Ismael Fernandez

Councilman Fernandez: C of I freshman wins Wilder City Council seat

In the 1939 classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the wholesome Jefferson Smith gets picked as the replacement for a recently deceased senator. Smith, who has no background in politics, says “I can’t but help feeling that there’s been a big mistake somehow.”

College of Idaho freshman Ismael Fernandez had the same feeling when, upon the closing of election booths on the first Tuesday of November, results showed he had won a seat on the Wilder City Council.

“I thought, ‘there has to be a mistake,’” Fernandez said.

Fernandez didn’t just win the five-person race for one of two open seats; he was the top overall vote getter (60), taking home 25.42 percent of the vote. It was a pleasant surprise for a 19-year-old, who campaigned for three days before the election, ran against a 24-year incumbent and faced challengers who were older and had lived in Wilder longer.

After double-checking the results, Fernandez went to his grandmother and told her he’d officially won. Tears rolled down her face as she told him how proud she was. Congratulations from friends and family soon poured in via phone calls, text messages and Facebook posts.

“I didn’t expect first place,” he said. “I didn’t really expect second place.”

The journey to becoming a city councilman started long before this summer, when retiring Wilder Mayor John Bechtel—who told Fernandez he would one day be mayor of Wilder—encouraged him to run for the position. It started long before Fernandez learned an incumbent councilman was not seeking re-election, and long before he talked with influential members of the Wilder community and learned he’d have their support if he ran.

It started as a young child with a deep interest in politics and government.

“It almost seems overnight, one day I woke up and thought politics and government were interesting,” Fernandez said.

In fourth grade, Fernandez decided he was going to be president of the United States. Two years later, when President Barack Obama was elected, Fernandez thought that if America could elect its first African-American president, there was a good chance a Latino like himself could get elected.

Initially taking an interest in congressional politics, Fernandez gradually focused his attention on state and local politics. He worked with local legislators to push a bullying bill through the state legislature in 2011. After being bullied in grade school and having to switch middle schools, Fernandez wanted to make sure no one else would endure the same experiences.

“You can either let [bullying] get to you, or you can choose to do something,” Fernandez said. “I chose to do something.”

The bill failed in 2011 and 2012, but an amended version passed this year.

Fernandez also was appointed in 2014 to the Idaho Juvenile Justice Commission, which aims to protect Idaho’s children and give them the opportunity to be productive, contributing citizens. And, he’s been on the Wilder Fourth of July committee for two years.

“There has always been an interest in helping my community and being a voice for people who otherwise would be voiceless,” Fernandez said.

His heart for people and honesty has always been evident, even as a young kid. Mayor Bechtel can remember a young Fernandez helping at the foodbank with his grandmother. It’s those sincere qualities that led Bechtel to think Fernandez could become mayor one day.

But even Bechtel was surprised to see Fernandez receive the most votes on Election Day, mainly due to his age.

“I think it’s a great accomplishment,” Bechtel said. “It speaks a lot for him. He got out, he campaigned, he prepared himself and justly got the job.”

Campaigning door-to-door, Fernandez enjoyed talking with his community of 1,500 people and hearing the concerns they have for their city. And he already has goals in mind for his first four years in office; he wants improve transportation in Wilder, see how the city can foster growth, and put youth development programs together and get kids interested in government—he’s leading that charge by example.

When Fernandez takes his seat on the council Jan. 12, the C of I Spanish and history double major will be making history as one of the youngest elected officials in the history of Idaho. Stepping into his new role will come with a little bit of a learning curve.

“In a small town, everybody knows you and they’re going to come with their dog complaints, their cat complaints and everything under the sun,” Bechtel said. “But he’s sharp enough, he’ll learn.”

Fernandez also will be part of a fully Latino city council in support of Wilder’s first Latina mayor, Alicia Almazan—a more representative city government, he said, in a town that is about 75 percent Hispanic.

“It’s something that I’m very proud of and something that I’m very excited to pursue, especially when it comes to being a Latino voice,” Fernandez said. “The Latino community in the United States has not been particularly well represented. But it also has a history of not representing itself, so I look forward to taking up the challenge.”

It’s a challenge that seems a little daunting with trying to balance college classes. City council meetings are held once per month, but Fernandez also will need time for other committee and board meetings (he’s already attended an Association of Idaho Cities meeting) and to listen to his constituents.

“It’s got me thinking, how am I going to manage being a full-time student, doing work-study, and being an elected official?” Fernandez said.

But for now, he’s crossing off each day on the calendar until his first city council meeting, excited to take his oath of office, excited to take his seat upon the dais behind the placard “Councilman Fernandez,” and excited to serve the community of Wilder as a public servant—just like Mr. Smith.

“That’s exactly what Mr. Smith was,” Fernandez said. “He wasn’t a politician. He wasn’t concerned with parties or alliances. He was concerned with what the people needed.”