Sara Mestas is a mom and political activist, but she can't walk on water. Her hip-hop persona Mo Wiley can, though. In a recent video for her single, "You Can't Touch It," her alter ego sashays across San Francisco Bay in high heels, blue jeans, and a tight-fitting top with a large crucifix dangling from her neck, rapping about typical hip-hop tropes of money, sex, and power. "You can't touch it unless I says so," she sings, pointing to herself. "Now where's my dough?" Mestas, who has proposed programs to mentor troubled youth in San Leandro, says the song is about female empowerment, but the negative reaction it's gotten from city officials helped convince her to run for mayor.
When San Leandro City Manager Stephen Hollister and Police Chief Ian Willis saw Mestas' video on the Internet, they concluded that the image of scantily-clad women singing racy lyrics was unsuitable for the city's youth. Soon after, they told Mestas, a newcomer to local politics, that the city would not co-sponsor her plan to help mentor troubled kids through a program with the Police Activities League and a free baseball recreation league sponsored by the San Francisco Giants.
Hollister went further, saying her music was not just inappropriate for youth. "The music conveys multiple messages that are not suitable for children or anyone, for that matter," he said. Mestas took the denial as a personal affront, and just like that, San Leandro had a new candidate hoping to unseat the incumbent this November — Mayor Tony Santos. Mestas announced her bid for mayor on May 25 in an audacious press conference in front of City Hall, within shouting distance of the current mayor's second-story office.
If it were not for this slight from the city manager and police chief, Mestas said she might have stayed in the background. But in addition to her video, Mestas said city officials also are holding her own troubled past against her. She said Hollister implied one evening at the city's Marina Community Center that she still ran with the wrong crowd. "He assumed I had this group of shady friends," Mestas said. "I started hearing rumors from people about my background and community members were asking me questions."
Mestas said she was upset about the constant innuendo surrounding her past and began realizing the same people questioning her were not representing the city's changing demographics. "Why don't these elected officials get out there and see where people really live, what kind of cars they drive, so they can understand their constituents better?" she asked.
Before last year, Mestas had steered clear of local politics. But then last fall, as she walked her kids to school on their first day, she noticed that the orange-jacketed crossing guards were absent from street corners across the city. Earlier in the year, the city council had cut funding for the program without much notice.
Mestas, whose daughter attends a San Leandro elementary school, joined a chorus of angry parents who complained to their principals, wrote e-mails to the school board, and packed city council meetings. Eventually, it took the council and school board more than two months to reach an agreement on splitting the cost of reinstating the program for the school year, but someone had to fill in the gap in between.
So she volunteered to help. She worked the morning and after-school shift, donning a reflective orange vest, waving an aluminum stop sign, and blowing a mean whistle. When the city signed a deal with an outside contractor, she stayed on and was hired. And her numerous public comments before city leaders started to attract attention around town. She met with some of them, talked about the school crossings fiasco, and recalled her own troubled childhood and the various city services in San Leandro she credits with helping her get on the right track. "It gave me a great sense of empowerment," she said. "It was the moment I realized that my voice mattered."
Within months, Mestas she had landed a seat on the city's rent review board, and was proposing a few mentoring projects ready for implementation. That was until city officials saw her rap video on the Internet and heard rumors about her criminal past.
For his part, Hollister said Mestas' background did not give him pause. "What somebody did in the past is not as important as what she is doing now and the things Sara is doing now is great," he said. Still, he found fault with her video. "In my interpretation, it glorifies prostitution," he said, "which is not only a crime, but also the objectification of women in general."
The video also didn't go over well at the San Leandro Police Department. Aligning the department with an artist whose music video featured attractive and fleshy women dancing to the groove proved too much for an agency in the middle of sexual harassment suits brought by seven female officers against the former police chief and one of his sergeants. "I already have sexual harassment cases going on in the department," Willis said. "I really don't think I can justify working with [that] type of subject matter." Willis also said he asked several law enforcement peers about the video and encountered the consensus that the video "promoted prostitution and other criminal activities."
But Hollister says the main reason the city declined to work with Mestas on the Police Activities League project was economics. Because of budget cuts, the department could lose up to ten employees, including five officers this June. And Santos said Willis has been consistent on the subject, saying others have approached the chief with Police Activities League programs, only to receive the same answer Mestas got — a lack of available resources.
Mestas said some officials and staff may believe she is intruding on protected turf with her proposals. She pointed to the grant she received from the San Francisco Giants for a month-long summer youth league entirely paid by the club and offered at no cost to residents. Mestas says some city staffers were stand-offish and she believes the Junior Giants program was not received well because it might take away from existing recreational activities in the city.
The Police Activities League program, though, is more in tune with Mestas' belief in giving back to the community. The program would mentor teenagers, helping them learn how to present themselves better to employers when they enter the business world. She plans to teach kids how to dress for interviews, write résumés, and have a more forward-thinking approach to their lives — something she didn't learn until it was almost too late.
She also said her wild teenage years were no secret to local law enforcement. She does not shy away from the fact that she was arrested numerous times as a youth and convicted of a felony grand theft at the age of eighteen. She said it's the reason troubled youth are attracted to her and why she feels she needs to help them.
Before she figured out a better way to live her life, she had three young children and a very limited support system. She was nearly homeless, but credits San Leandro institutions such as Girls Inc. and the Davis Street Family Resource Center for helping her through those dark times. Dawn Valadez, the development director at the Davis Street Family Resource Center, has known Mestas since the future mayoral candidate first went to Girls Inc. for help years ago. "She is doing amazing things," Valadez said. "I've seen her come a long way to change her life. She's been there, done that, and she knows that path leads to death. Her music is totally separate from who she really is, but it gives her street cred with these kids. Kids are smart and they can see through some of the stuff told to them."
Nevertheless, the presence of a stern-talking female rattling off dark, grimy staccato rhymes is troublesome for some who come from another generation. From the moment she reached out to the city, officials began "dissecting her music," she said. Hollister and Willis wrongly concluded that one track, for example, "Major League Ballin'" was just about sex, she said. "A lot of the slang they were interpreting was from their era of Woodstock, which I am not part of that era," she said. "I had no idea they used the word "'ballin'' to mean sex." She said she told Hollister the definition of the word was generally accepted in pop culture as someone attaining "affluent wealth."
Hollister, whose background was in law enforcement, replaced San Leandro City Manager John Jermanis last year. "As a middle-aged man, I don't understand the music," he said. "But everything is up for interpretation."
After City Hall officials objected to her racy rap video, Sara Mestas decided to run for mayor.