It has been a year, almost exactly, since Mary Espinoza, my grandmother, stepped down from her career in public service.
She served for 16 years on the Mountain View School District Board of Education, and for 25 years before that, as a school attendance clerk.
“I’m 80-years-old. I’ve got no business being up there,” she said of her decision not to seek a fifth term. “Ya. Hice lo que pude.”
I did what I could.
My grandma was born in El Paso and raised along the Texas-Mexico border.
She attended segregated schools, and did not graduate, not at first.
But she went back.
She earned her GED a little before her oldest child, my mother, finished high school.
Grandma was 65 when she first sought elected office. She had no political ambition, but she was driven to contribute. To help, to share, to serve, to solve.
“That first time, it was just family and a few friends that I had who went out walking precincts with me.”
Home from college, I was dispatched to the public library where I scrolled through yards of microfilm to look up returns from Mountain View’s previous three election cycles. How many votes did Grandma need to win? How many doors did we need to knock on? How many lawn signs did we need to print? How many phone numbers did we need to dial?
Relatively speaking, it was not a terribly sophisticated operation.
But she won.
I am often inspired by the democracy we celebrate on big, national stages, with streamers and balloons and soaring oratory.
But I try not to forget the democracy that breathes under the fluorescent lights of school board chambers and city halls, rooms with linoleum floors and metal folding chairs where people like my grandmother work for speed bumps, for street lights, for schools.
“If someone called me with a problem, I’d always say, ‘Well, come on over. We’ll sit here with a cup of coffee and we’ll talk,’” Grandma said. “You have to listen, and you have to hear. That’s why you were elected.”
She doesn’t regret retiring, she said, but “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the involvement. I do.”
(She has spent the past few weeks phone-banking in support of California’s Prop. 55, which would extend income tax increases on the state’s wealthiest residents to help fund education and health care.)
Today, she and my grandfather will walk to the polling place down the block to cast their ballots.
We have come so far, and we have so far left to go.
Sometimes our leaders fail us, and sometimes we fail each other.
And yet I really do believe in the promise entrusted to people way down at the bottom of the ballot, people who pledge in good faith to do what they can.