At a time when politics is increasingly polarized and bipartisanship is at an all-time low, few would look at a staunch Democrat and a career Republican and immediately gather that they are members of the same household.
For Justin and Melissa Mendes, however, bipartisanship was a mountain worth climbing. Melissa, the Democrat, and Justin, the Republican, both have careers in politics and were married last August.
Justin’s Twitter bio reads “Hanford City Councilman, District Director for CA-21, Kings Co GOP Sec... Husband to a DEM, Father of 2.”
Ask Justin about himself, however, and he might answer the question in a slightly different order. Mixed into his various social media feeds with the usual political jargon that one might expect from a politician is a clear focus on family.
Justin, 30, was elected to the Hanford City Council in 2014 and served as Hanford’s mayor in 2016. His education on the issues facing towns like Hanford, however, began at a much younger age.
Justin was raised on a dairy farm and said that he believes that his upbringing plays a major part in what he does every day for the city of Hanford.
“It’s a 24/7 commitment when you own a business,” Justin said.
Justin also said that seeing both sides of regulatory processes is something that he thinks benefits him. He said that nearly everything the council does affects the community and small business in some way and, as a result, he takes it very seriously.
He decided from a young age not to follow into the family business, partly because of the way that he said over-regulation has affected dairy farms.
“The reason I’m not a fourth-generation dairyman is because my dad said, ‘Hey the government obviously does not want me doing this, so, go do something else,’” Justin said.
Justin received his bachelor’s in business administration from The University of the Pacific in Stockton in 2008. He moved to Hanford in 2009 and began working in agricultural lending, a short-lived career as a result of the economy at the time.
“2009 was a rough dairy year, and I got let go from the bank in early 2010,” Justin said.
The next day, Justin texted David Valadao and spent the next six months as his first and only campaign employee in the Republican primary race for California State Assembly. Valadao subsequently won the Assembly race and was later elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Even after the success of Valadao’s first Assembly campaign, Justin didn’t immediately decide that politics was something that he wanted to get directly involved in himself.
It wasn’t until after former Hanford City Councilwoman Joleen Jameson told him that she was not planning to run for re-election and thought that he would make a suitable replacement, that Justin started to consider his options.
“I wasn’t looking at it,” Justin admitted. “I wasn’t thinking about it, but the deadline was coming up and I was just like, ‘You know? I can do it,’ and ultimately, after talking with my wife, I chose to do so.”
Outside of the Hanford City Council, Justin has remained an integral part of David Valadao’s staff since 2010 and is currently serving as Valadao’s district director.
Melissa previously served as a congressional field representative for Democratic Congressman Jim Costa and now works as a career technical education coordinator for the Fresno Regional Workforce Development Board.
She uses the hashtag #bipartisanbesties when posting photos of herself and her husband on Facebook. On the day of President Donald Trump’s inauguration, she changed her Facebook cover to a photo of President Barack Obama in the oval office. Two days later, she changed it to a wedding photo.
Melissa, maiden name Mata, was born in Fresno in 1988, the daughter of an immigrant from Mexico. Melissa believes that a lot of her interest in politics stemmed from her familial ties to immigration and the way that she saw immigration policy change.
“We had a lot friends that were undocumented and so a lot of their kids lived in fear,” Mata said.
Growing up in a low-income household that relied on services such as Medi-Cal, Melissa began to decide many of her political stances from a young age.
“I think, just from a young age, I was always a Democrat,” Melissa said. “Democrats usually had friendlier immigration policies and I kind of connected the dots.”
After attaining an associate degree in liberal arts from Fresno City College, Melissa moved on to Fresno State where she became active in student government on campus. She graduated from Fresno State with a bachelor’s degree in political science, a minor in mass communication and journalism, and a certificate in grant writing.
While at Fresno State, Melissa began an internship with Henry Perea’s office in the California State Assembly as a part of the Maddy Institute, a Fresno State program that enables students to intern in various political offices.
After only four months in Perea’s office, Melissa interviewed with Congressman Jim Costa. She very quickly decided that Costa’s office was a good match for her and started a two-year career as a district representative for him. Melissa credited Costa with many of the ideals that she now holds.
“When I first started working, I was an idealistic college kid and very liberal,” Melissa said. “But then I learned that, in order to get things done, you have to be more moderate at times.”
After two-and-a-half years in Costa’s office, Melissa moved onto the Fresno Regional Workforce Development Board where she began a career as a technical education coordinator.
As a part of her job, Melissa worked with labor unions to organize job training for the locally unemployed. Melissa’s goal in this position was to make sure that jobs tied to high speed rail went to locals, rather than people from out of town.
After the grant for that job was over, Melissa remained on the board and is now helping to expand that goal to other industries.
Justin and Melissa’s paths first crossed when they were both working for different politicians. Melissa recalled that she first noticed Justin when a mutual friend of hers posted a photo with him on Facebook.
The photo was taken in Las Vegas at a convention and Melissa remembered not responding so positively to it originally.
“I just remember rolling my eyes and thinking ‘oh look, another Republican operative, ugh,” Melissa said.
The first time they actually met in person, however, was at a Maddy Institute trip to Sacramento during Melissa’s time as an intern.
“They needed a chaperone, essentially, from other legislative offices and Melissa was across from the table that I ate at for lunch,” Justin said.
“He’s only two years older than me though, so it’s not creepy,” Melissa quickly added.
Justin and Melissa compared the rivalries between the two political parties in their family to a sports team rivalry. However, they both agreed that, during the last presidential debates, things could get a little more competitive than usual.
“When I was watching the Democratic debates, Justin was stopping and making jokes and I was just like ‘Get out of here’,” Melissa said. “And at the Republican one, I just left because I think it’s asinine sometimes.”
Another source of contention can also arise between the families of the couple.
“Justin’s family is very Republican so his grandmother was like, “Why are you voting for that woman [Hillary Clinton]? She’s evil’,” Melissa said, as Justin quietly laughed. “I just politely smiled and said, ‘Because I think she’ll do a better job.’”
Ultimately, however, Melissa said that she thinks both parties often want the same thing, but have different ways of getting there. Justin agreed, but added that most of their personal disagreements arise from the day-to-day political events, rather than fundamental beliefs.
“Like, for instance, I don’t think Trump’s tax returns are a big deal and she didn’t think that Hillary’s server was a big deal,” Justin said.
Still, as educated members of opposing parties, Justin and Melissa acknowledged that certain issues can sometimes put them at odds. Justin said that he allows Melissa to set the ground rules for political discussion.
“I’ll say what I can get away with and then I can tell when it’s gone too far,” Justin said.
Justin and Melissa have two boys, one 3-years-old, and the other less than a month old.
“Sleep deprivation is a bipartisan issue thankfully,” quipped Melissa, when asked about the struggles involved in raising a young and politically split family.
Justin is looking forward to the time that their children can begin to look at the world from a political point of view. Melissa, however, indicated that she was a little concerned about when that time comes.
“All of Justin’s friends are politically active so I am very aware of the things that are said in front of my son,” Melissa said. “I want to make sure he’s presented with all of the options.”
While Melissa noted that many of her liberal friends were shocked when she first told them that she was dating a Republican, many were also immediately supportive of their relationship.
While working in Costa’s office, Melissa got to know Costa’s district director, Ian LeMay. LeMay, who now works as the director of member relations and communications for the California Fresh Fruit Association and is the godfather to Justin and Melissa’s youngest son, had nothing but good things to say about the two.
“They’re really the best among us,” Lemay said. “If they can get together, we should all be able to get along.”