Espinoza says he will keep focus on jobs, new industries
At first glance, a local voter might see Rodrigo Espinoza as the only Latino or Hispanic leader currently serving on the Merced County Board of Supervisors.
That’s true, but Espinoza also stands out as the one member with the most experience as an elected leader in local government.
Espinoza was first elected to the Livingston City Council in 2002 and was re-elected in 2006. He ran for mayor of Livingston in 2010 and was re-elected Mayor in 2012 and 2014.
This year, the 52-year-old married father of three children will be finishing up his first, 4-year term on the Board of Supervisors representing District 1 — further establishing himself as a local political force who is strong, powerful and difficult to defeat.
The only colleague that comes close to Espinoza’s time in elected office is first-term Supervisor Scott Silviera who served 8 years on the Los Banos City Council.
And Espinoza shows no signs of slowing down. He’s off to a great start in 2020 after being unanimously chosen by his colleagues as the new board chairman.
“There is so much work to do, and so much to be done,” the supervisor told the Times after being asked about his job at the County Administration building. “There are meetings and meetings to attend, reports to study, and concerns from residents to respond to … If you don’t know how to manage it — it will drive you crazy. You have to stay focused. …
“I will say God put me in Livingston government for 12 years, and that’s a long time, but I never thought it was going to be forever. And I learned what it takes to represent so many people. And it all comes with critiques and criticism, and sometimes attacks, but if you can get through that, you can get through anything.
“Right now, I am focused on the job at hand, and also helping one person at a time, and building relationships with my colleagues and staff who are trying to improve the quality of life in our county.”
Notwithstanding his stated mission, 2020 is a big election year.
Espinoza is also running for re-election for the District 1 seat, representing a large region that stretches from Le Grand and Planada to El Nido, south Merced and Livingston. There’s close to 55,000 people residents in the district, and about 70 percent are considered Hispanic.
The incumbent faces Sonia Alshami, a drug and alcohol counselor from south Merced who ran unsuccessfully for the Merced City Council in 2016.
Espinoza credits his success to being accessible to the public and supporting constituents, often on a one-on-one basis.
“I try to understand their problems and frustrations,” he said. “There’s always the usual complaints — the need for road repairs and filling up pot holes. The lack of sidewalks — particularly in unincorporated communities — is always a big concern. We need safer routes to schools in Planada, and we need more lighted areas in south Merced. And we need to improve our aging park facilities in all areas.”
In addition to his county duties, the supervisor says he is constantly reaching out to Merced and Livingston city leaders, and attends their meetings in order to bring light to infrastructure problems and the concerns of residents. He is also a regular face at the various meetings of the Municipal Advisory Councils in the small towns he represents on the board.
“It’s frustrating when you see a community that has to wait three and half years for a planned improvement project to get off the ground. There is delay after delay while the funding appears to be already there.”
He said he is encouraged by the City of Livingston and its leaders who are working to improve their downtown district while making progress on water quality. He also noted the countywide effort to combat homelessness is represented in his district by the future Navigation Center / Shelter to be built in southeast Merced, along with various regional sites.
As for roads, Espinoza admits there’s no where near enough funds from SB1 and Measure V to fix all the problems in the county at present. It costs between $275,000 to $300,000 per mile to replace a road, and Merced County is responsible for 1,754 miles, according to county officials. More than 11 miles have been resurfaced by Measure V funds and 12 miles by Senate Bill 1, they say.
Espinoza does point to steady progress and significant work completed on Le Grand Road, Sandy Mush Road, McNamara Road, Lincoln Boulevard, and Magnolia Avenue, among many others.
Despite all of the above, the supervisor said Merced County needs to stay focused on attracting more commercial and industrial development in order to create well-paying jobs.
“We continue to get calls from parents who say my son or daughter can’t get a job, or they can’t get a job that pays over $12 an hour. We hear about our residents commuting to Modesto just to earn a little more. …
“A lot of things are going well now, and we are seeing new investment. That’s good, but if we have another drought in a region where agriculture is the No. 1 industry, and the economy takes a turn, and we haven’t added the number of jobs we need, then there’s going to be a public outcry. … The county needs to step up its work together with the cities to solve things now — like infrastructure development, revenue sharing and solving homelessness.”
Also of note, even before Espinoza was elected to the board, he was vocal about providing health care coverage to individuals living under undocumented immigration status. He was also supportive of a participatory budgeting practice championed by Supervisor Lee Lor that gave citizens a say in how discretionary funds given to supervisors were spent.
Set annual allotments (a total of $200,000) for board-approved discretionary spending on district improvements ended a few years ago. However, Espinoza joined a majority of his colleagues to approve a budget allocation of $20,000 per district, per year to fund the hiring of administration assistants to help supervisors manage their time, duties and work with constituents.
Espinoza serves on two Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA) boards, the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo), the Merced County Association of Governments, the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority and Rail Committee and the Latino Caucus of California Counties.
“I’m excited to be heading into my second term,” Espinoza said, “because you go through a lot, but at the end of the day, my passion is helping people. I’m always available to meet you where you are at — anywhere in the county.”
The Spanish-speaking supervisor adds, “You don’t have to live in my district. If you need to talk, and if you feel comfortable talking to me, then give me a call.”
However, Espinosa said he doesn’t want to step on the toes or interfere with the good work of his fellow board members — rather he wants to facilitate cooperation. He said the county-sponsored Town Halls in his district have made a difference in getting the word out about county goals, and hearing about residents’ concerns.
“I want the community to know I’m here for them — not just at the office but I’m on call 24-7. I’m used to those late night phone calls. I have a lot of energy. I want people to know they can call me anytime.
He said the Times could publish the number: 209-652-2243.
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 26 years. He has three children: Erik, 23, a Merced College student; Breanna, 17, a basketball and track member at Livingston High; and Matthew, 10, who is in the 4th grade. The family lives in Livingston.