by Charles D. Nabarrete
In June 2022, a friend invited me to a meet-and-greet with Olegario D. Cantos VII, who goes by “Ollie.” A blind attorney, he was beginning a bid for city council in West Covina, Calif. Even though I did not live in his district, I decided to try to help him in his quest for public office. I had heard of a blind member of the California legislature who had served in the early 1900s. The American Association of Visually Impaired Attorneys (AAVIA), an affiliate of the American Council of the Blind, had searched for visually impaired elected officials but only found a legislator from Minnesota. I had invited Ollie to speak to AAVIA during the 2023 ACB convention. His presentation was well-received by the membership.
When I read Ollie’s official campaign website (http://www.OllieCantos.com), I learned that he was born without sight in his left eye and had very limited vision in his right. His parents, Orlando and Linda Cantos, immigrated from the Philippines, where his paternal grandfather was a member of Congress. Ollie grew up in West Covina, Calif., starting as a preschooler and having moved from Los Angeles where he was born. Beginning at the Blind Children’s Center through age 5, he went to public school through eighth grade and then attended a private parochial high school, where he was elected both junior class president and then student body president, developing his leadership and service skills. Subsequently, at Loyola Marymount University, where he earned his undergraduate degree in political science, he was involved in student government all four years, culminating in his election as executive vice president and chair of the Student Senate. He completed his education at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles.
Ollie’s first introduction to national politics came during his internship with U.S. Senator Alan Cranston during his college years. His career has taken him from the Disability Rights Legal Center, to being General Counsel at the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), to the Office of the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Justice, to the Domestic Policy Council at the White House, and now to the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education. He has also received presidential appointments under two different presidents.
In 2010, while in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, Ollie’s life took on added significance, and in ways that he never could have scarcely imagined. He was introduced by a social worker friend to three totally blind 10-year-old triplet brothers, Leo, Nic, and Esteban. They had come to the United States from Colombia with the rest of their family seven years earlier. The biological father was essentially out of the picture, and their mother and grandmother struggled to take care of them. They did not have high expectations and only allowed the boys outside their apartment to go to school and to a monthly Braille Book Club meeting sponsored by a local library. In that isolation, they only had one another for company. But when Ollie came along, that all changed. Originally serving as a mentor, things evolved to him adopting the boys on his own and taking on the role of Dad. He guided their development, eventually leading them to becoming the first blind triplets ever to earn the coveted rank of Eagle Scout in the 107-year history of what was then Boy Scouts of America. They also each held paid jobs before age 18, took on different internships, work in paid employment as adults, participated actively in service to the community, and are all in college. Nick will be the first to earn his bachelor’s degree in December. As an unstoppable family of four, Ollie is extremely proud of his sons, who are now known to the world as Leo, Nick, and Steven Cantos.
During Ollie’s 24-year-old professional legal career, he received 71 awards in recognition of his service to private businesses, the military, non-profit organizations, law enforcement agencies, crime victims, immigrant communities, people of color, and persons with disabilities. In 2002, Ollie received the Paul G. Hearne Award for rising up-and-coming national leaders from the AAPD. Five years later, he received the Legacy of the Filipino Award from the President of the Republic of the Philippines. More recently, he received the U.S. Education Secretary’s Diversity and Inclusion Award in the Obama administration, and was honored by TASH with its Marc Gold Employment Award for his authorship of a major resource book on employment and entrepreneurship opportunities for people with all types of disabilities (http://www.RespectAbility.org/people-with-disabilities-at-work). It has been distributed nationally by the cross-disability advocacy organization RespectAbility, from which he just stepped down as chairman of the board this past July after serving two terms.
Because of the relationships that Ollie cultivated and nurtured during his career, he received support from many of the people who he had previously met when he began his campaign for city council.
One of Ollie’s opponents in the race for city council was much better funded and attacked him based on political affiliation, even though his history reflected his close and collaborative nonpartisan outlook, consciously choosing to build on commonality. Another candidate and his ally’s political action committee sent four mailers intended to distort his personal record. The first of these went to the voters, showed a depiction of the U.S. Capitol in flames to remind constituents of January 6 in an attempt to link Ollie to Trump supporters. Another candidate from a different district started a whisper campaign to attack Ollie based on disability, while still another tried to attack his ethics and integrity. Yet, in response, he refused to attack them, instead emphasizing that working in close partnership with all the residents of West Covina was the best way to improve the city. After a grueling campaign where he walked throughout his district (sometimes encountering people who were unfriendly and one time having a resident urge his dog to attack Ollie), he was decisively elected in a district where political party registration was greater than that held by his own party affiliation. He is the first person with a disability ever to be elected to city council since its founding 100 years ago.
West Covina has changed, as have many communities in Southern California, to the point that its city council is very diverse, but a blind or otherwise disabled person had never been elected to municipal leadership.
Councilman Cantos has brought a new perspective to the city. He has urged that all citizens be treated fairly and equitably. He has worked well with his Council colleagues along with the city’s fellow residents to help make life better for everyone. He continues to be employed full-time by the federal government while assuming the duties of Councilman. He is working to foster meaningful impact in the lives of all residents, including those with disabilities. Best of all, he stands ready to help others so that they, too, may make history in their respective communities and beyond.