In spring 2020, Jesse Melgar’s life was turned inside out, along with the rest of us. But in his case, arguably more. Melgar, a 2017 Master of Public Policy graduate of UCR’s School of Public Policy, was press secretary for Gov. Gavin Newsom when the pandemic struck, and the next year of his life was a whirlwind. Newsom was the day-to-day face of California’s COVID-19 response. And for each daily COVID-19 press conference the governor gave, Melgar was there, behind the scenes.
“Every day was intense and unpredictable,” said Melgar. “When the state shut down and everyone began working from home, that’s when we ramped up. There was no pause. We often worked 16-hour days.”
He started with Newsom in early 2019, moving from the office of then-California Secretary of State — now U.S. senator — Alex Padilla. Only 31 at the time, Melgar had already served as communications director for Equality California, the California Latino Legislative Caucus, and state Sen. Ricardo Lara — now California’s insurance commissioner. Padilla told Melgar to expect a call from the governor’s transition team and Melgar was offered and accepted a job as deputy director of public affairs for Newsom. Within a year, just before the pandemic, he was named press secretary, and later, communications director.
“It was one job one year, and it became a completely different gig altogether after the pandemic hit,” Melgar, now 35, said of his 2 1⁄2 years in the governor’s office. “It was the hardest, most meaningful, most important and rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”
“WHEN YOU HAVE A SEAT AT THE TABLE, YOU BRING YOUR OWN LIVED EXPERIENCES.”
The experience was meaningful, in part, because Melgar said he was able to represent both the LGBTQ and the Latino communities in his work — his father is an immigrant who fled a civil war in El Salvador and his mother, born in Texas and raised in the Central Valley, is second-generation Mexican American. Born in San Bernardino and raised in Riverside, the John W. North High School graduate said the position also helped him put the Inland Empire at the forefront of discussions.
“When you have a seat at the table, you bring your own lived experiences,” Melgar said.
Of Newsom, Melgar said “he’s one of the hardest-working officials I’ve known.”
“He’s the first person in the office every day and the last person to leave,” Melgar said. “He’s very well read, thoughtful, and passionate about seeing the state succeed.”
On one visit to the Inland Empire, Melgar recalls Newsom insisted they eat lunch at a little taco joint in San Bernardino owned by the parents of his husband, Angel Rodriguez.
“He was so kind to my in-laws,” he said. “He was there for about an hour — no fanfare, no press.”
Melgar left the governor’s office a year ago. But the 16-hour days may not be a thing of the past. Melgar is senior advisor for a statewide research and policy startup at the University of California and Stanford called the California 100 Initiative. He’s also the governor’s appointee on the California Volunteers Commission and the youngest board member of the Inland Empire Community Foundation, where he has founded the new Cultivating Inland Empire Latino Opportunity, or CIELO, Fund, which will support Latino-led and serving organizations and initiatives throughout the region.
Melgar also serves as an advisory board member to Equality California and the UCR School of Public Policy, from which he was awarded the inaugural Emerging Policy Innovator Award in 2021. Newsom and Padilla sent in congratulatory videos for the ceremony.
Melgar fully expects to get pulled back into state public service eventually. It’s a notion he embraces.
“I love California, the opportunities it’s provided my family and I, what it stands for, and for its incredible potential,” Melgar said.