In His Father’s Footsteps

January 1, 2017 Nestor Licanto

Jim Espaldon’s only real idol and mentor was his father, Ernesto Espaldon, Sr., a philanthropic local surgeon who also served six terms as a Guam senator.

Jim had always dreamed of following his dad’s footsteps into public service. “I would tell him, ‘I want to run for office now, and he would tell me, You’re not ready, you’re not ready.’ ’’

Ever the pragmatist, the elder Espaldon wanted his son to pursue a professional degree as a backup in case it didn’t work out for Jim in the volatile world of local politics.

He eventually earned a law degree and returned home primed for a successful practice. But soon after getting back, his father fell into poor health.

Jim was taking his turn watching him in his hospital room one night when his father woke him up and said, “You’re ready.” Jim recalled, “I asked him, ‘Ready for what?’ And he said, ‘You’re ready to run.’ ”

His dad then reminded Jim that as a doctor he had organized medical missions over his more than 40-year career and had helped hundreds if not thousands of patients, mostly children, with life-changing cleft palate surgery.

His father went on to tell him that by becoming a senator he would be able to help even more people “with the stroke of a pen.”

Espaldon Sr. was the author of the first law on Guam that restricted smoking in public restaurants. The law was very controversial at the time. “A lot of people didn’t like it or understand why,” Jim said.

It ultimately cost his dad his reelection, but it was another lesson Jim learned from his father. “He told me that what is right is not necessarily popular, and what is popular is not necessarily right.”  

Now a three-term senator himself, Jim applies that fatherly advice in his own career.  

Reelected to the incoming 34th Guam Legislature, he says his priority this term is the government’s financial condition, and specifically protecting special funds, “like the territorial highway fund, it’s supposed to go to specific road projects, but it gets raided for other uses.

I believe it should go to what it was created for.” He believes that if all special funds are protected, the government will have a better handle on what revenue is available, and will be forced to spend accordingly.

Jim’s second priority is legislative reform. “If you come in as minority, you have no authority,” he said. “It’s unfair to the people who voted for us.”

He believes the current system where the committee chairmanships are divided up only between majority members is also unfair and outdated. “Why can’t all 15 of us chair a committee?” he asked. “I can agree that the majority should have first choice of which committees to run, but there’s enough work and responsibility to go around.”  

Espaldon said he is a member of four committees, but has never been called to a committee meeting. “I think the responsibility to the party ends where the responsibility to the people begins.”

While Espaldon now sees public service as his calling, his life journey took him on several very different paths to get there.

As a young man he was a top local DJ, soaking in the nightlife at the hottest clubs. He got an offer to work at a new club in Maui, but decided against it and worked instead for ABC Stores in Honolulu where the office hours were more normal.

Feeling restless again, he had an opportunity to get into the farming industry. “Hawaii was downsizing its pineapple and sugar cane plantations.”

He recalled that the new rage then was a South African flower called the Protea. “I thought I would be at the forefront of this whole new industry.” He spent five years as a farmer before he made another return trip home and his ultimate decision to go to law school.

Now at age 60, Espaldon has long settled in. His greatest joy is spending time with family, his children, and his lovely wife Gilda. “I’m the main house cleaner, and I don’t have a problem with that,” he said, laughing.

Espaldon has one other passion that he has been pursuing since childhood. “I love playing basketball.” For the last 30 years he has been playing pick-up games at the Agana Heights gym. These days he plays two or three times a week during lunchtime. 

“I used to be the young guy, now I’m the old guy,” he said. The Senator also sponsors a couple of teams for the local leagues. “That’s the only way I get to play in them.”

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