Gary Soiseth, 32
I am in Turlock California, which is a town of about 72,000 people in the middle of the Central Valley. It is a great agricultural town.
My jobs — plural — all revolve around that. First, I am a farmer, third-generation, and I grow 50 acres of almonds. I also work for the Modesto irrigation district, on energy and water policy. We’re a public utility that handles both irrigation and water, and there’s a lot of renewable-energy standards and different standards we have to meet and discuss.
But also I was elected to be the mayor of my town. It’s a quasi-part-time gig, you could say. You’re supposed to have another job, but it is actually more full time than any of my other jobs and I make no money from it. I’ve given my stipend to a scholarship fund.
I don’t get along with politicians very well. I love my fellow mayors that are around here. We all have to worry about the streetlight that’s out on a certain road or the alley-cat issue. Dealing with these small-level things keeps you humble.
I live and grew up in a red part of the state. It’s getting more purple. That’s partly because of demographics, the influx of Latinos down here in the Central Valley. But it’s still very conservative. I define myself as a moderate Republican. I do struggle with my Republican identity and the fact I’m a social progressive. I did not support Trump. It’s a lonely position to take out here. I did vote for Hillary. That’s a tough thing. I was not happy with a lot of things that she was purporting.
In grad school, I interned at the White House under George W. Bush. I submitted my résumé to go to Afghanistan with the U.S. Department of Agriculture because I know farming. I spent almost four years in Afghanistan as a civilian advisor. Working side by side with the U.S. military but also working with Afghans in rural villages. So dealing with those grave issues, dealing with governance, and seeing democracy in a fledgling state really made me think about what I want to do with the rest of my life. I wanted to come back and make some sort of impact on my own community.
I didn’t know what that looked like. I came on with the irrigation district first, affecting water and energy policy. Then I looked around and I thought, you know, my community needs to fix its roads, fix its infrastructure, find new sources of water, balance its budget, and replenish the reserves. So I thought why not throw my hat in the ring? That doesn’t always go over well with people who planned to be mayor. “I cut in line” as they like to put it to me.
I figured, “If I fail, that’s fine. But I’m going to put forward a vision and see if people like it.” And 61 percent of the people did like it and they ended up voting for me. I was very proud of that.
During the campaign, I was 29, which meant I had to be real serious. It was really hard. Some people said they were not voting for me specifically because I did not have enough grey hair. That was literally a quote! I thought, here it is, people are taking what I think is an asset — which is, I was young and energetic — and turning it into a negative. I had to go door-to-door in a 110-degree heat in slacks and a collared shirt. Whereas my opponent, who was double my age, got to be in shorts and a T-shirt and a floppy hat to keep the sun away.
The reason I won, in my opinion, is I didn’t take the social media for granted. I took it as a necessary element of my campaign. Social media plus an old-school ground game. Which is what I did. I wore out my shoes going door-to-door. Like selling a vacuum cleaner door-to-door to someone’s face.
As the mayor of the town, I control about 35 million dollars of discretionary funds, the general fund, and then the rest of it is already allocated. Basically I make policy decisions for the city.
I usually start off with breakfast meetings at about 6:30 in the morning until about 9. That’s when I have my mayor’s hat on. I meet with people back-to-back that have different issues.
I could meet with an elderly woman because she’s struggling to figure out how to get her water timer onto the city’s one-day water schedule. She doesn’t know how to operate it, we’ve said Sunday is the only day that house can water. And so she’s struggling to meet that requirement. So we’ll discuss, okay, this is what staff will come out and do and help you and assist you with this issue.
Sometimes it takes two to three hours of sitting in someone’s living room, having some tea, explaining why their streetlight is going to be brighter because we’re switching to LED lights. Or why we’re picking up trash in the alley and not in the front of their house.
A larger issue would be meeting with a potential industrial user or a potential commercial developer. We met with a private for-profit dorm that was going to come in across the street from our university. That’s a multi-million-dollar project. We discussed the zoning, the requirements.
Those simple meetings, I love them the most because you get to be one-on-one with your own resident, and that’s a big deal in their life.
My Saturdays and Sundays are consumed with events. I was at a Baptist church’s 75th anniversary yesterday, so I didn’t go to church with my family. I was roped into — and it was quite fun — a yoga class that had a one-year anniversary. These are all good things in the community. But they chip away at your personal time. It can be difficult.
I’m also on the transportation committee here locally. Our city, for the longest time, had decided to defer all of its maintenance and had not invested money in our roads, hoping that the state would do the right thing and fix the roads. But, in reality, that’s not how it works. I did a lot of community-engagement meetings, going to civic clubs, going to schools, talking about a road tax to try to catch up to some of the deterioration. It passed in November.
I sit on the Stanislaus Council of Governments, basically a commission where all five of our board supervisors for the county area, plus one from each city and three people from Modesto, all sit together. When we came together, we realized that we had a budget shortfall. The state of California, we have what are called “self-help counties” where, if you tax yourself, you actually have a whole pot of money at the state level that you can access that other counties can’t. So we flogged the formula. We made sure it was airtight, that most of it was going to fix at first roads. We made sure that there was a certain percentage for buses, for seniors, for veterans. We made sure that we were taking care of the right members of our community to make sure that they all felt that they had buy-in on this. And 100 percent of our elected officials enforced it. We’re a relatively conservative town. No one likes taxes, but we passed it with well over 70 percent. And you have to have two thirds, plus one, to pass a special tax. So it was huge.
It’s an incredibly difficult decision to make as mayor. When you sit down and you look eye-to-eye to a disabled veteran that has only x amount of dollars that they can spend, you’re really choosing and forcing them to pay this extra sales tax. And so, number one, the way I came to support this was there was gonna be full accountability and transparency with it. We lifted out every single road in the entire city that would be paved, repaved, restructured, and when it would happen over the course of the 25 years.
After all that, I also try to squeeze in farming at night and on the weekend. I’m so much more comfortable in that attire then I am in a suit and tie.
I have trees, so it’s not like a dairy where you have to be up at the crack of dawn. You can work the grounds or mow, whatever it might be, throughout the day. Oftentimes I’ll finish up at about five or so from being mayor or working for the irrigation district and I’ll go change, then hop on my tractor and mow 20 acres. Then if the water gets called — basically, they rotate where you get flood irrigation — and so they’ll say, “You have it at 4 in the morning,” I’ll put on my boots and jeans and I’ll be out there irrigating from 4 in the morning until 7 in the morning.
I try and find rest when I’m out there actually farming. That’s the reprieve from everything. My farm is about five minutes from town — not very far. But literally I feel so much different when I am on my truck driving out of town to my farm. I have a hat on, I have sunglasses, and I often listen to music as I’m driving. I think about being mayor and some of the different policy issues I’m struggling with. I also get to work with my parents. My dad’s the farmer next to me.
It’s just a different lifestyle. I’m very fortunate that I have so many irons in the fire and that they’re all very different so that allows me to have that relaxation.
In the council chambers, it’s sometimes very frustrating. Sometimes people don’t realize that as mayor you put in so much work, and that most of the job takes place outside of the council meeting. If you do your job well, the council meeting should go smoothly. You’ve planned for A, B, and C scenarios. You really make sure you’ve done your homework. Then all of a sudden you’ll get residents coming and throwing grenades. Things that they haven’t researched or they don’t know. They start poking holes for the sake of it and you get to the point where you’re playing defense of what your decision-making process is.
Constituents call you stupid, corrupt, bought-and-paid-for, because that’s how people view politicians. They paint us all with a broad brush. There’s not a decision that I’ve made that has been based off of corruption or based off of any ill-will. You try to think that you can shrug it off, but those words stick with you. You’re still a human being. I spent so much time abroad dealing with life or death issues, watching colleagues either get killed or hurt seriously from roadside bombs. Watching young men and women sacrifice so much for the country and to come back to being a mayor where people are calling me names based on a very small, petty issue, it’s hard to swallow sometimes.
A part of me knows that the point of democracy is to have that discourse, but sometimes it’s hard because you put in so much effort and work. Yet you have people that maybe spent an ounce of time. It’s not just constituents, sometimes its fellow council members that say this stuff. You just say, “Okay.” You’ve got to grin and bear it. You do get a certain amount of adrenaline, which is not necessarily a positive thing. Sometimes it’s an overwhelming feeling, your heart is racing the whole time. I can be in a nice cool room in the chambers and sweating profusely. And because I control the agenda, as mayor, it’s very frustrating when people come in and attack it. It’s your agenda, it’s your vision, and you’ve put a lot of work into it.
The reason I love being mayor is that the issues that I deal with aren’t Democratic or Republican. They’re about common sense; they’re about results. Very rarely do people ask me about my political affiliation. And very rarely do they say, “What’s a Republican viewpoint on the feasibility studies for Parks and Recreation facilities in the future?” That’s not a Republican issue or a Democratic issue, that’s common sense — Do we have enough gymnasiums? Do we have enough pools? Do we have enough sports facilities?
Our council meetings start at 6 p.m. and usually go until about 10. I have an office in city hall; I go in there after the meeting and at that time not a lot of people interrupt me. I will just sit at the desk and it all feels very real: that I’m here in charge of the city, that I’m also working on water and energy policy that affects hundreds of thousands of people. I’m sitting there and I’m looking at a jar full of almonds on my desk, which is what I grow. So it comes full circle. It’s that quietness after all the adrenaline from the council meeting, which physically makes me feel different. And then, when I’m looking at that cherry-wood desk that so many other mayors have sat at, and I look at the almonds, I just feel very at peace. It all comes together. Right then.