Esparza, a former Biden Administration official, is running for North Carolina treasurer. A Latino has never held statewide office.
Latinos make up 11% of North Carolina’s population and are the fastest growing demographic in the state. There are also zero Latinos in the North Carolina General Assembly and there’s never been a Latino governor, attorney general, treasurer or any other statewide official.
Gabe Esparza says it’s time to topple that stubborn wall.
Esparza, a former official with the US Small Business Association and a Democrat of Mexican descent, is running for state treasurer in 2024.
His campaign is historic, he said in an interview this month, because he’s carrying two mantles: He offers an experience-driven plan to be North Carolina’s chief financial steward; and he serves as a model for the state’s Latinos, who have simply not seen many candidates who look like them.
“It’s a disgrace for such a big population to have virtually no representation in the say and the matters and policies of the state,” Esparza said. “It’s not right.”
Ricky Hurtado, an Alamance County Democrat, was the first Latino ever elected to the state legislature, winning a seat in the General Assembly in 2020. He lost the seat in the 2022 midterms.
“We are now back to zero Latinos in the General Assembly,” Esparza said.
This lack of representation is self-perpetuating, he said, because it discourages the next generation.
When voters don’t see themselves or their priorities reflected in any candidate, it’s hard to get them to the polls.
“We want to change that,” Esparza said.
‘Our American Story, Our American Dream’
Biography is a huge part of every run for office. Whatever happens with the election, Latino voters will at least see themselves in his family history, Esparza said.
In the first decades of the 20th century, tens of thousands of people fled to the United States from Mexico during the Mexican Revolution. Esparza’s paternal great-grandparents were among them.
Esparza’s great-grandmother was pregnant when she crossed into Arizona, where, in 1917, she gave birth to Guadalupe, Esparza’s grandfather.
The family first worked in the Arizona copper mines, Esparza said, then moved to Los Angeles, where orange groves outnumbered highways. Soon, Guadalupe and his parents worked the groves together, picking oranges at 25 cents a crate and providing cheap labor and hard work to an industry that took advantage of both.
When he was 24, Guadalupe enlisted in the Army to fight in World War II, one of some 350,000 Mexican Americans to do so. He joined the 41st Infantry in the pacific theater, fighting in New Guinea. He got married to Esparza’s grandmother, Elena, just before he shipped out.
They had 12 children, Esparza said, including his father, Ricardo, and they wanted something better for their kids.
“They knew that working in the fields wasn’t going to lead to a sustainable life,” Esparza said. “‘These kids need to go to school.’”
The plan worked.
“It was my father who really broke through,” Esparza said. Ricardo graduated from the seminary, got a masters degree in social work and “became the first Latino to get a PhD from the University of Michigan, in psychology,” Esparza said.
That, he added, “was how our American story, our American dream came about.”
Esparza’s parents’ success set the stage for him to go to Stanford, where he got degrees in psychology and international relations, and Harvard Business School.
Those qualifications helped him land gigs in the corporate sector and the federal government, and now, he hopes they’ll inform his run for treasurer.
But this leads to the natural question: What exactly does a treasurer do?
The Duties of a Treasurer
“Ninety percent of the conversations I have are, ‘what does the Treasurer do and who are you?’” Esparza said.
The treasurer has three main duties, he tells people: serve as chief financial manager of the state’s revenues and expenses; make smart investments to ensure the long-term viability of the state’s pension fund; and manage the state employee healthcare plan so that “employees and retirees can go visit their doctor and feel good about it.”
Just financial stability, longevity and healthcare. That’s all.
So how would Esparza separate himself from the other candidates and, perhaps, from how the job has been done in the past?
One, he said, is a more preventative approach to problems.
The treasurer’s first priority, he said, is to manage the finances of the state overall, but also for each little town, city, and municipality.
Typically, the treasurer steps in to assist local communities only “when things are getting a little rough.”
Under his tenure, that would change, he said.
“There’s an opportunity for the Treasurer to work across all communities in North Carolina to get ahead of the curve and make sure that cities and towns are smart about how they not only manage their money, but how they report on it.”
While Esparza is highlighting his roots in his campaign, Latino candidates and familiar histories do not ensure Latino votes. So Esparza’s pitch will be multi-faceted, he said: Lived-experience and business experience.
Esparza served as an associate administrator for the SBA’s office of international trade, helping small business exporters navigate existing policy and available assistance.
He oversaw more than $500 million in loans, his campaign said, and issued $40 million in export stimulus grants to help small-business exporters. Esparza left the SBA in June so he could run for office.
“He also spent over 13 years at American Express, focusing on small business financing and global commercial payments,” his campaign press release says.
The things he’s spent his career thinking about gives him a boost in the race, he said.
“How do businesses grow? How do they find customers? How do they market themselves? These are all things that I’ve done not only at the Small Business Administration, but [in] my time at American Express in the small business division,” Esparza told us.
“I’ve seen it from all angles.”
His opponents in the race might say they have, too. The state treasurer is not the highest profile race in the 2024 elections, but Esparza has some seasoned competition.
Three candidates, three ties to Mecklenburg County.
Esparza lives in Charlotte with his family.
The other two candidates for treasurer so far, Wesley Harris, a Democrat, and John Bradford III, a Republican, both represent Mecklenburg County in the North Carolina House of Representatives.
They have several successful campaigns under their belts. This will be Esparza’s first. What will differentiate the candidates?
So far their campaign websites for all three candidates make similar promises.
Harris pledges to “be an advocate for long-term financial planning,” to “work hard to protect our state bond ratings,” and to “ensure a secure retirement for state employees.”
Bradford says he will “maintain North Carolina’s AAA bond rating,” and “the integrity and health of the state pension plan.”
A Changing North Carolina
Esparza and his wife lived in New York for several years, then moved back to Los Angeles, and then to Charlotte in 2018, when Barings, the Charlotte-based global investment manager, bought his wife’s private equity firm. The couple brought their extended family with them to North Carolina.
“It was a big transition for our collective family to come here, but we came under the auspices of economic opportunity. And to me, that is very much the story of North Carolina.”
From 2021 to 2022, Charlotte grew by 15,000 people, the fifth-largest increase in the nation.
“We celebrate that North Carolina is diverse, it is young, it is growing,” he said.
Political diversity is also a major draw, he said, and another reason it’s so important to increase Latino voter turnout and representation
“That to me is actually also one of the things that probably attracts people here too, because you don’t get pigeonholed into one way of thinking, one party, one dynamic,” he said.
“You’re part of a big mix of thought and belief and action, and it makes for a very interesting state.”
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