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Patricia Campos Medina came to the United States from El Salvador when she was 14 years old to reunite with her parents, whom she had been separated from for eight years due to the Salvadoran Civil War, which lasted from 1979 to 1992.

After coming to America, Medina witnessed her parents’ daily struggle of working low-wage jobs with no health insurance nor benefits, however they continued to push through to keep their family together. Because of this, Medina knew what she wanted to do.

Medina is running to represent New Jersey in the U.S. Senate, which will be up for grabs on the ballot in the Primary election on June 4. She advocates heavily for topics including workers’ rights, affordable housing, student debt forgiveness and a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, to name a few. She told Slice of Culture that whenever someone questions if she’s ready to sit at Washington D.C., this is her reply.

“I’ve [already] been there,” Medina said. “I’ve been in the rooms where decisions are made. I’ve been in the room drafting policy solutions…

“… This election is not about me. This election is about the Latino community, it’s about Latina women, it’s about women and us saying that it is time for women to take control of our political future and to develop a new page of Latina leadership for us and New Jersey.”

Medina is campaigning for a seat that has been held by New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez for 18 years, who announced in March that he will not run for reelection as a Democrat, but may run as an Independent. The announcement came after his indictment on federal corruption charges in September. 

Medina told Slice of Culture that it’s crucial to keep Latino representation within the Senate–Menendez is a Cuban American–but since Menendez will no longer represent Jersey after this term, Medina said she’s stepping up to the task.

Making Her Way Into Politics

In 2019, Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation (A15/S15) that raised the state’s minimum wage, gradually over four years, to $15 an hour, becoming the fourth state to do so. Medina was part of the coalition that pushed the legislation. 

In December 2023, New Jersey’s Family Leave Act was expanded to give workers “up to 12 weeks of leave during a 24-month period to care for a sick relative or child… and allow them to return to their same job.” Medina was also part of the coalition that advocated for this.

Her first experience in U.S. trade relations was in 2000 when President Bill Clinton appointed her to serve as a member of the Labor Advisory Committee for the U.S. Trade Relations and was later reappointed by President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2004. She reassumed the role in 2008 under President Barack Obama.

“I’m not new to public policy,” Medina added. “… When you’re a woman, you have to prove that you’re three times as qualified as a man to be taken seriously and that’s what I’ve done.”

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The Cornell University undergraduate and Rutgers University graduate holds three degrees in industrial and labor relations (bachelor’s), public administration (masters) and a PhD.

Her 30 years of experience in public service stems from what she witnessed from her parents. She could’ve become a lawyer, she said, but instead, she became a union advocate and policymaker to try to improve laws. She emphasized that she experienced many of the same issues that New Jersey’s people–especially in Hudson County–are concerned about.

Student Debt + Affordable Housing

Hudson County was Medina’s first home when she came to the U.S., growing up on 42nd Street and Park Avenue in Union City. While figuring out how to fit into a new country, she also found out how “hard” her parents were working–both for their livelihood and to pay lawyers to process documents to get Medina and her brother to America.

Her mother was a housekeeper who cleaned houses and offices while her father was a construction worker in the day, restaurant worker at night and housekeeper in between that. 

“They told us one thing: we were lucky to be able to bring you to the United States, so your job now is to go to college and get an education so you have choices we [didn’t] have,” Medina added.

Hudson County has four colleges where two out of the four, have first-generation students make up roughly half of their population: New Jersey City University (54%), Saint Peter’s University (over 50%), Stevens Institute (nearly 20%) and Hudson County Community College does not measure this statistic, but roughly 75% of their students are people of color.

For Medina, she racked up a $40,000 federal student loan debt for her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, which she spent her “entire career” paying off. Today, the average federal student loan debt is $37,338 while the private student loan debt averages $54,921. Collectively, the student loan debt–including federal and private loans–is $1.75 trillion.

In 2010, private lenders began to directly offer private loans to students, independently from the government, which was not done before as loans were always backed federally.

“That was a political choice that a leader in the 2000s made to allow predatory lending against the children of poor working families…,” Medina said.

“It is our responsibility as elected officials to eliminate student debt and erase it so I am an advocate of supporting President Biden for the elimination of the student debt… We have a history of forgiving debt to corporate America, Wall Street [and] billionaires and it’s about time we take the same level of political commitment to eliminate the debt of the kids of working families.”

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Another issue that burdens many of today’s youths is the lack of affordable housing.

New Jersey suffers from an affordable housing deficit of 224,000 units, contributing to “skyrocketing” housing costs that’s rooted in “historic patterns of inequality and segregation.” In March, Gov. Murphy signed a law that aims to streamline how municipalities would fix the deficit and build homes that low- and moderate-income families can afford; this is a $16 million project.

But some say the project is “impossible,” including a financial justice program director for New Jersey Citizen Action who said that with the state’s $15.13 minimum wage, it would take three full-time jobs to fully afford a decent one-bedroom apartment.

“Connected to the student debt relief is that we need to increase investment on affordable housing for young families and for young workers,” Medina said. “Right now, it’s extremely difficult for a 20-year-old, for a 30-year-old, to get their own apartment. We don’t have enough affordable rent [and affordable housing] in New Jersey.”

Medina urged the need for more investment in vouchers for affordable housing as well as rent control programs that would encourage mixed income housing. 

A Voice For The Diverse Community

Medina’s life in America is a product of her country’s civil war. 

She told Slice of Culture that she is calling for a permanent and immediate ceasefire in Gaza, joining one of the few candidates this election season to make a stance. The Israel-Hamas war has been ongoing since the Hamas’ unprecedented raid into Israel on Oct. 7, 2023, which had aggravated the Israeli military to pursue elimination of the terrorist group and occupation of the Palestinian Gaza strip, killing more than 34,000 Palestinians.  

Union City, North Bergen and Weehawken are the only three Hudson County towns, so far, to also call for an immediate permanent ceasefire. Protests in support of Palestine have recently surged in universities on the east coast as well as in Downtown Jersey City.

“I’m one of the first candidates for the United States Senate who calls for a permanent and immediate ceasefire in Gaza because part of our foreign policy should be to advance peace and protect civilians’ childrens and families in times of war,” she said.

New Jersey is home to 2.2 million immigrants, ranking fourth among all U.S. states with an immigrant population. Whether they come to the state due to wartime, conflict or other means for a better life, Medina emphasized that she is not just representing Latinos, but all working people who are making New Jersey “their home” and she’ll continue to fight to create more jobs and invest in schools for a good public education. 

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As a result, Hudson County is also the second-most diverse area in the state. Medina added that there’s a “vibrant” community of those who have been here for a long time and those who are just moving in; now what needs to be done is figure out what can be done to advance an economy that “works for everyone here” where everyone feels that they belong. 

“Because I am the daughter of immigrants and suffered family separation I will always advocate for immigrant reform. Because I’m the daughter of low-wage workers who didn’t have healthcare access, I will always fight for access to affordable healthcare and medicare for all,” she added.

“Because my parents didn’t have sick days or sick leave, I will always advocate for union rights. Because my mother was an immigrant woman, I will always advocate for opportunity for all women.”

She added that she also wants to lend a voice for the Puerto Rican people, an island that is a commonwealth to the U.S., but continues to be mistreated and feel unheard.

Medina is facing Andy Kim, a U.S. House of Representative for New Jersey, and Lawrence “Larry” Hamm, a human rights and civil rights advocate and former Newark Board of Education worker, in the Democratic primary race for New Jersey’s seat in the Senate. 

“If we leave politics to the millionaires we will get politics for the millionaires,” Medina said. “We need working people to run for office so we get policy for working people.”

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