California’s Central Valley is often dubbed as “flyover territory” — in other words, the mundane, crop-heavy region that many overlook as they travel to and from the state’s more populous areas. In Turlock and our surrounding communities, however, we know that the center of California serves as an integral part of the state’s success. It’s rare to find anyone at the State Capitol who shares that view, but that’s exactly what we have in Lenny Mendonca.
Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed Mendonca as his Chief Economic and Business Advisor in January, placing the Turlock native at the helm of California’s approach to job creation and economic development. I had the chance to write a feature on Mendonca in June and was inspired by his journey that’s seen him go from milking cows on his family farm and playing baseball at Turlock High School to serving as the governor’s senior business advisor.
During our conversation earlier this year, it struck me that although Mendonca left Turlock in the 1970s to attend college and pursue his career, his heart has always remained in the Valley. It’s not surprising; his brothers still help run the farm just east of the city and work in town at Turlock Irrigation District and Turlock High School, while his sister serves as a special education instructor at Dennis Earl Elementary.
Turlock is Mendonca’s home, and that remains true even when he’s in Sacramento. His connection to the city and its surrounding communities gives him a unique perspective on the region’s importance to the state’s overall economic health. His goal is to see each region rise together as one, he told me, without the Central Valley being left behind as it has in the past.
It’s one thing to talk about Mendonca’s appreciation for the Valley, but this week we saw actions that show how much he cares about the area. Speaking at one event in a day is a nice thing to do, but when we asked Mendonca to speak at our inaugural Best of 209 Awards Gala for 209 Magazine, which took place on Wednesday, we had no idea he had already committed to two additional appearances that day in both Turlock and Modesto.
Some may have said it was too much for one day, but Mendonca stayed in town to welcome the region’s best businesses and organizations to our event at the Gallo Center for the Arts that evening — and you could tell he genuinely enjoyed doing it. He told the businesses, companies and nonprofits in attendance that events like the Best of 209 Awards remind him “how much he loves his hometown.”
In Mendonca’s love for his small-but-big home, he also recognizes the importance of maintaining and supporting a voice for communities through local news. In fact, back at his home in Half Moon Bay, he even helped form a nonprofit news group in 2018 to purchase the Half Moon Bay Review.
In today’s climate, where my profession and colleagues have been referred to as “the enemy of the people,” it’s refreshing to see someone support local news. While I agree that national, televised media has strayed from the informative medium it once was, utilizing theatrics and shock to gain an audience, community news focuses on issues that are valuable to the everyday American: What decisions did your City Council make last night? Where can I donate clothing to the homeless? Who is running in my local election and how can I vote for them? When is the next high school football game?
These are the questions that matter to our readers, and protecting that voice is something Mendonca believes should be prioritized. He made that clear during his welcoming speech on Wednesday when he recognized our staff — something we all appreciated.
“I actually think it’s really important to recognize how much work and how much effort it takes to provide high-quality coverage of local issues, and so when a magazine is part of a news group that’s a local group and does something like this, it’s important that the community come out and support that because once you lose your local voice, you don’t get it back,” he said.
So, thank you Mr. Mendonca, for not only putting our city, our zip code and our Valley on a pedestal in the State Capitol, but for taking the time to be present in the area. As a journalist, support of community news coming from a state leader is encouraging and we’d love to have you back soon.