Esther Padilla, the only Hispanic woman to serve on the Fresno City Council and a longtime social worker and champion of organ transplants after getting one herself, died this week of renal failure.
Mrs. Padilla packed more than a lifetime of community service into her 69 years, including a decade-long unpaid stint with the United Farm Workers and work with Fresno County Head Start, Sequoia Community Health Foundation and Centro La Familia.
She served a single term on the Fresno City Council between 1991 and 1995.
"Strong-willed, determined, fearless would be words that I used to describe her," said longtime friend Luisa Medina. "Community service was in her blood. It was her way."
Born in Fowler as the youngest of 12 children and raised in Fresno, Mrs. Padilla attended Washington Union High School and then earned both undergraduate (1966) and master's (1989) degrees in social work from Fresno State.
She worked for Fresno County's Department of Social Services and for Fresno County Head Start. It was in 1970, during her time with Head Start, that she met Gilbert Padilla -- at the time a high-ranking United Farm Workers official -- when both were holding meetings at the same location in Kerman.
They would end up married 43 years and have a daughter, Adele.
Mrs. Padilla eventually gave up paid social work to do a decade-long volunteer stint with the UFW.
She worked in the local field office in Fresno County, organized a boycott in Wisconsin and did lobbying in Washington, D.C. She also began negotiating contracts for the union.
"She was very smart," Gilbert Padilla said. "She was tough but smart, which is a rare combination."
In 1981, the Padillas moved from the UFW headquarters in Keane to Fresno. And Mrs. Padilla never completely left social work. In 1983, she became the supervising social worker at Centro La Familia. She kept the position even after being elected to the Fresno City Council in 1991.
Mrs. Padilla defeated incumbent Chris Petersen to become the first Hispanic on the council since Leonel Alvarado in 1983 -- and the only Hispanic woman ever.
She was part of the council majority that voted to create Cesar Chavez Boulevard on California and Ventura avenues and Kings Canyon Road. The council later reversed itself after public uproar over the decision.
In addition, she was a strong supporter of the downtown baseball stadium, saying in April 1994: "I, for one, will be very proud to have my name on the plaque when the stadium is done."
She worked to help get funding for a down-payment assistance program for first-time homebuyers and was part of the push to get highways 180 and 168 built.
She would later provide the swing vote when the Fresno City Council voted 4-3 to continue supporting construction of Highway 168 after then-Council Member Bob Lung attempted to stop construction.
In 1994, she lost her District 5 seat to Sal Quintero in a bitterly contested race.
After leaving office, she was involved in some controversies. One of them was her City Hall lobbying and consulting work with The Rios Co. Also, the FBI sought records from her and other former council members related to financial transactions that were part of the Operation Rezone investigation.
But former Council Member Rod Anaforian said Mrs. Padilla was as clean as they come. Anaforian was a Republican and Mrs. Padilla a Democrat, but he said they had a strong bond because of her straightforward manner -- and her honesty.
"When Esther came on council, I believe she raised the bar for some people going forward," he said. "There was a need to rehabilitate, and Esther began that process by just being herself. In politics, ethics and integrity are rare commodities. For Esther, it was a given."
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