On paper, USC alumnus James Martinez’s journey to his current and recently attained position as a trustee on the Fresno County Board of Education seems almost inevitable, but his decision to run for office was partly born out of a desire to see more representation in local politics. He had no idea how big a role his identity would actually play as the first openly LGBTQ+ man elected to public office in Fresno.
“I felt that this was something that I just needed to do, that this was the next step that I could take to continue impacting my community and making change,” said Martinez, a USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism alumnus who has been involved in politics since the age of 18.
His first job was as an assistant to a local city council member in Fresno’s city hall, where he was trusted enough to be asked to mentor the incoming councilman. He continued to work his way up, working for former Calif. Sen. Barbara Boxer in her Fresno office and eventually becoming a field representative for former United States senator Kamala Harris in the Central Valley.
“It’s pretty surreal to know that your former boss is the Vice President of the United States,” Martinez said.
However, the road hasn’t been easy. Growing up, Martinez and his mother experienced food, housing and transportation insecurity, having to take public transport or walk to run errands and get groceries, an even more grueling task in the hot Fresno summers. Martinez’s late mother was also his biggest supporter and the reason he decided to run for office.
“She was the type of woman that never stopped and never let anything prevent her from doing what needed to be done,” Martinez said. “She always encouraged me to dare to dream and to never give up and don’t back down.”
He relied on various programs and support services at the community college level to help him through his high school and undergraduate education. In high school, he was a part of the Upward Bound program and was accepted to the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program in a cohort of fewer than 30 students for the duration of high school, where he got to know Jimi Rodgers, the counselor assigned to the program.
Rodgers continued to be a friend and mentor to Martinez, watching as he progressed from the ambitious student who once spent afternoons, at times unsupervised, hanging out in her office to building a career in politics.
“I don’t think he would have won this election if people did not believe that he was a very trustworthy individual and very ethical,” said Rodgers, now a retired head counselor for the Fresno Unified School District. “For a kid to hang around my office all the time and I could walk in and out and I knew that I could trust him. Yeah, he has my trust.”
Martinez recently joined Rodgers on the board of the Economic Opportunities Commission and their relationship has come full circle from student and counselor to colleagues, which Rodgers said has been an honor.
As he navigated jobs, higher education and a budding career in politics, Martinez was also coming to terms with his identity as an LGBTQ+ man. During his time in college, through his house and pet sitting business, he met Thad Mummert and Will Siegried, a couple who would come to be lifelong friends and mentors to Martinez and whose relationship inspired him to come out. Mummert and Siegfried have also been keen supporters of Martinez’s achievements.
“His ability to juggle a lot of things and work as hard as he does is very impressive,” said Mummert, a retired founder of a wholesale food company. “And he’s a really bright, promising, fascinating young man.”
“It’s unbelievable what he’s been able to do,” said Siegfried, a retired psychiatrist. “The word for me is gobsmacked!”
Martinez continues to break barriers in Fresno County, succeeding his colleague and friend Nelson Esparza, who was the second Latinx person to sit on the Fresno County Board of Education.
“It really spells out for folks that we live in a different time than we used to, and that you can be yourself, express yourself and that’s widely accepted,” said Esparza, a Fresno city council member and professor of economics at Fresno City College.
The pair are both members of the Fresno County Young Democrats, where Martinez also succeeded Esparza as the president. Having worked with him in multiple positions, Esparza saw in Martinez a fellow dedicated public servant.
“James never made it about himself, he always made it about the larger cause and the community,” Esparza said. “So we certainly have that in common.”
Martinez’s journey embracing his truth has also made him more determined to provide LGBTQ+ youth with resources to support them. This includes the establishment of LGBTQ+ and transgender youth mental health services and designated safe spaces as well as informing instructors of how they can best approach and support students coming to terms with their identity to foster a safe environment for them in their schools and classrooms.
With a campaign team made up of primarily LGBTQ+ youth, Martinez has seen firsthand how important his position as an openly LGBTQ+ individual in public office has been for empowering and advocating for LGBTQ+ youth in Fresno County. Nevertheless, Martinez is determined to do right by all the students in his Area 3 district, addressing issues that pertain to any and all of them.
“I’m very conscientious that I represent a much bigger constituency than just LGBTQ+ [people],” he said. “I have to represent all of my district and all of my students.”
His plans for his term prove that he aspires to do just that.
Martinez intends to implement more green infrastructure initiatives in his district, including the installation of solar panels on all educational buildings as well as ensuring students have access to green spaces, especially during the coronavirus pandemic when many of them are stuck at home.
The pandemic has also highlighted other issues that need to be tackled. As schools switched to virtual learning, the assumption has been that students would have access to the internet and the technology required to attend classes and complete assignments online. However, the arrangement has no doubt caused significant stress to families already experiencing financial difficulties, and Martinez intends to address these pressing challenges for his constituents in Fresno County.
Providing hotspots and broadband access for students is paramount for Martinez, as well as finding ways to bring down the price of internet connectivity even by a small amount, which can substantially alleviate the financial burden for many families.
Before the USC student body was forced to reckon with the difficulties accompanying virtual learning, Martinez already had the experience of completing his graduate degree virtually, graduating from Annenberg’s online master’s of communication management program in 2018.
For Martinez, Annenberg’s online program allowed him to pursue a master’s in communication while also staying home with his late mother, who was battling several ailments.
“It requires an incredible amount of focus and discipline,” Martinez said. His ability to balance the rigorous course load while also working full time is a testament to his dedication and ambition that those around him are constantly in awe of.
“He works terribly hard, and he always has ever since we’ve known him,” Mummert said.
Martinez’s loved ones look forward to watching him continue to grow.
“I expect to see him just keep growing and growing and growing and do increasingly wonderful things,” Mummert said. “And I hope that the two of us are around for another 20 or 30 years to see it happen.”
For now, Martinez is steadfastly focused on his current position and those that he represents.
“I’m happy where I am,” he said. “I want to see what I can do with this position and how I can leverage it to implement effective change here.”