018; Dutra finished second, and Hernandez was third. But with Caput announcing earlier this year that he would not seek reelection, South County will welcome new leadership for the first time in 12 years.
Most in the political realm say the race is in a dead heat between Dutra and Hernandez with Acosta serving as a possible dark horse candidate, and each camp believes it has done enough to win the votes Caput left up for grabs—the sitting Supe did not endorse any candidate.
Hernandez hopes that his rebirth will coincide with that of the Fourth District.
Just a few months before the pandemic hit, Hernandez, 50, signed up for a gym membership at Fit Republic off Green Valley Road, but after two rounds of pandemic-induced closures, the gym permanently shuttered its doors.
Hernandez said he took a short hiatus after the gym closed before he and his brother bought some exercise equipment—a treadmill, stationary bike and weights—to build a small home gym. At the same time, he drastically changed his diet, removing nearly all carbs—sugars, bread, pasta—from his meals and pumping up the protein.
The weight started to fly off and, slowly, his 10-minute walks on the treadmill turned into hour-long sessions. Hernandez admitted that there were days in which he cut some corners, but that all changed when his childhood friend, Abel Mejia, died suddenly in September 2020.
Hernandez said that he grew up with Mejia. The two wrestled together at E.A. Hall Middle School and Watsonville High School, where Mejia later taught history and economics.
“He was my wrestling partner from sixth grade all the way through high school,” Hernandez said. “We were connected at the hip … [His death] motivated me to get my health together. It really touched me. I really started taking everything more serious.”
Reinspired, Hernandez doubled his workload on the bike and treadmill. He also bought several boxing bags for his home gym and followed video courses from famed boxing trainer Teddy Atlas.
As 2021 came and went so, too, did 170 pounds and all of his diabetes medications, he said.
Hernandez said that he wants to lose another 60 pounds in the coming months but that it has been tough to follow his strict diet during the campaign trail. In campaign meetings, he’s had to scrape the topping off his pizza to avoid the bread and remove the tortillas from his tacos.
“My [campaign] team gets mad at me because they say I’m wasting all this food,” he joked.
Asked what he learned about himself throughout his weight loss journey, Hernandez said he’s become more present and resilient.
“It’s helped me be more disciplined,” he said. “You make these small changes here and there that make a big difference in the long run.”
An ardent supporter of labor, affordable housing and transportation, Hernandez has kept his message clear for South County voters this spring: he wants to bring better employment opportunities, further streamline the approval of affordable housing developments and preserve transportation options for forthcoming generations.
“All of that is connected,” Hernandez said. “Jobs, economy, housing, transportation, they all make up a sustainable community.”
It is for that reason, he said, that he has been a vocal spokesperson for the No on Measure D campaign in South County along with Caput. The two were front and center in the latest political mailer for the group that has led the charge against the proposed Greenway Initiative.
That stance helped him score the endorsement of the Santa Cruz County Democratic Party, which came coupled with the nod from the California Democratic Party.
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