Longinos Gonzalez is determined to give back, as much of his life has revolved around some form of public service.
The El Paso County Commissioner took the oath of office in January 2017 to represent District 4, which includes about half the landmass of El Paso County. The district is diverse and includes areas near southern Colorado Springs, as well as Security and Widefield, Fountain and several small plains communities — Hanover, Ellicott, Rush, Yoder and unincorporated parts of Stratmoor Hills and Stratmoor Valley.
The retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and Air Force Academy graduate also works closely with the three military installations in his district: Fort Carson, as well as Peterson and Schriever Air Force bases.
From his county office off Cascade Avenue, Gonzalez said his most recent election was built on lessons learned from previous challenges, including an unsuccessful run for city councilor in 2015.
Gonzalez, a first-generation American who grew up on the West Coast, spoke with the Business Journal this week about his vision and hopes for the constituents in El Paso County District 4.
Where are you from?
I grew up in the Central Valley of California in a small town that is largely agricultural. My parents were farm laborers, immigrants from Mexico.
I was born in Texas but moved when I was 2 years old and was raised in California, so California was home. … My father specifically wanted [me and my two sisters] to get educated. He didn’t want us to work, he wanted us to get an education. I learned a lot from my parents. Their emphasis for us was to get educated and work hard. That’s how you succeed and get ahead in life later.
Why did you leave California?
I worked hard in school and was sure I’d be able to earn a scholarship, because we didn’t have a lot of money. We never really wanted for stuff. Mom and Dad provided really well for us and made sure we had a good life, played sports, went to things locally. We didn’t take a lot of vacations but we made it to the beach a couple times a year. I thought we had a really good lifestyle for being moderately poor.
But the big thing for us was, how do we pay for college? I knew I could go to college, but it was whether or not I could afford it. I ended up getting an appointment at the [Air Force Academy], which was a big deal.
Why were you interested in military service?
I did think I’d only do five years in the military, which is the commitment for graduating from the Academy. I thought I’d go back to central California and one thing I always wanted to do is teach.
… But I ended up liking what I did [in the Air Force]. I was an intelligence officer. I didn’t think I’d do a 20-year military career but I liked the job and it was a good fit for me. So I did 20 years in intelligence and deployed a couple times to the Middle East and did several years in Latin America, which I really liked, and got to use my Spanish down there.
I was also able to teach and I got my master’s degree in science education while I was in Miami. One of my assignments was as an Air Force ROTC professor at the University of Southern California. It was something I’d looked at doing because I wanted to utilize my teaching degree while still active duty to get experience. … After I retired in 2012, I decided to move back here because I enjoyed my time in the Springs — the climate, the beauty. When I retired from my last assignment I was in Texas and moved back here and worked for [United States Northern Command] for two years as a civilian intelligence supervisor.
How did you end up in politics?
I knew I wanted to get into teaching so I [worked at Northern Command] for two years and transitioned into the teaching profession. I got a job as a science teacher at Carmel Middle School in Harrison School District 2.
Then I started paying a little more attention to the community than I did when I was active duty and moving every two or three years. That’s how I ended up getting involved in local politics. …
Several years ago there had been friction between mayor [Steve] Bach and [Colorado Springs] City Council. … I actually ran for the at-large position on council four years ago and I lost — I finished right in the middle of the pack. But that’s what got me involved — I thought [city council] could use some personalities that worked better together. … But I was a little naïve. I believe I had good ideas and was able to articulate those well, but running at-large, when you’re competing for all the votes in the city versus a district race — I didn’t have the name recognition or funding to run an effective race.
But I learned a lot.
When I ran for county commissioner, I was able to utilize what I learned from the city council race to run an effective and efficient (because I still didn’t have a lot of funding) campaign.
Talk about running for county com-
The timing worked out well and the District 4 position was term-limited — Dennis Hisey was termed out. I started to learn about the local political process and thought [the Board of El Paso County Commissioners] was a good fit too. The district includes a lot of military and that was something that interested me — helping our local military community. We have a large military population here and about 100,000 veterans in the county. I thought it was worth running again so I ran for the county commission seat.
What are unique issues in your district?
One that stands out is clearly the contaminated water at the Widefield aquifer. I’m actually very proud of all of our elected officials working together with [Peterson] on that issue because we have to mitigate it. … The base has provided funding to those on well water to be sure they’re drinking safe water. They’ve given them household filtration systems. That’s key and something we fought for from the beginning. Congressman [Doug] Lamborn, Senator [Michael] Bennet and Senator [Cory] Gardner have worked hard to ensure funding was initiated and continues to come in — tens of millions of dollars.
Long term we can look at how we’ll clean it up for good.
We’re still working to get reimbursements for the water districts that spent upfront money. That’s been trickier because of the way the military or [Department of Defense] rules are. Reimbursement is not technically authorized at the beginning. … but senators Bennet and Gardner and [Congressman] Lamborn have been working to get that changed and funded at the congressional level. I’m hoping the water districts — Stratmoor, Widefield, Fountain and Security [water districts] — will get paid back for that upfront cost.
Lots of development has been taking place to the north. How do you bring that south?
It’s something I’ve been looking at. I’ve been working with the local urban renewal authority and City Councilor Yolanda [Avila] — we have overlap in [Southeast Colorado Springs]. One of the things we’re trying to promote is some sort of urban renewal authority project in the Southeast or central part of Colorado Springs to help redevelop that area and bring some jobs and opportunities south.
The growth has been largely to the north. So how do we grow smartly in all areas? I think we can take advantage of the growth that’s already occurring at the airport. Hopefully that will bring businesses to the south.
There are also some federally identified Opportunity Zones that include the Southeast. … The city is investing in infrastructure upgrades along the South Academy corridor. I think that will help bring some businesses down there as well.
Was low compensation for city councilors a concern when you first ran for office?
When I ran for city council in 2015, I knew what the pay was. At the time I thought, ‘It kinda is what it is.’
Being someone who ran on fiscal responsibility, I know it costs the taxpayers if you increase the salaries.
But in the aftermath, I’ve gone back and I really do think bringing [salaries] up to something reasonable makes sense. We have very good people [on council], but you see certain types of people who are able to run for those positions — people who are well off or, more likely, they’re retired and have a second salary. I had a military pension when I ran.
But I think it does limit who can run. I think some increase makes sense, whether that’s a teacher’s salary or some public service salary.
How has being the son of immigrants shaped your public service?
For me it’s all about opportunity — that people have a fair chance at opportunity. That’s why I always go back to education. In the Southeast of Colorado Springs we have a lower income but you always want to make sure citizens and residents have the same opportunity. Unfortunately a lot of the residents in my area have a fair distance to travel to get to the Citizens Service Center off of Garden of the Gods [Road].
Some of the things we’ve emphasized are public transportation options with the city. Fountain also has a new route that allows people to go all the way to the Citizens Service Center.
So one of the things for me is make sure [constituents] have access to government services. We have some satellite locations — one in Fountain and some at libraries. … We have a [Women, Infants, Children nutritional assistance] center that takes advantage of the old Harrison School District 2 administration building.
When we talk about opportunity, access is one of those aspects — making sure all residents are taken care of regardless of economic status or other issues they may have.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I am very proud to be part of the rich diversity in our county and local leadership. And I want to ensure their ideas and concerns are heard, and that they and our community’s children benefit from good schools, job opportunities and the current strong economy. I try to support that through my numerous town halls, as well as by attending as many local community and school events and forums as I can, so I can hear from [constituents] and all our county residents.