There’s one thing Rodrigo Espinosa is not — and that’s a 100-percent “Yes” vote, all the time, just to get along with his colleagues, and keep up the status quo.
“I’m holding my own,” Espinosa tells the Times, “and doing that on the board is not always easy. I’m Mexican-American. I work hard. Some people may see me as the 1 against the 4, but I want to work with my colleagues. I get along with my colleagues, but not on everything. Politics is politics.”
The 55-year-old Espinosa (He will turn 56 in April) has just been named Chair of the Merced County Board of Supervisors. It’s his second time in the lead role, and that’s sort of like being the Mayor of the County in terms of leading meetings and going out into the community to represent the board.
Supervisor Espinosa has a wealth of experience working in local government, and his leadership longevity is unmatched in the region. He’s been an elected leader for 22 straight years — ever since he was first elected to the Livingston City Council in 2002. He served two terms on the council, and then was elected mayor, serving for two terms. In 2016, he beat incumbent Supervisor John Pedrozo for the District 1 seat on the county board.
This year, Espinosa is seeking re-election to a third term in the county seat that represents the communities of Livingston, south Merced, El Nido, Le Grand, Planada and Santa Nella. He is also facing three challengers: Sonia Alshami, Maria Soto and Jim Pacheco.
Alshami is a business owner who ran against Espinosa in a two-candidate primary race in 2020. She only lost by a mere 86 votes out of 5,058 total. Soto is an educator who currently sits on the Livingston City Council. Pacheco is a retired sheriff’s deputy who currently works as a bailiff.
This time around, Espinosa would need 50 percent of the vote, plus 1 to win in the primary. With four candidates in the race, it’s very possible that the Top Two vote-getters will head to a run-off in the November election.
“You see my signs everywhere,” Espinosa says. “I always run like I’m behind, especially now that I’m facing three candidates. Obviously I want to win in March, but with four people running, I may not get 50 percent plus 1. I should be OK for a runoff in November. There will be more of a Hispanic vote in the Presidential Election. And I think I have more of a household name now — all over the county, not just in my district.”
The candidate says Alshami and Soto are probably running just to split the vote and cause a runoff. He says he has heard that Pacheco would be another “Yes” vote or a “puppet” for county law enforcement leaders such as Sheriff Vern Warnke and District Attorney Nicole Siveira (Pacheco’s wife works for the DA’s Office, Espinosa points out.)
Espinosa says public safety is his top priority, and he supports working with his colleagues to come up with ways to boost salaries and incentives to retain deputies and other law enforcement employees. He voted to support the ongoing 138-million-dollar renovation of the county jail facilities, and another $30 million for a communications center. However, he says, he did not support funding a main station at Castle for the Sheriff’s Department, at least not now, at a time when there’s financial concerns regarding the Probation Department, and the overall local economy. Espinosa says he is trying to be fiscally responsible.
“We can wait a year or two for the economy to improve,” he says. “It’s just like your household payments. Why would you want to get into more debt? And we talk about fiscal responsibility. We have been increasing our reserves. It used to be $31 million now it’s around $41 million, but that money will go fast in an economic downturn. It won’t last.”
Other priorities for Espinosa include working with MID, state agencies and local farmers to improve surface and ground water resources. And while the candidate says he grew up in a farming family and owns productive farmland, he is also supportive of rezoning county land to promote more commercial and industrial development. The county needs more jobs, and more tax revenue, the candidate says.
Espinoso would like to see more commercial and truck stop areas along or near Highway 99 like they have in Santa Nella. Perhaps south of Merced, near Plainsburg, off Le Grand Road.
He says revenue sharing talks are moving along for Livingston — “the cleanest, safest city in the entire county.” He would like to see the city expand and develop its industrial and commercial footprint south to Sultana Drive.
One leadership aspect the candidate likes to highlight is accessibility. “People ask me all the time: ‘Why are you the only one who answers the phone?’ … Many minorities don’t have the ear of my colleagues, so they call me. I get calls from every part of the county, and I strive to help each person individually, and educate them if I can. I help small business owners and developers — especially those who are minorities — get through the county’s permitting process. I speak Spanish as my first language. I have good relations with the Hmong, Sikh and Filipino communities. I try to empower young people. I go everywhere, all over the county.”
Espinosa says it helps when people see him out working side-by-side with community members to solve problems or to help out as a volunteer. Last year, he could be seen for hours at a time, helping others during the floods that devastated the town of Planada.
“I still get criticized,” he admits, “and there are people who don’t like me.”
Apparently his challenger Maria Soto is one of them. She recently showed up at a Board of Supervisors meeting and took to the public speaking podium to accuse Espinosa of corruption linked to a grand jury investigation 17 years ago, as well as accusing him of having family members on Municipal Advisory Councils (MACs) in Le Grand and/or Planada.
Espinosa says the claims are false and “made up.” He says the Grand Jury actually exonerated him in 2008 regarding a real estate purchase in a redevelopment zone that he actually lost money on. And he says he has no family serving in the MAC groups.
Espinosa serves as vice chair on the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority, has a seat on the state LAFCO board, and participates in the Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA) talks in Chowchilla and Turlock.
Says the candidate, “My opponents don’t have the experience. … They haven’t even come to the board meetings. Two of the three haven’t been. They have never been elected to such a position. I have experience, and I don’t care if there are two or 10 people running against me, I’m ready. … I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I have experience. The most important thing is to care and do the right thing.”
Supervisor Espinoza grew up in Delhi after coming to the United States from Mexico at age 10. He attended Livingston High School and then California State University, Stanislaus, where he received a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice in 1994.
Espinoza and his family are long-time farmers in the Delhi and Turlock area. Their crops mainly include peaches and almonds. The supervisor owns farmland with his brother in Delhi.
Espinoza has been married to his wife, Ana, for 30 years. He has three children: Erik, Breanna, and Matthew. The family lives in Livingston.