ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Jason Espinoza may have become a fixture at the state Capitol, but his name has never appeared on a ballot or campaign sign.
He intends to keep it that way.
As the newly appointed president of the New Mexico Association of Commerce and Industry – which describes itself as a statewide chamber of commerce and business advocate – Espinoza has a keen interest in helping to shape business-friendly legislation.
But Espinoza – who studied political science at Arizona State University and earned a master’s in political management from The George Washington University – has no desire to be among the lawmakers who ultimately vote on it.
In fact, he’s about as interested in running for public office as he is in jumping into a swimming pool filled with alligators. (We’ll get to that.)
“I like working on the outside and without the constraints of being an elected official,” Espinoza says. “I admire them. They make a huge sacrifice in terms of time and everything else, but I’ll leave it to them.”
Although just 29, Espinoza already has a lengthy résumé when it comes to lobbying and public policy.
He spent five years as a field director and sometime lobbyist for Think New Mexico before joining ACI in 2014. He spent the past year as ACI’s vice president of government affairs, working on the passage of multiple bills. Among them is one that created an independent hearing office for tax disputes that is separate from the New Mexico Taxation and Revenue Department and another that will require the state to note in its Sunshine Portal which of its contractors are in-state companies.
He was promoted to the ACI president role last month.
Q: Describe yourself as a teenager.
A: When I was a teenager, I was really immersed in soccer. That was really my identity. I was a soccer player, played both club soccer and then high school at Albuquerque Academy, and was really engrossed in (that). Outside of school, (I) was very close with my family, my brothers and my sister. (It’s) a really tight-knit family, so I grew up in a great environment.
Q: Do you still play soccer?
A: I did up until about two years ago, then I tore my ACL and decided it was time to retire.
Q: What were your career ambitions when you enrolled in college?
A: I didn’t know. I was one of those high school graduates that went to college just saying, “I like this subject, so I’m going to learn about that subject.” I didn’t go in thinking I wanted a certain career path. I said, “This is my passion, I’m going to follow my passion and see where it takes me,” and I ended up in a good place. I love what I do now. It gives me the ability to make change through public policy and then also allows me to work with a lot of people. I love working with other people, being a team player, and this job and my previous jobs have allowed me to do that, (to) interact with a lot of interesting people with great ideas, and I couldn’t have ever asked for anything better.
Q: You loved history in high school and have a bachelor’s degree in it. Is there a particular period that interests you the most?
A: More modern history, after 1864. I loved exploring when the United States really became a player in international politics and that stuff. I loved learning about that.
Q: When you first started lobbying in Santa Fe, you must have been one of the younger lobbyists around.
A: Yes. Still am. (laughs). But it’s been fantastic. I think the community up there (in Santa Fe) between the lobbyists is very collegial. I’ve had several different ones mentor me, give me advice, it’s a good community up there and I appreciate it. No one has ever told me up there, “You’re too young” or been discouraging. They’ve all been very encouraging.
Q: What do you see as the biggest challenge to businesses in New Mexico right now?
A: I think there’s a lot of different issues. I think one great thing I’ve seen from the business community is they’re not willing to accept the status quo anymore. I think for a time … people accepted it. I think that time has changed. I think we’ve seen a change of attitude in the business community that says “The status quo is not working and we need to change.” We’re no longer going to just play defense; we’re going to play offense and we’re going to change things, and we’re going to actively create that vibrant business environment that New Mexico needs to succeed.
Q: What is the best compliment you’ve ever received?
A: In my job,working with a lot of people, I think probably the best compliment I’ve ever received is that I made them feel valued and part of the process, and really honored. I’ve heard that multiple times.
Q: What is the hardest lesson you’ve learned?
A: I can’t think of a specific example of it, but I think one of the things my parents always instilled is just never giving up and just always working hard. Because I think there’s always ample opportunity – and there certainly was in my life – to give up and not persevere, and I always had to trudge through it and do it. I look at my dad (who) is really my role model in that. My dad came from a poor family. He was the first in his family to go to college, got a master’s degree (and now) works at Sandia Labs. He’s really a self-made man. He had every obstacle in his way, but he persevered and he worked hard to make sure that his kids have opportunity.
Q: If you weren’t doing this, what else could you see yourself doing?
A: If I wasn’t doing this specific job, I think I’d be doing something very similar. Whether it be with another organization … I always see myself in the public policy arena trying to better the state. That’s just what drives me internally. … Stay-at-home dad would be pretty fun (too). I love being at home.
Q: Has having a child changed things for you professionally?
A: It has changed things. It’s actually interesting. It’s actually made my job a lot more meaningful. Before my daughter was born, it was always meaningful to work on behalf of the constituencies I represent, but it was a big difference when you have a little one, and you want her to have the same opportunities and even more opportunities, so it actually added a lot more meaning to the work I was doing.
Q: What’s on your bucket list?
A: Learning to play guitar. In high school, I bought an acoustic guitar with the help of my grandfather and I have still not learned how to play it, so that’s certainly on my list. My dad (and) both my brothers played instruments, my grandfather did (also), so it’s certainly on my list to do.
Q: Do you like music?
A: To be honest – and this is why it’s a struggle for me and I need to learn – I am the least rhythmic person you will ever meet. I’m sure seeing me dance at weddings and other places is funny to watch.
Q: Do you have any strange quirks or superstitions?
A: What about fears? I am deathly afraid of alligators and crocodiles. That has been a childhood fear that sticks with me to this day. This is embarrassing – when I was little … I was at my grandfather’s house (and) there was that movie called “Alligator” about a giant alligator in New York City, in the sewers, and I just remember (seeing) that movie. One of the scenes which has stayed with me through my whole life and always will is … where the alligator crawls into an in-ground pool. There’s a birthday party going on. … They blindfold the birthday boy for whatever reason and get him to jump off the diving board. No one notices the alligator then, so he jumps in. Everyone (starts) screaming. He thinks they’re screaming to cheer him on so he jumps in and then gets eaten. I have a huge – and still have a lingering fear – of alligators and crocodiles in pools, so my wife knows whenever we travel, we have to be wary of where we go for my fear. (laughs)
Q: What would you do with an extra hour every day?
A: Probably spend more time with my wife. I think it’s hard between the work and having a little one at home. Spending more time with her is definitely a priority.
Q: How would you describe yourself in three words?
A: I think loyal, ethical and then I think team player.