Political Notebook

Longtime Latino political operative Leo Gallegos Jr. dies at age 75

Leo J. Gallegos Jr.
Leo J. Gallegos Jr. Gallegos family

Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, Leo Gallegos Jr. was a quiet mover and shaker in California Democratic politics.

The son of migrant farmworkers became Gov. Jerry Brown’s point man in the San Joaquin Valley during Brown’s first eight-year stint in Sacramento from 1975 through 1983, exerting influence on policy and appointments as the governor’s community relations representative – first for the region and, late in the administration, at the statewide level.

Later, Mr. Gallegos became a political consultant and was a potent fundraiser and political coordinator for state and national campaigns, including former Vice President Walter Mondale’s losing presidential run against President Ronald Reagan in 1984.

Mr. Gallegos, who was born in Idaho, raised in Hanford and lived in Clovis, died Oct. 30. He was 75.

“Basically his whole life was about community activism,” said his daughter, Stephanie Gallegos of Clovis, who worked with Mr. Gallegos in his consultancy, Leo Gallegos & Associates. “My dad’s thing was, politics was in his heart. And if you didn’t change politics, you didn’t change the structure of peoples’ livelihoods, a whole generation.”

Mr. Gallegos was born in Caldwell, Idaho, and was the oldest of 10 children. The family followed agricultural work opportunities and moved to Hanford, where he attended elementary and high school. He later served in the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, including service in Korea. After his time in the military in the 1960s, Mr. Gallegos met his future wife, Olivia, and attended Fresno State, receiving his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work.

A good measure of his activism emerged while he was at Fresno State, where Stephanie Gallegos said he was instrumental in launching Latino and American Indian student programs in the late 1960s.

In 1975, newly elected Gov. Brown appointed Mr. Gallegos as one of five regional community relations representatives across the state, representing the governor’s office in the Valley from Modesto to Bakersfield. In 1982, Mr. Gallegos left his state job to become the assistant campaign manager for Brown’s U.S. Senate campaign, and in late 1982 was appointed by Brown to be the statewide community relations director.

In his role with the governor’s office, Mr. Gallegos worked behind the scenes to advocate for minority appointees to judgeships and other positions, said Armando Rodriguez, a former member of the Fresno County Board of Supervisors who was named by Brown to Fresno Superior Court in 1979.

“Leo was, in my opinion, instrumental in reshaping the judiciary in Fresno,” Rodriguez said. Rodriguez was among a half-dozen appointments by Brown of minority or progressive judges in the county, including Mario Olmos and Ralph Nunez and Fresno County’s first African American judge, Hugh Goodwin. “The governor’s office never paid attention to Hispanics, but Leo used his influence as a staff member to get those appointments through,” Rodriguez said.

In a 1982 interview with The Fresno Bee, Mr. Gallegos said Brown’s appointments of minority judges represented a broadening of the traditional selection process of vetting people for their qualifications, rather than reflecting a preference based on color or ethnicity.

“I think we have to understand that as we go on in time and as Hispanics build up in numbers, we (Hispanics) don’t want our children to reflect back to the ’80s when we could not keep our position and deny a qualified Anglo a position because we happen to be in the majority,” he said.

A longtime friend and protégé, Roland Nelson of Del Rey, said titles didn’t matter to Mr. Gallegos. “I don’t care what position he had with the governor, Leo always got his way,” Nelson said. “He was one of a kind.  He was interconnected with just about every ethnic group, not just the Hispanic community.”

After Brown left office in 1983, then-Rep. Tony Coelho, D-Merced, named Mr. Gallegos to be the national Hispanic coordinator for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, building on his experience as a fundraiser for Brown’s various campaigns.

And in 1984, he was tapped by Mondale to be the presidential candidate’s national Hispanic field director in Washington, D.C. In 1985, he was the statewide campaign director for state Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso.

He continued to consult and raise funds for other candidates and causes for the next two decades until health issues, including a heart attack and stroke, eventually sidelined him in recent years, his daughter said.

“He could raise funds like nobody else,” Stephanie Gallegos said. “Dad just had this gift. You’ve heard the saying that someone could sell sand in Egypt? Well, Dad could have, and he would make a million dollars doing it, if it was for the right cause.”

She added that he drew his strength from his wife, Olivia. “My mom was his inspiration for everything,” Stephanie Gallegos said. “He would not have been able to do what he did without my mom, without her support.”

But while he worked for decades for candidates and political causes, his daughter said he never considered running for office himself. “He was not into the limelight, he didn’t like recognition,” Stephanie Gallegos said. “He just wanted to do his job.”

Leo J. Gallegos Jr.

Born: Aug. 5, 1941

Died: Oct. 30, 2016

Residence: Clovis

Occupation: Political and business consultant

Survivors: wife Olivia Gallegos of Clovis; daughter Stephanie Gallegos of Fresno and son Sean Gallegos of Clovis; mother Esther Gallegos-Perez of Fresno; brothers Steve Gallegos of Stockton, Kenneth Gallegos of King City, Frank Gallegos of Salinas, Gilbert Gallegos of San Diego, David Perez of Salinas and Eddie Perez of Hanford; sisters Genevieve Gallegos of King City and Josie Castillo of Fresno; and four grandchildren.

Services: Rosary at 6 p.m. Thursday at Clovis Funeral Chapel, 1302 Clovis Ave.; Mass at 10 a.m. Friday at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church, 929 Harvard Ave., Clovis.