The affable and articulate policy wonk has written speeches for former President Bill Clinton, served as a close personal aide to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and, through his philanthropic efforts, helped Oprah Winfrey build a school in South Africa. But he's also taken the lead on a range of city issues, including the renovation of the Palo Alto Art Center and the massive reconstruction of libraries.
He grew up on a farm in Gilroy, where he was surrounded by ducks, rabbits and chickens and participated in the local 4-H club. But he is one of very few people who can boast of having lived at the "birthplace of Silicon Valley" — the iconic Addison Avenue home where Bill Hewlett and David Packard founded the company that bears their names.
He is an avowed environmentalist who calls himself a "big proponent of recycling." But he also on the council minority that opposes the construction of an anaerobic digestion plant at Byxbee Park — a plan city officials are now studying.
He served as a board member at the Chamber of Commerce, both in Palo Alto and Mountain View, but also picked up an endorsement from local labor groups when he decided to run for the Palo Alto City Council in 2007.
Espinosa was praised by his colleagues Tuesday for his intelligence, independence and willingness to help the city make tough decisions during sour economic times. But he was also one of few council members who opposed a business-license tax for Palo Alto — a tax that staff said was badly needed to prevent huge budget cuts.
Espinosa, who at 38 became the fourth youngest mayor in the city's history Tuesday night, doesn't speak as often as many of his colleagues and often defies expectations when he does. On the issue of composting, while others on the council stressed the need to keep operations local, Espinosa has constantly urged his colleagues to think regionally and argued that city borders are "very much artificial."
"People don't know when they drive from Mountain View to Palo Alto and Menlo Park," Espinosa said at an April meeting. "We should think regionally about our approaches to waste management and recycling."
Though his colleagues don't always agree with Espinosa's positions, they unanimously agreed that he should be the city's mayor in 2011.
Councilman Larry Klein, who nominated Espinosa for mayor, read through Espinosa's list of jobs and achievements — including his positions as a trustee at his alma mater, Wesleyan University, his degree from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and his job as Reno's aide — and proclaimed him "one of the more distinguished people we've ever had on the job."
Councilman Greg Scharff also applauded Espinosa's experience and compassion and called him "truly a nice guy."
"Sid really delves into details; he understands what's going on — and he makes it look so easy," Scharff said.
Espinosa was born in Santa Clara and moved to Gilroy as a second-grader. He grew up in Gilroy and says he became interested in public policy as a junior high student. As a senior at Gilroy High School, Espinosa was elected class president.
From Gilroy, Espinosa went on to Wesleyan University, where he studied government, and later to Washington, D.C. After a brief stint in the Democratic National Committee in 1994 — a dark year for Democrats — he went on to the White House and worked in presidential speechwriting. A year later, he went on to work for Reno, a mentor with whom he continues to keep in touch.
Espinosa said Reno "shaped who I've become professionally and how I think about public service."
"To have someone, while you're in your 20's, mentor you and take you under her wing — especially someone so focused on justice and on doing what's right, someone who has spent her entire career not focused on fame or recognition, but on making the society a better place — she instilled those qualities into everyone who worked for her," Sid told the Weekly.
Espinosa ultimately returned to California and was interviewed for a job at Hewlett-Packard by Gary Fazzino, a former Palo Alto mayor and the city's unofficial historian (as well as the third youngest mayor in the city's history). He got the job and went on to serve as director of philanthropy at Hewlett-Packard. He also helped the company restore the venerable Addison Avenue residence with the famous garage.
After the restoration, he was offered a chance to live at the restored house. He happily accepted.
"It's an incredible part of California, Palo Alto, really world history, and it was wonderful to be there," Espinosa said. "Every year, I felt like I was living history."
After more than three years at the famous house, Espinosa was recruited by Microsoft and moved out. He now serves as the company's "director of citizenship" — a position that includes giving the company a greater presence in Silicon Valley.
At the same time, he remained devoted to local issues and served on the board of the Palo Alto Art Center Foundation. While on the board, Espinosa helped the foundation reach a partnership with the city to rebuild the art center.
He also helped to lead Palo Alto's effort to rebuild local libraries, which was boosted by the 2008 passage of Measure N, a $76 million bond for library renovation.
Building libraries seems to be in Espinosa's blood. While Espinosa was helping to raise money for local libraries in 2008, his mother was doing the same thing in the Dominican Republic, where she was a library volunteer. Meanwhile, his younger sister, Tami, a principal at Brentwood Academy in East Palo Alto, was working to strengthen the library in her school, he said.
Espinosa sees some humor in the parallel between his mother's library project and the one in Palo Alto, where the planning process is notoriously thorough. He noted that both he and his mother reached their fundraising goals at about the same time in late 2008.
"By the next February or March, Palo Alto was just beginning its review and approval process, which will take years," Espinosa recalled. "My mom's library, meanwhile, was already built and painted."