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
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.
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
“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
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.”
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
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
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.
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.”