In 1999, 26-year-old Alex Padilla was elected to the Los Angeles City Council. The Pacoima-native and MIT grad was the youngest councilmember among his colleagues, and just two years later, found himself as acting mayor in the first moments in days of 9/11.
"Tonight, Los Angeles is safe, and if anything, we're in a privileged position to be able to help our fellow Americans," Padilla said during a news conference then.
He went on to the State Senate and served as California's Secretary of State until he got the call from California Governor Gavin Newsom.
Over a video call, Newsom asked Padilla to serve as California's U.S. Senator, filling Vice President Kamala Harris's vacancy. In the video, Padilla pauses and chokes up.
"Are you serious?" he asked. "I'm honored, man, and I'm humbled because of them," he said, referring to his parents.
Padilla proudly shared their names and their stories during his first floor speech in the U.S. Senate, known as a maiden speech.
"My name is Alex Padilla, y soy el hijo de Santos y Lupe Padilla," he said in Spanish. "I am the son of Santos and Lupe Padilla."
His father was a short-order cook and his mother -- who passed away in 2018 -- cleaned homes. Both immigrated from Mexico and met in Los Angeles.
"They were very clear they were working hard so that my sister, my brother and I could have opportunity and specifically, opportunities to get a good education," said Padilla.
This month, he was sworn into his first elected term as a U.S. Senator.
"The whole swearing-in ceremony and celebration was even more special because two years ago, we were denied that," he said. "It was COVID, before vaccines, and just days after the insurrection in Washington."
This time he was joined by his family, including his wife, Angela Padilla, and their three sons.
"What was history, not just for me, for California. For communities like ours," he said.
Padilla's San Fernando High School government teacher and " tocayo," the Spanish-language word for "namesake," Mr. Alex Reza was also there.
"I actually remember where he sat in my class. He sat towards the back, actually. At the back, on the left side of my room," recalled Reza.
He fondly describes a teenage Padilla as thoughtful and a good listener.
"I knew that he was a person that was going to succeed at whatever he made up his mind to," he said. "It was an honor. A very special moment," he said of Padilla's swearing in.
Eyewitness News met up with Senator Padilla at the Lake View Terrace Branch Library, which opened in his district during his time on the L.A. City Council, described as one of the most environmentally sustainable buildings in the world.
"No coincidence-- we are literally in the shadow of the old Lopez Canyon Landfill. I used to come as a kid with my mom to protest for the closure of the landfill," Padilla said.
In his different roles, Padilla has advocated for environmental protections. As a state senator, he authored the California law banning single-use plastic bags. In his current term, he plans to continue prioritizing climate issues with a focus on equity.
"A lot of times, the same lower income communities of color, vulnerable communities, are the ones that are most impacted by floods and fires and other disasters and get the least assistance or help," he said.
During his first two years in the Senate, he introduced and co-sponsored bills on transportation, housing, environmental justice, and immigration -- 14 of which were signed into law, including the FIRE Act, designed to modernize FEMA and support wildfire-prone states like California.
"FEMA will now start doing a better job of anticipating, maybe preposition personnel or other resources to respond when a fire happens, help communities more quickly rebuild and recover from wildfires," he said.
His first Senate bill proposed a pathway to citizenship for essential workers, like the farmworkers he spent a day on the job with, becoming the first U.S. senator to accept the invitation.
He's the first Latino to chair the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Immigration. Padilla has balanced support and disapproval of the Biden administration's immigration policies.
"Expanding more opportunities for asylum seekers to have their cases considered by the United States is a good step. The expansion of Title 42, I couldn't disagree more," he said.
Reza considers Padilla's role during Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson's confirmation hearings memorable. Among his questions, Senator Padilla asked her to speak to the country's young and most diverse generation. We asked him about that moment and his own advice to young people.
"So, she described the importance of perseverance. I agree 100%. But before there's even that perseverance, I think it's the audacity to dream big," he said.
"I've been asked a million times whether serving in the United States Senate is my dream come true. And the honest answer is it's not, because when I was a kid growing up here in Pacoima, I never imagined this was even an option for me," he said.
During his maiden speech, he underscored the significance of his new role, against the backdrop of his parents' story.
"In one generation, our family has gone from being the immigrant cooks and house cleaners, to serving in the United States Senate."