When Anthony Martinez was elected to the Merced City Council in 2016, there were a few “first-ever” moments celebrated.
It was the first time Merced residents voted for council leaders in a district-based election instead of an “at-large” vote. It was the first time residents in southeast Merced — or District 1 — had a chance to vote for a representative. And it was the first time Martinez — who won the District 1 race — was ever elected to a government seat.
The districting process kicked into full gear in 2014 after actions and research by MALDEF, a Latino civil rights group based in Los Angeles, which found potential violations of the state’s Voting Rights Act.
At the time, not a single member of the City Council was Latino, and no Latino member had been elected for nearly a decade. A probe also found that the non-Latino majority of the electorate “consistently vetoed the electoral choices of the Latino electorate,” despite the fact that more than 49 percent of Merced’s population was considered Latino, and 33 percent of Latinos in the city were registered voters.
The city held several workshops on the districting process, and the best attended events were always held in south Merced — a section of the city that is often described as having an “underserved population.” Leaders eventually decided on six districts for council representation (not including the mayor who is still elected in a citywide race).
So perhaps it was no surprise that after 2016 election, speculation grew about transformation at City Hall, and attention turned to the newly elected Latino leader from south Merced.
“When I first got on, it was like nobody [at Cith Hall] really knew me,” Martinez remembers. “People on staff, and other City Council members were wondering, ‘What type of person are you, and what are you going to bring to the table? Are you going to create change, or are you just going to complain? Do you have good ideas, or are you all about yourself?’”
Over Here Coach
The truth is Martinez was a 30-year-old teacher and coach on Election Night.
The native Mercedian and Golden Valley High grad had wanted to teach and coach sports since he was 19. He was inspired by becoming a role model for young people and “aiming for something bigger.”
After earning a degree at Cal State Northridge, and a single-subject teaching credential (English), Martinez returned to Merced. He found a job he liked at Weaver School, and he went on to manage the school’s baseball program and expanded it. He also coached freshman football at El Capitan High.
As an adult with a career in the community, Martinez says he started to hear rumblings in his social circles. City leaders, it seemed, were disconnected with the voters in southeast Merced where Martinez lived. People were concerned about economic development along Highway 99, the lack of jobs, the lack of youth activities, homelessness and blight.
“Keep in mind,” Martinez says today in wonder, “when I was elected the bowling alley was still up.”
The old Century Bowl near GV High was an abandoned eyesore, filled with trash, old mattresses, graffiti and rats. Local complaints on Facebook went viral.
Martinez started speaking up about city issues and “putting ideas out there.” And then people started telling him, “Maybe you should step up. If you are going to complain about something around town, then do something, or shut up and sit down.”
Opportunity knocked when the City Council moved to districts.
“I realized ‘OK, now I really have a shot,” he recalls. “I don’t have to go all over Merced and rally votes, now I just have to go to my area where more people knew me. I was like, ‘all right, let’s do this.’”
And he did it.
In 2016, Martinez easily beat out four other opponents for the District 1 seat, earning 44 percent of the 2,485 votes cast.
Voter turnout in District 1 was significantly lower than other districts in central and north Merced, and the same held true for the other south Merced district, District 2, in 2018.
Nevertheless, it was the dawn of a new era in Merced politics, and Martinez found himself being sworn in at City Hall, surrounded by applauding people, many of whom he didn’t really know.
“I realized I had to do a lot of learning, and I had to do it quickly.”
View from the dais
With subjects like waste water treatment and road maintenance, for example, Martinez knew he was in unfamiliar territory.
His plan was to lay low, ask a lot of questions and do a lot of homework in order to carry his own weight on the council and earn the respect of fellow leaders and city staff.
“It probably took a good six months before I started to feel pretty comfortable up there,” he says.
Councilman Martinez says he was a little surprised to discover how much debate really goes on at City Hall, and he was a little disillusioned to see “how people disagreed,” and “how certain issues would cause people to take things personally, and on other issues it was all business.”
He says it eventually helped tremendously to be named as an ex officio member of the Park and Recreation Commission, the Arts and Cultural Commission, and the Charter Review Committee. Those assignments were deep dives into lots of specific issues that provide background and context to future decisions.
Today, Martinez is no longer the timid one on the dais. He’s actually one of the most outspoken leaders on the Merced City Council. He’s excited about the future of District 1 which is getting a lot of high-level attention. The Century Bowl is gone and a restaurant and gas station has taken its place. The massive Campus Parkway transportation project finally received funding for a major buildout toward UC Merced. And there’s serious planning and commercial projects to create a retail, hotel and apartment center at the Mission entrance off Highway 99.
The houses will be coming too, he says.
“Just think, your kid is going to UC Merced, and you are coming to Merced for the first time, that entrance is the first thing you are going to see. It’s going to show off our town. Let’s make it a beautiful corridor. … And then you ask yourself, what’s next? … I see an attractive new residential neighborhood that will make Merced proud.”
Martinez also points to plans for a homeless Navigation Center on B Street, and new affordable housing at the corner of B and Childs. He says the resources are needed for a serious city problem, and the developments will help improve nearby neighborhoods in need of sidewalks, street lighting, and bike lanes.
The development of adequate public infrastructure and safety are big on the list for District 1, he says.
The councilman has been advocating for progress on a planned road expansion of Childs Avenue past Golden Valley High. There’s room for the two-lane road to add two more lanes, and there’s a critical need for sidewalks on both sides of the road way that is well-traveled by GV and Weaver students.
The problem is there’s an open Merced Irrigation District canal on stretches of the south side of Childs. The canal would have to be put underground, and the cost is significant. Martinez is not giving up; however, and he believes the project could be completed by working with developers and seeking out new government funding streams.
“This is near the edge of the city where there are plans to grow,” he says. “A lot of streets along Childs, Mission, and Gerard are not very well maintained. I think the city — and the County of Merced — have a role to play in order to get things established for the good of the community.”
“I’m not liking this, I’m lovin’ this,” Martinez says about being on the City Council.
“I enjoy helping people out. That’s why I’m a teacher. I think those skills transfer over to the council. I get a lot of personal satisfaction by helping people in the community. …
“If I can help bring things to the community — things people want to see and things people like … If I can help improve the quality of life … If I can open up opportunities for people … Well I really love that. And that’s really what this job is all about.
“There’s no point in doing this if it’s just for me. The job is bigger than me. The job is bigger than any one person on the council. If you are only about yourself, and about your people, or your section of town, or where you come from — good luck man. Because it’s not going to go to well for you. But if you are genuinely about just trying to help others, people are going to pick up on that. They are going to trust you, and they are going to realize that you really mean what you say, and they are going to say, ‘Yes, I will support you.’”
Martinez went to the Starbucks off Childs in his district for this interview.
It’s just a 10-minute walk from his apartment — the same one he has lived in since 2014.
He’s 33 now, and for the past year, he has been making a 30-minute commute to El Capitan High School for a full-time teaching gig. He misses Weaver School, but he looks forward to every day at “El Cap” where he has the freedom to develop his own lesson plans and curriculum calendar. For example, while his students are reading Orwell’s novella Animal Farm, they are also playing a fun, geopolitical game so they can “implement real-world situations.” They are also reading, “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down,” a 1997 book by Anne Fadiman that chronicles the struggles of a Hmong refugee family and their interactions with the health care system in Merced.
Martinez has no plans to move outside his district. He even plans to buy a house in the area at some point. In fact, he’s been telling all his friends and new acquaintances to do the same thing.
“District 1 is on the rise,” he says with a smile.
That said, Martinez says it’s too early to announce whether he is going to seek re-election to the City Council after his term ends in November of 2020.
He does want to stay active in local politics, but that’s about as far as he will take it, he says.
“Locally is where I like to be,” he says. “With state and national politics, there’s a necessity to play ball for political parties. I’m not a Republican or a Democrat. I don’t care if you want to fund me, or I don’t care if you are going to fund my opponent. I’m not going to compromise who I am for that.”