In the March 3 primary for the San Diego City Council District 9 seat, Kelvin Barrios landed frontrunner status with 31.6% of the vote, assuring him a spot on the November ballot. His celebrating was short lived, however. Just nine days later, Barrios began showing symptoms related to COVID-19 and was sick with the virus for over two weeks.
“Three of those days were pretty tough. I was hospitalized one of those days and I did have a wide range of symptoms,” he said. “It’s some scary stuff, I’ll be honest. My case was mild to moderate, but I’ve never been this sick and I have a strong immune system. I’m young. I’m healthy. I’d get a flu and it would knock me out three to four days tops. This? I was weak and I had a feeling, ‘this is not a normal thing, I probably have COVID.’ And once I saw that other people I know were testing positive, I went and got tested.”
Barrios went to the hospital and was tested March 20 when his symptoms were at their worst. He eventually broke his fever by March 23, and after several days without symptoms doctors eventually cleared him.
“That’s how they are clearing people who aren’t in the ICU is by using a 72-hour period of no symptoms,” he said, adding that although he was cleared, he self-quarantined through April 1 and has been working from home. “Even though I was virus free, my energy levels were not 100% yet.”
Although his bout with the coronavirus put his campaigning for the City Council seat on hold, his campaign staff still kept busy.
“Because we have an active infrastructure, what we’ve done is shifted and started phone banking seniors using the voter file in the district,” he said. “We look who’s over 65 and give them a call and see if they need anything — just check in, because some of our seniors and elderly folks live by themselves and they’re not able to be social.”
His campaign is also helping coordinate grocery runs or other errands for District 9 residents unable to go out themselves.
That Barrios is concerned for the residents of District 9 isn’t surprising. He has lived in the district his whole life, mostly in the City Heights neighborhood.
“I am the only candidate now that’s running that grew up in District 9,” he said. “I grew up in a neighborhood that didn’t have enough street lights and when I would be walking home from high school with my group of friends, we would take detours around certain streets just because we didn’t want to go through streets that weren’t properly lit. And that was just the normal thing for us. There could be gang members on that street, so we would avoid certain houses — that was normal for us to be confronted with those kinds of situations.”
Barrios is the son of Central American immigrants. His father is a janitor at Kaiser Hospital and his mother runs a housekeeping business. He said his parents — especially his mother — have given him inspiration over the years for the way they worked to improve their lives.
“When [my mother] got to the United States, she was getting paid half the minimum wage and was abused as a worker and then turned into a small business woman,” he said, adding that his mother’s community involvement as a PTA president also inspired his own activism. “She always found ways to give back to the community and always pick ourselves back up.”
Barrios’ service to community started early. In high school, he served as a youth board member in the City Heights Town Council and was involved in the ROTC. His plan was to serve in the Marin Corps then utilize the GI Bill and go to college, but in his senior year at Serra High School he severely broke his leg.
“That derailed my plans,” he said.
So after high school, Barrios worked odd jobs and took courses at local junior colleges like Mesa College, Grossmont College and a technical school in Miramar, eventually learning to be an auto mechanic. He worked in that field for five years while studying to be a history professor at night, but again his plans were derailed when his uncle passed away and his mother took it badly and took time off from her work. “So I started helping out my family and just picking up the slack,” he said. “I didn’t live with them, but I helped them out financially.”
In 2013, Barrios was working two full time jobs.
“I was a cook at night at a pizza restaurant and a mechanic during the day just to be able to help my family,” he said.
During this time, he also got more got politically active and was eventually elected to serve on his local planning committee, he said. And when his family was back on their feet, he started a small business with a friend doing consulting work for candidates and recruiting volunteers for their campaigns in 2014 and in 2016.
“That led me to meet Georgette Gomez,” he said. “That’s where our paths intersected and I got into more governmental roles.”
Barrios became a representative for Gomez’ District 9 City Council office after working on her campaign, which he said expanded his knowledge of policy and instilled in him a passion for transportation and housing issues. After his stint working for Gomez, he took a job as director of community outreach for Laborers Local 89.
A run for office
Barrios said when his old boss Georgette Gomez made the decision to run for Congress, and vacate her City Council seat, at first he was encouraging other people to run to represent District 9.
“But in the early stages, I did not see folks that were from the community and have that understanding,” he said.
Familiarity with the district is important, Barrios said, because District 9 has a diverse set of challenges ranging from underserved neighborhoods like City Heights that need lots of resources to neighborhoods in the eastern part of the city like Rolando that are sometimes not heard.
“It’s a balancing act,” he said. “I decided to run because I believe that at this time we need someone with experience that can get things done, that understands the different layers of the bureaucracy that gets in the way of us and also bridge people together.”
Barrios said he started his campaign in October with a focus on issues like housing, transportation and economic development, but after the coronavirus outbreak “there has been a shift” in his priorities.
“We no longer find ourselves in a position where we’re having some lean budget years here and there and things will get better. We’re looking at very, very drastic cuts,” he said, adding that “now more than ever,” District 9 will need a “fierce advocate” at City Hall.
“We’re going to be fighting for funds between the nine districts. I want to make sure we’re getting our fair share,” he said. “And not just that, but planning ahead — what’s our plan to get out of this? How will we restore services? Because I’m sure some will be cut.”
—Reach editor Jeff Clemetson at [email protected]