Plenty of candidates in races to lead city of Livingston

By JONATHAN WHITAKER
November 1, 2018

Perhaps the most dynamic election in Merced County this year is taking place in the city of Livingston.

Nine candidates are vying for three spots on the City Council, and four candidates are running for the open Mayor’s seat. Their campaign signs are sprinkled all over residential lawns and street corners, and it’s a wonder how residents keep track of all the names, and who is running for what.

Livingston is a culturally diverse town of more than 14,000 — of which 72 percent is considered Mexican-American or Hispanic, and about 20 percent are of Punjabi Sikh ethnicity. Overall, more than 40 percent of residents were born in another country. Just last year, in a controversial split vote, the City Council decided to create the first “sanctuary city” in the Central Valley out of concern over immigration enforcement.

It’s safe to say, this year’s mayoral race is a reflection of Livingston’s diversity.

The candidates include Gurpal Samra, a 58-year-old Livingstonian and longtime leader who has served a total of 16 years on the council, along with two terms as mayor. Samra is actually the one, many years ago, who successfully pushed for a direct mayoral election by the people instead of having the mayor appointed by colleagues. He is currently the mayor pro tem nearing the end of his most recent term.

Juan Aguilar Jr. is a 36-year-old Livingston native, county social worker, volunteer firefighter and current City Council member who feels it’s time to step up and create change in town with new ideas and investment, and at the same time, engage residents of all ages in civic matters.

Candidate Alex McCabe is a 36-year-old current City Council member who fell in love with Livingston when he relocated to the city after the economic meltdown tightened its grip on the valley around 2010. McCabe has reached out to both the Sikh and Mexican immigrant communities, creating friendships and partnerships. Last year, he was the one who helped draft and push forward the “sanctuary city” resolution.

And then there’s 70-year-old Mario Luera, the only one of the four candidates who has never been on the council, but the one who points out that poverty, poor living conditions, and lack of youth activities are still very real problems in town despite new growth in recent years. Luera is a retired USDA food safety inspector who worked half of his 40-year career at the local Foster Farms poultry processing plant — one of the county’s major employers, and the largest water user in Livingston.

Pro-growth candidate

Gurpal Samra says he’s proud to be a member of one of the first immigrant families from India to settle in Livingston in 1970. And today, he’s equally as proud to have helped the city and its business community grow exponentially.

“I think Livingston has a great potential that we are just starting to realize,” Samra says. “Livingston is booming and growing. … Over time, and with experience, you learn how to attract businesses. You have to be proactive. You can’t wait for them to come to you.”

Samra talked to the Times at the Starbucks in the middle of the Winton Parkway commercial development just off Highway 99. He said he was an influential participant in the effort to create the major center that was once home to vineyards. Now there’s the Travel Centers of America truck stop — one of the city largest sales tax contributors — a couple more gas stations, several restaurant outlets, a brand new Motel 6, a major supermarket and pharmacy, among other stores. Nearby, new expanded facilities are under construction for the Livingston Community Health group.

The candidate says he has traveled with the city manager to industry conventions in places like Las Vegas to talk about opportunity in Livingston. He says such talks — coupled with tax incentives — continue to bring in significant corporate investments such as the Motel 6, and plans for a big commercial laundromat industry that could add hundreds of jobs to the local market.

While Foster Farms is working on expanding its facilities, Samra says the city is negotiating with the county on a Revenue Sharing agreement, looking to update the General Plan, and envisioning the expansion of the city’s southern boundaries toward Magnolia Avenue and Sultana Drive.

When asked to compare what’s happening in Livingston to what’s happening in Merced — where Mayor Mike Murphy promotes a “city on the rise” — Samra smiles and says confidently: “I wish them the very best, but I have a fair warning to Mayor Murphy: You have competition in Livingston. … We may not be where Merced is at, but we are going to fight hard to bring major businesses to Livingston. We are a small city, but we are going to fight for our folks.”

Clean water, public safety

Juan Aguilar says he has spent his entire life in Livingston, attending local schools and eventually attending Stanislaus State where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice and a masters degree in Social Work. He is currently employed with the county’s Human Services Agency in the child protection field, and is in the middle of a 4-year term on the City Council.

“I’m ready to lead the city,” he told the Times. “I’ve been involved in town in many different ways that has prepared me to be a that level. I have some great ideas and goals to accomplish for the city, and I feel that’s my new role.”

The candidate says he wants to continue to improve the city’s water quality and access to it, and follow state and federal funding to help in the effort. He feels it’s a priority to attract new businesses and retain the ones already operating in the city.

And Aguilar is big on public safety as he advocates to boost the city’s firefighting efforts. Livingston has one old fire station built in the 1950s, with only one county fire engine, only one county water tender, and only one full-time county firefighter, along with about 16 part-time volunteers.

Aguilar is one of those volunteers. The candidate wants to add another full-time firefighter and secure funding for a new fire station.

As a volunteer sports coach for the past seven years, Aguilar says he wants to improve city parks, including the fields inside the Sports Complex, and expand youth activities.

“I feel I have to be out in the community as much as possible and be accessible to the public,” he said. “I feel leaders need to have good communication with residents in order to earn their trust.”

Building bridges

Alex McCabe grew up in Ahwahnee, near Oakhurst, where his father was school district superintendent and his mother was a teacher. He eventually earned a full-ride scholarship to Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, where he studied agricultural science, business and poultry management. He was married just out of college and a child was on the way.

Early on, McCabe landed a job with the county’s Assessor’s Office and worked there for four years. Unfortunately, he was laid off with others during the economic downturn, and was forced to seek other forms of employment. He worked in construction, and in the agricultural fields. He helped create a website service, started a small business incubator/chamber, and built up a real estate investment and renovation firm that eventually employed more than 30 people.

There were periods during this time that McCabe admits as being “the hardest moments of his life,” including going through a divorce and starting over in a new city. However, he said, “Livingston and its people supported me.”

McCabe re-invented himself, and is currently serving his second term on the City Council. He was also named the chairman of the governing board at the Merced County Association of Governments — a first for a city representative from Livingston.

Interestingly, the candidate has not yet won an election to be on the City Council. He was the fourth highest vote-getter out of seven candidates in 2016. Nevertheless, he was appointed two times to the council after resignations.

Once on the council, McCabe proved he is passionate about agriculture and immigrant rights. Most recently he co-authored the only successful ‘sanctuary city’ ordinance in the Central Valley. According to the resolution, law enforcement officers and city officials won't work with federal agencies to enforce immigration laws, and they will not partner with immigration and customs enforcement.

“It wasn’t only for the Mexican population, it was for the Punjabi population as well,” he told the Times. “We wanted to protect everybody in Livingston.”

The candidate, who is white, spends much of his time building relationships with residents in both the Sikh and Latino communities. He’s become a “better Catholic,” but also feels welcome to pray at the Sikh temple. He travels often to Mexico to places such as Jalisco and Michoacan, where many valley immigrants come from, and he has been honored as a special guest during Sikh religious events, such as the Hola Mohalla festival.

As far as his future goals go: “I’m focused on jobs, securing our water for the future, increasing public safety by adding more full-time firefighters, and increasing education for all kids, and keeping them engaged in activities that go beyond sports. I also want to resurrect the local Chamber of Commerce and help make Livingston the most business friendly city in the county.”

Neighborhoods in need

Mario Luera, the retired food inspector, moved to Livingston in the late 1970s and has been involved in the community ever since. He’s been “everybody’s baseball and football coach,” and he also volunteered as a Boys Scout leader in the region.

“I made time to volunteer with the kids,” he told the Times. “Over the years, I never saw anybody really give the youth in this community a high priority. I did what I could.”

Luera has only been retired for a year now, and has been enjoying life and traveling some. However, he feels the need to give back to the community.

“I was working long hours, but now that I’m retired, I’m looking at what’s going on and I don’t like it. I told myself, ‘I’m going to do something about it.’ … I’m noticing things inside neighborhoods that haven’t changed all that much despite some of the new commercial development in town. … If it wasn’t for that growth, I don’t know where we would be …

“There are areas of town where you can tell people are living in poverty just by the condition of the streets and sidewalks. Some of these areas are right around downtown. You see people living in inadequate structures inside the backyard of homes and alleyways. … The city is paying out for new developments, but what about the areas where nothing has taken place in the past 20 years?”

Luera also notes that the current City Council appears to be based on a buddy-buddy system, where three representatives appear to agree on every decision.

The candidate says he feels like he has a good chance to win even though he is a new candidate on the local political scene. He and his wife Chelia are active at St. Jude's Catholic Church, and knows plenty of people in town.

Family ties

The Luera family includes two grown children. Aguilar has a 12-year-old son. McCabe has a 13-year-old son. And Samra has three children — a Stan State grad, a UC Merced student and a graduating high school student — all born in Merced “because Livingston doesn’t have a hospital — yet.”


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