By Kevin Hall
I was first introduced to Nelson Esparza while he was briefly employed at a local nonprofit, so I agreed to get together and talk politics when he called a few months later. Over a quart-sized ice tea at Irene’s in the Tower, I listened closely as he told me he was running for city council and asked me to join his kitchen cabinet, that close circle of advisers candidates rely on to keep them honest and who have some experience with politics. And I do. Which is why I said no.
That was my honest answer to his unmistakably naked ambition to simply be an elected official, which he partially based on his self-description as being the perfect local candidate. As the son of Mexican and African-American parents, “I am Fresno,” he explained happily. I have come to agree, but not in the ways he meant.
I asked a few of the basic questions one should of a would-be officeholder: any past scandals, what have you done for anyone besides yourself, any record of activism or leadership, etc.?
I quickly learned he had a complete lack of public service, hadn’t had held a job for more than eight months, and observed he expressed no interest in city policies. I kept waiting for something to come up, anything, but he really wanted to talk about his campaign “spreadsheet” on which he had mapped out his strategy.
Finally, I asked why would he want to challenge an incumbent when he would almost surely lose as the seat was held by a fellow Democrat backed by Labor. He said because it would get his name on the ballot and help him run again four years later.
Sorry if I’ve confused you; that’s because you know Esparza as running for the open seat in District 7 in 2018. Our meeting occurred on July 24, 2015, nearly three years ago, and he was planning to run against District 4 representative Paul Caprioglio. Enough people must have given him the same response and some guidance. He changed his plans to the degree that it even led to campaign donations from good ol’ “Cap” himself, a Dem who
votes more often with the white Republican minority on city council than the three south side Dems of color.
A quick side note: a convenient employment platform for local candidates such as Esparza is proving to be as adjunct faculty with the State Center Community College District. It is all very cozy. Current council president Esmeralda Soria has the same gig, and to round things out, both candidates caucus politically in local Democratic circles with Miguel Arias, a trustee for the district, employee at Fresno Unified, and the developer-backed candidate in his current run for Fresno City Council District 3. (Like Esparza, Arias has a demonstrated lack of the basic knowledge of city council functions, likening the council’s role to that of a school board overseeing a superintendent.) Fellow trustee Eric Payne is on the fringe of this circle, but Esparza recently drew a sharp line between himself and Payne on saying the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” more below.
Meanwhile back in 2015, Esparza canceled his plans and waited until summer 2016 when he announced his run for the Fresno County Board of Education. His now-deleted website was rife with oh-so-cute shots of him with his kid-led campaign staff. Many great words of commitment and promises were posted there, too. Turns out it was a joke in every respect.
Conclusion: Nelson Esparza lied to voters, students and parents.
Corollary: Many local Democrats are okay with this; some even advised him to do it.
His goal was the same – city council – as was his tactic: to get his name on the ballot. His victory came at a cost to the Fresno County Board of Education and hurt the county’s entire student population. Because the defeated incumbent, Barbara Thomas, is widely respected for her progressive politics, and she had a distinguished, lifelong career as a child psychologist in special education before running for office. So what, right? Nelson had plans.
Now, I agree minority-majority districts (including entire states) are best served by qualified people who accurately reflect the demographics and life experience of the majority of residents, but not just superficially – and fleetingly – represented as in the case of Esparza and Board of Education.
He’s right about his appeal, which includes a good education, but he has no professional or policy experience. In a feeble attempt to bolster his non-existent credentials, he actually refers to himself as a professor on the county education website. He does not hold a PhD. and has never held a job for longer than 8 months.
His complete lack of experience in trying to move legislation through the education board or city hall, much less join in community resistance to yet another corrupt rezone or CEQA-be-damned vote, is not what Fresno needs in its candidates but is what it almost always gets. Inexperienced, ambitious narcissists – almost exclusively males – who are willing to wing it based on their personal, paper-thin ideologies.
How ambitious is Esparza? He won the county education seat in November 2016 and took his oath of office joined the board in mid-December. A mere four months later he stood and publicly declared his candidacy for city council before 200 people at the annual Democratic party banquet.
One of the honorees that night was Barbara Thomas, who took her defeat by Esparza very hard as education has been her lifelong passion. His announcement there was salt in the wound, a lot of salt. (Related conclusion: Nelson Esparza is a real ass.) Thomas was known as the one board member who would dig deep into the financial reports of the district and ask hard questions. She’s gone now and no watchdog remains. Esparza clearly never had any interest in the job or the slightest intention of applying himself to it. The kids, Thomas, the voters, they were all simply stepping stones.
A few months later he lied directly to Bee reporter Rory Appleton, who quoted Esparza in September saying, ““I found an opportunity to make an even larger impact on our community,” he said. “There’s no tie between the two (campaign races).” And note the narcissism in that statement. It’s all about his impact, isn’t it? Yet he has demonstrated no impact in his current office. He is quitting the Fresno County Board of Education, and students are already paying the price.
Conclusion: Nelson Esparza broke his oath of office.
Then there are the Democrats who support him. I invite any one of them to defend this guy and their support. Yes, you like him. He’s friendly and smiles broadly and easily. Nor is he without charm. Yes, we definitely need young people of color in politics and the old white guard needs to age out quickly, but will that be the sole litmus test? Does honesty not matter?
Bear in mind, dear voter, young Nelson has been coached in his political strategy and budding career as a would-be career politician. You can bet that spreadsheet of his includes the term limits of our current representatives to the statehouse, if not congressman Jim Costa’s expected lifespan. Because Nelson is clearly all about having a bigger “impact” whenever the next political opportunity presents itself.
This is the school of Valley Democratic politics that has birthed such luminaries as Cal Dooley, Michael Rubio, and Henry T. Perea. Each of whom now lobbies on behalf of the most dangerous industries on the planet: industrial chemicals and fossil fuels. (But, hey, they get paid hundreds of thousands of dollars every year for doing it. Their children’s future and yours be damned.)
The hapless Nelson is not being coached in policy issues; he’s being trained on how to campaign, which for Valley Dems is rooted the mistaken belief that they’re stuck in a moderate political districts, so they may only stand up for anything with the potential for controversy on the rarest of occasions.
Seriously, when SCCCD Trustee Eric Payne asked “Mr. Fresno” and his fellow candidates if they thought Black Lives Matter or All Lives Matter at the Black American Political Action Committee candidate forum in March, Nelson’s answer left one Black attendee muttering on the way out, “I thought you said he was Black.”
Conclusion: Nelson Esparza won’t say “Black lives matter” because he’s afraid it will cost him votes, campaign contributions, or endorsements.
Why such a harsh critique of this young candidate?
The institutionalized racism of our society inequitably limits career options for many young people of color to military, law enforcement, or other types of public service. So for Nelson to be judged so harshly by the likes of me, a totally privileged middle-aged white male, goes against every grain of decency but one: politics isn’t a game.
It’s not a spreadsheet either. Lives are at stake. The recent 7-0 votes at city hall to ignore CEQA and place at risk the health and lives of tens of thousands give proof to that. Local Democrats are joining their Republican colleagues in failing the public interest badly at City Hall.
The harm of term limits in Sacramento has been a fast escalator for unqualified people on city councils and county boards to the statehouse and positions of great influence. With time running out on climate change, the good ol’ boy approach to a politics dominated by officeholders dependent on special interests must end now.
So, the good hearts and energy of well-meaning people don’t need to be exploited by the next Dooley, Rubio, or Perea. We need people of integrity in office with experience and credentials that allow them to hit the ground running, not just keep running for their next office and the eventual cash-grab lobbying gig at the end of it as if they’ve somehow earned it.
That’s why Nelson Esparza is not qualified and should not be supported. That’s why I said no to him.
I apologize for the hurt feelings my harsh words of condemnation will cause some people, but I stand by their substance. He can, of course, deny the meeting ever took place or that such words were ever said; give him the benefit of the doubt if you must and skip the first six paragraphs in this article and tell me why he is fit for city council.
I like Nelson, too, but he needs to fulfill his promise to voters and complete his term. And he needs to work to restore his integrity.
Conclusion: Nelson Esparza cannot be trusted.
July 2015 – Exploring run against Fresno City Council Member Paul Caprioglio
April 2016 – Announces run for Fresno County Board of Education, Trustee Area 3
Nov. 2016 – Wins Election for Fresno County Board of Education
Dec. 2016 – Takes oath of office at Fresno County Board of Education
April 2017 – Announces run for Fresno City Council District 7
June 2017 – Transfers more than $5,000 from county education board campaign account to city council campaign account