'Take that leap of faith': Franklin Gomez Flores could make history as Chatham’s first Latino commissioner

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SILER CITY — Franklin Gomez Flores has been climbing over obstacles and breaking barriers since he was 5 years old.

Now 26, he’s just broken through a major one: he’s set to become Chatham County’s first Latino commissioner after defeating incumbent Andy Wilkie by just 322 votes in last Tuesday’s election — a margin of 50.36% to 49.64%.

“I want to provide my Latino community a voice on the county board,” he said. “We’ve never had one.”

In addition to making Chatham County history, Gomez Flores is also the first in his family to be elected to office — another in a long line of firsts for him.

“None of my family members are politicians or have been in government, so I’d be the first one in my family to serve (in) government,” Gomez Flores told the News + Record. “So, in essence, I’m a first-generation immigrant, first-generation college graduate and a to-be first-generation elected official.”

Wilkie, who was appointed in May 2019 to fill the unexpired term of former commissioner Walter Petty, has not publicly said whether he’ll ask for a recount. He has not responded to numerous requests for comment from the News + Record.

Asked why he thought he received more votes, Gomez Flores said more Chatham voters preferred his platform.

“We also reflect different communities,” he said. “I’m an immigrant; his family has been here for generations. I’m younger, and he is older than me. Many individuals want to see what a Latino can bring to the table. Many individuals also want to see the younger generations engaging and contributing to society.”

Gomez Flores was born in 1994 in Santa Lucía Cotzumalguapa, located in the “department,” or county, of Escuintla, Guatemala.

He was born during the Guatemalan Civil War — the same civil war, he added, into which his parents had been born. From 1960 to 1996, left-wing guerrilla forces fought military-backed government forces, killing about 200,000 people and impoverishing countless others. Soon after, he and his family fled post-war poverty and violence.

They arrived in Siler City in 1999.

“I was enrolled almost immediately (in Siler City Elementary),” he said. “I didn’t even have time to adjust (to) what life was like in Siler City.”

His early years were his toughest: he had to adjust to different food, a different environment and a different language — all while getting used to leaving his parents every day for school. Gradually, though, things got better, and school began to feel like a “safe space.”

“The older I got, I started seeing more people that looked like me, more Latinos, mainly because of the immigration waves during that period into Siler City,” Gomez Flores said. “And so, I started realizing that I wasn’t the only one who was an immigrant. I started feeling a lot safer, or more comfortable in Siler City.”

His family invested in Siler City rental properties, and he began helping his dad out when he was about 7 years old.

“I knew that money was a big issue for my family,” he said. “And that’s kind of the mentality a lot of children — at least in Guatemala, where I was born — have, and I’m pretty sure a lot of other nations have experienced similar things where children feel like a responsibility to help the family with some income.”

Go to school, do his homework and help out his family. That was his life when he was younger, he said, and it left him very little free time.

“I didn’t have any room to mess around or to cut up in class or in general,” he said. “Homework was always a priority. School was always a priority. Helping family was always a priority.”

That included guiding his sister, Maria Gomez Flores, who said he always helped her out with any troubles she had, from elementary school all the way to college.

“He’s always been a very good older brother,” she said, later adding: “He’s always been very reliable, and that’s what I see him being in this office — of being someone who’s reliable and willing to listen to the concerns of the people.”

Gomez Flores attended Chatham Middle School and then Jordan-Matthews High School, where he played varsity soccer for Los Jets and ran track for all four years. Around this time, he became a U.S. citizen as well.

“And the biggest challenge for me was really navigating the educational system,” he said. “Neither of my parents are college graduates. My dad has a GED, and so that’s the highest education from both my parents.”

That’s why he’s grateful for the Scholars’ Latino Initiative, which paired him with a mentor who guided him through the college application process. It paid off: in 2016, he graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill with a degree in biology.

Gomez Flores originally hadn’t planned to go into politics. Initially, he wanted to play soccer professionally, even though, as he said, he wasn’t “your most skilled player out there.” Going into college, he thought he wanted to be a doctor — and then he discovered that he really loathed the medical system.

“I kind of took a different approach and started looking into more of policy,” he said. “So, I started looking into the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But when I graduated, that was a very competitive field. Biology, the sciences were very saturated in the job market.”

So that’s when he took a leap of faith. In 2017, he ran for an at-large seat on Siler City’s board of commissioners against Cindy Bray and Louis P. Forrisi Jr.; Bray won, and Gomez Flores received just 9.81% of the vote.

“I lost, of course,” he said with a laugh. “But I was able to get my name out there and pretty much got invited to apply to be a member to Chatham County’s Planning Board, and I’ve been on the planning board probably since for a year and a half, a little more. And that’s been a very humbling experience.”

Last year, he decided to try again, but this time as a county commissioner representing District 5, which includes part of Siler City, a town that Gomez Flores previously told the News + Record hadn’t had a voice on the county board in nearly 20 years. Siler City’s Hispanic population — which makes up nearly half of the town — had never before had a voice on the board either, he added.

But he ran into a few snags along the way. He was considered an “unaffiliated” candidate and had been since he’d registered to vote at age 18. State law required unaffiliated candidates to procure a certain number of signatures — in Gomez Flores’ case, 2,148 — and file a petition by the primary election to appear on the general election ballot.

He ultimately registered as a Democrat in December.

“But I wouldn’t be able to run with that affiliation, because I was supposed to have been affiliated in 90 days prior to the party,” he said. “And so, that’s where I was caught. In reality, my deadline to affiliate to the party or any party was sometime in September, and I started contemplating the idea of running in October, so I was already late.”

He received approval to petition and organized his campaign in early January — which didn’t leave much time to get the required signatures.

“So (I had) about two months to get 2,000 signatures, 1,000 signatures per month, and so I quickly knew I needed some help,” he said, laughing. “And here in Siler City, or in the western part, everything is very spread apart, housing very spread apart. There’s no really compact or a dense residential area like we have in the northeast.”

That’s why he focused a large part of his efforts there.

“Just because everything was so close together, that was the most feasible time for me in regard to being time efficient,” he said. “Instead of driving through house to house to house, I could just walk from house to house to house.”

Maria, his sister, also served as his campaign manager. She helped him go around Chatham, especially Siler City, to collect signatures, though she quipped that the effort “was all Franklin.”

“We would stop people that we knew, just talk about (how) he’s interested in (running), and it would be a great help,” she said. “I know we were very kind of shy at the beginning, when we went to a Walmart and just started asking people that we knew, but you know, it’s something that we have to get over with, and Franklin did a good job of overcoming that initial shyness at the beginning and just talking to as much people as he could.”

Ultimately, Gomez Flores obtained more signatures than he needed — over 3,500 — and that’s when he began his campaign in earnest. He campaigned on four issues: ensure quality education, create more affordable housing, bring more jobs to Chatham and emphasize eco-consciousness in county development.

But there’s one thing above all that he said he hopes to accomplish before the end of his term.

“I want to make it easy for families to build their own homes,” he said, adding, “I’d definitely love to have more first-time homeowners or buyers in Chatham County (and) make it easier for families to pass inheritance to their children. Yeah, I think that’s very important to me.”

He’s also well positioned for it, he said, since he and his family work in real estate and are familiar with many obstacles facing first-time home buyers. Moreover, as part of his purpose to give voice to Chatham’s Hispanic population, he also said he hopes to ensure that his community receives necessary information often co-opted by language barriers.

Some Spanish-speaking immigrants aren't familiar with how county government works, he said; some come from remote areas where government didn’t much touch their lives and others have never really had a say in politics.

“They don’t really know that in Chatham County we have procedures,” he said. “For example, as simple as selling food, you got to get a permit, and if you don’t have the permit, you get shut down. Some people don’t understand or know that procedure exists. … And then their mentality is: ‘Why are you shutting me down?’”

By teaching and engaging his community members, he hopes to prevent misunderstanding and provide a bridge between local government and his community. That, Maria said, is crucial because "finally" the county board would have someone who understands and can listen to residents who may not speak great English.

“If he’s confirmed ... he will be someone who is part of the community and therefore knows a lot of the worries and the concerns that Latinx individuals in the community have to live through,” she said. “It will be the opportunity to amplify the voices of Latinx people in Siler City and Chatham. It’ll bring those issues to the minds of other commissioners and to other local government officials.”

More than a path to achieve policy goals or representation, Gomez Flores said his victory could also provide hope.

“It is possible for even immigrants to have a positive impact on government, to change how a lot of people see my community normally,” he said, “…whether they say we’re thieves, rapists, murderers, whatever. I believe this opportunity presents itself to my community members to show that we can be positive contributors to our community.”

Some may not understand the importance of getting involved in government, he said, while others may stop themselves from running out of fear that no one will support them.

“But you got to take that leap of faith,” he added. “I’m not a very social person. I’m not a social butterfly. Politics and me, talking to people — it’s completely out of my comfort zone, but that’s growth right there.”

Put yourself out there and seize the moment despite your fear — that’s the example he hopes to impart to his community, especially youth.

“I hope that I provide a positive image or a positive role model for them that I didn’t have, that I would have liked when I was younger, that little sense of encouragement or motivation,” he said. “I hope I (show) the younger generations, independent of the background, just like, ‘Hey, somebody from Siler City, or somebody who grew up here, is able to do great things. So can I.’”

Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at victoria@chathamnr.com.

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