In the Gonzales family photo album, there is a picture of six-year-old Javier standing on a stage while his father, George, mayor of Santa Fe, N.M., stands nearby giving a speech. What the speech was about, Javier does not remember, but he does remember thinking, “This is kind of fun!”
He had caught the bug. The bug that pushes some people to take the lead in their communities and nags at them to try to make it a better place to live. That bug, that desire to serve his community, is what has pushed 34-year-old Javier Gonzales to become the youngest and first Hispanic president of the National Association of Counties.
It’s in the genes
Growing up in a respected, fourth-generation Santa Fe family, Gonzales began learning about public service through his family’s participation in community activities. La Fiesta de Santa Fe, an annual celebration that began in 1692, was a particularly important event for his family. Every September, they would attend the parties, parades, concerts, fireworks displays and religious ceremonies that celebrate the Spaniards’ resettlement in Santa Fe after the Pueblo Indians forced them out in 1680.
Every year, they anxiously awaited the decision as to who would be selected to represent the celebration’s creator, Don Diego de Vargas. That person, usually an established, older businessman, would serve as a community representative at numerous functions throughout the year.
As a 21-year-old, George Gonzales had been selected by the Fiesta committee to play the role, and, coincidentally, when Javier was 21, he was chosen. “Certainly it was an honor to represent the celebration at a very young age,” he says. “That’s kind of where I launched myself into taking more of a leadership position here in my own community.”
It would be a few years before he stepped fully into political life. After graduating from New Mexico State University with a degree in accounting, he took a job in El Paso, Texas, with KPMG Peat Marwick. However, within a short time, his parents and three brothers called him to help out with their new business, La Voz Broadcasting, which ran the state’s first bilingual radio station. He became the station’s CFO and settled back into town. Not long after, he decided to run for his first political office.
Hitting the ground running
In 1994, at 27, Gonzales was elected to the District 3 seat on the Santa Fe County Commission — the same seat, in fact, that his father occupied when he was in his twenties. In the race, Gonzales unseated an incumbent, mostly without his father’s help. “This was my campaign, and he didn’t want to overshadow it,” he says. “[Being his son] really helped me in terms of name I.D., but what I’ve offered since, I’ve had to do on my own.”
And that’s plenty, according to Paul Duran, chairman of the Santa Fe County Commission. Duran was elected to the commission two years after Gonzales, and campaigned on the platform of smoothing out the county’s cumbersome planning process. However, when he got on board, he found that Gonzales had already taken charge of the issue and had almost finished creating a new growth management plan. “The first thing he did was build consensus among the commissioners,” Duran says. “He turned [the county] completely around. He hired more professionals; they changed the entire staff; and they ultimately developed a land-use department that took on the new county general plan.”
Once the growth plan was approved, Gonzales set to work improving the county’s jail, which had fallen into disrepair. “The jail that we had when I came on board was the worst thing that you’ve ever seen,” says Duran. “In the women’s section, there were women sleeping on concrete floors. There were 20 people in a room. It was a pretty sad situation. Now, we have a state-of-the-art jail.”
Gonzales also got the county involved in health care, an area it had avoided prior to his election. The county created a health care committee comprising commission-appointed residents and industry leaders to work with the county hospital board. As a result of committee actions, the county dedicated money to improve emergency medical services and expand care for adolescents and new mothers.
“The hospital, which is a sole community provider, really wasn’t taking the concerns of the community into its programs,” Duran says. “I originally thought, ‘Gee, why are we getting involved in hospital issues?’ As it unfolded, I ultimately reached a point where I thought, ‘We should have jumped in here a long time ago.’ Javier spearheaded this thing.”
Minding the county’s business
Because of those and other accomplishments, Gonzales was elected to a second term in 1998. (New Mexico’s term limits prevent him from running for a third consecutive term.) Immediately, he began building on the growth initiatives he started in his first term. He led a charge for the county to use property taxes to acquire open space. “I felt that, if we could assure a good, strong quality of life, we would be able to attract jobs, and that would mean more economic opportunity,” he says. “I saw it as an investment in our community.”
This year, Gonzales worked to pass the state’s first transfer of development rights ordinance, which will help the county manage growth. “The idea is to take development rights from very sensitive areas where people don’t want to see development and move them to some of the growth areas where we’re planning out our infrastructure,” he says. Participation is voluntary. Once the transfer of rights is made, the county acquires the parcel in the sensitive growth area and preserves it as open space.
While the open space and transfer of development rights initiatives gained the support of residents, some of Gonzales’ other ideas have not succeeded. For example, in 2000, he supported a plan for the Immigration and Naturalization Service to build a prison in Santa Fe County. The facility would have housed federal prisoners who had violated immigration laws and would have brought in at least $2 million in revenue each year.
Gonzales pushed for the construction because of the revenue opportunity and because it would have created jobs for residents. The commission initially approved the plan, but local residents were troubled. “There were some people that were familiar with the immigrant jails and reported to us that there were a lot of problems with them,” Duran says. “There might be some unfair treatment of the prisoners, and a lot of people said that when the prisoners are released, they are released into the community where the prison is. Some people were concerned that felons and other criminals would find it easy to stay in the community, and they weren’t too thrilled with that.” Gonzales later asked the commission to reconsider and reverse its decision because of that opposition.
“A lot of people in this community felt that there was something even more important than money, and that was how we defined ourselves as a community,” Gonzales says. “One of the ways you define yourself is what you’re willing to tolerate and what you’re not willing to tolerate. That was one aspect that we just didn’t consider when we were talking about the INS facility.”
That episode taught Gonzales the meaning of being a public servant: introducing new ideas that meet the needs of residents and listening to the residents when they say they want to find other ways to do things. “It took me some time to really understand, to listen and to see a different point of view,” he says. “It’s one of those experiences where I think my dad saw me going down that road and didn’t offer me advice. He let me make and learn from [my] mistakes.”
Showing his rural roots
The transfer of development rights ordinance topped Gonzales’ list of goals for the county, so this year he plans to focus his attention squarely on the NACo presidency. “He doesn’t mind boldly going forward with innovative plans,” says Bernalillo County (N.M.) commissioner Tom Rutherford, a member of the NACo board of directors. “He’s done that on the county commission in Santa Fe with forward-looking planning initiatives. So, I won’t be at all surprised to see him trying some new things [as NACo president].”
Gonzales will propose some new initiatives that reflect his perspective as a representative of a rural southwestern county. “He’s looking to revitalize rural America through county governments,” says Larry Naake, executive director of NACo. “We’re not talking about agricultural products or anything like that. We’re talking about economic development in rural areas to make them viable places for people to continue to live and not have to leave for jobs in urban or suburban areas.”
Gonzales also plans to establish a rural government center within NACo. The center will serve as a resource for rural counties looking for current research, white papers, grant information, leadership opportunities, case studies of successful programs and guides for developing policies. The center will gather information on many issues, including technology, economic development, health care, transportation and growth management. It is intended to be the one place (within NACo and on the Internet) rural county leaders can go to access information about any issue.
“Right now, NACo has a lot of information,” Gonzales says. “They’re disseminating it the best that they can, but, if you’re a rural county, you really don’t know where to go. You go to a switchboard that takes your question, and then they [give] it to someone within the NACo staff. That can be intimidating to a rural official who just wants to access some simple information. We hope that by having this center, we’ll be able to provide more of a resource than what they currently have.”
The reauthorization of the 1996 Farm Bill also will attract some of Gonzales’ attention. He will lobby Congress for the inclusion of economic development provisions to help rural counties with more than just their agricultural needs.
“If you look at the federal government, we’ve not really had a rural policy articulated very carefully,” says Story County, Iowa, Supervisor Jane Halliburton, a member of NACo’s Rural Action Caucus. “We’ve had an agricultural policy that has been primarily, though not exclusively, through the Farm Bill. As counties continue to deal with the problems of our citizens, we’re finding that we need to take a much broader approach to rural development. The Farm Bill will be one way that we can do that.”
In addition, because of his participation on the U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Parks System Advisory Board, Gonzales hopes to draw some attention to issues facing gateway communities — those counties that are entrances to national parks and areas owned by the Bureau of Land Management. When the federal government makes decisions about the management of those lands, the counties surrounding them often are affected. Gonzales wants to get the counties involved in the decision-making process with those properties.
“We want to make sure that there’s a real and substantive dialogue that takes place prior to these federal policies being made,” he says. “Counties can plan more effectively for their futures when they have some type of reasonable say in how the federal government issues its policies and how those policies will impact local communities.”
The presidency also will provide a platform for Gonzales to bring some attention to issues faced by counties with increasing Hispanic populations. As more Eastern and Midwestern counties watch their Hispanic populations grow, the demand for bilingual education will increase, as will the challenge of providing social and health services to non-English speaking residents.
“I feel that, in the role of president of NACo, I do have an opportunity to advocate and to be a part of many discussions around the country that deal with the Hispanic community,” he says. “I do feel that the position will give me an opportunity to educate many people about the Hispanic community and the wonderful diversification that can come to a community by embracing Hispanics that are new to communities.”
Additionally, Gonzales will continue the technology and smart growth initiatives established last year by NACo President Jane Hague, and he will continue the annual NACo technology summit. “With the new economy and the digital revolution, counties are just starting to recognize the opportunities that exist with technology,” Gonzales says. “We’re trying to provide them with knowledge on privacy issues and security issues and what those things mean to them when they begin to embrace technology as a way of doing business.”
Because he cannot run for the county commission again, Gonzales recognizes that this is his last shot on behalf of the nation’s counties. On one hand, he is excited about the demands of the coming year, and on the other, he is looking forward to spending more time with the family business, his wife and his two-year-old daughter. “If there’s one regret that I’ve learned exists in many successful politicians, it’s the regret of not spending enough time with their kids when they were growing up,” he says.
Until he can return to Santa Fe full-time, he says that he will devote “150 percent” of his time and commitment to NACo. “I am hoping that he will be able to share some of his energy with the rest of us,” Halliburton says. “A good shot of adrenaline would not hurt a thing.”