In the autumn of 1969, a young woman from outside Cleveland stepped off the bus in Segovia, Spain, for a foreign exchange program. By the next summer, she’d be married to a 19-year-old Spaniard and pregnant with a baby boy.
Anyone who has seen Jay Gonzalez at a political event this summer has probably heard this snippet of the Democratic gubernatorial candidate’s biography, a nod to his humble beginnings.
His mother had to leave school to care for him. His immigrant father found a job laying bricks.
“I like to tell that story to parents who have kids going on an exchange,” Gonzalez joked at a recent campaign house party in Walpole.
While entertaining, the story also lends insight into Gonzalez and his campaign for governor, how he learned the value of risk and ambitious goals from the willingness of his father, Juan Manuel Gonzalez, to leave his home and start a new life.
After marrying in Spain in 1970, the young couple had to decide where to raise their baby. Juan Gonzalez’s family ran — and still runs today — a souvenir shop in Segovia, a tourist town blessed with picturesque architecture.
“My dad knew if he stayed he’d be working at that souvenir store his whole life,” Jay Gonzalez said.
So the couple moved to the Cleveland area, and Jay Gonzalez, whose given name is Juan Manuel, grew up the son of an optimistic, soccer-obsessed immigrant who didn’t know English when he arrived in the United States but eventually became a sporting goods importer.
“My dad, like a lot of immigrants, so appreciated the opportunity to be here,” Gonzalez said in an interview. “Any child of an immigrant is exposed to that appreciation and work ethic and desire to make the best of the opportunity in this country.”
Gonzalez, 47, talks this way a lot. In these cynical times, his political style can be described as aggressively earnest.
He is running for the Democratic nomination in the Sept. 4 primary against Bob Massie, an author, social justice activist, and 1994 Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor.
But on the campaign trail, Gonzalez directs his aim at Governor Charlie Baker. Conventional wisdom says either Democrat will face a steep uphill campaign to topple the first-term Republican, who polls show is on a sustained run as America’s most popular governor.
On the surface, it can seem Gonzalez is challenging Baker with the governor’s own resume. Both men served in state government as secretary of administration and finance — Baker in Bill Weld’s administration, Gonzalez in Deval Patrick’s. Both became health care executives.
But Gonzalez’s priorities are squarely progressive, from a higher minimum wage to a single-payer health care system to an additional tax on top incomes to pay for infrastructure. He would fire the state’s private commuter rail operator, Keolis, and have the state run the train system instead.
Gonzalez’s line of attack against Baker can be summed up this way: He’s a nice enough guy who is too docile, is afraid of a move that might dent his popularity, and won’t take the bold steps the state needs to move forward.
With President Trump driving Democrats to a state of constant outrage and rampaging through everyone’s Twitter feed, Gonzalez suggests that Baker benefits just by being a normal politician.
“We deserve more from a governor,” Gonzalez told a crowd of about 40 at his Walpole event. “Not being crazy is not good enough.”
Gonzalez grew up in the Cleveland suburbs of Lakewood and Bay Village. He had two younger brothers and a paper route, delivering the Cleveland Plain Dealer at 5:40 a.m. as a kid. He inherited his father’s love for soccer, and the sport became a huge part of his early life.
One of Gonzalez’s close friends and soccer teammates growing up was Brad Friedel, now the coach of the New England Revolution. Friedel, a goalkeeper, played professional soccer for two decades and represented the United States at the Olympics and the World Cup.
Gonzalez and Friedel played together throughout their childhood, first on youth teams coached by Gonzalez’s dad, and later on club and high school teams.
Friedel remembers Gonzalez as an attack-minded midfielder who took soccer, like all his pursuits, very seriously.
“Whenever he did anything he was serious about it,” Friedel said. “He was very intelligent in school, always in the upper percentile in the grade point average. When he wanted to play tennis he wanted to be very good at it.”
Gonzalez was quite good at soccer, at one point becoming one of the better players in Ohio, Friedel said.
Sports was a huge part of their youth, Friedel said. In Bay Village, there wasn’t a whole lot else to do.
“It was a very Midwestern, normal small-town upbringing,” he said, adding that it was the kind of place where the shoe store is named for the guy who owned it.
Over the years, Gonzalez and Friedel have gone long stretches without seeing each other, but they have always reconnected.
“He’s one of those friends — we all have them, it’s nice — you can go years and years and years without seeing each other, but you can pick up where you left off,” Friedel said.
At home, Gonzalez’s parents were not political, but his grandmother on his mother’s side, who lived in Ohio, was an outspoken liberal who lived through the Depression learning to play piano on a piece of cardboard with keys drawn on it. She adored Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and let everybody know.
“She was very liberal, very progressive, very opinionated,” Gonzalez recalled. “She was the only person I can think of in my family who expressed a lot of opinions about politics. And they were very progressive opinions.”
In high school, he began to develop a fascination with government, although just why remains a mystery. “I can’t explain it,” Gonzalez said. “It drew my interest. I love the way our government works. I was very interested in the role it plays on our collective behalf.”
After high school, Gonzalez attended Dartmouth College, where he majored in government and played soccer. His best friend and roommate was Peter McKernan, son of John R. “Jock” McKernan, then the Republican governor of Maine. Peter McKernan’s stepmother was Olympia Snowe, a member of the US House of Representatives who would later become an influential senator.
In January 1991, during Gonzalez’s sophomore year, Peter McKernan collapsed while jogging due to an undiagnosed heart problem. He died after nine days in a coma.
The first public speech Gonzalez ever gave was Peter’s eulogy, first at a campus memorial and then at his funeral in Maine. Heartbroken and overwhelmed by the scope of the task, he spoke about friendship.
“At the funeral in Maine there were probably 1,000 people,” he recalled. “[Senate majority leader] George Mitchell was there. I was emotionally a wreck.”
His friend’s death had a lasting impact, he said.
“I think I grew up very quickly after his death,” Gonzalez said. “It was a huge jolt and some of what I’ve taken from it stayed with me: It’s the people in your life who make any experience special.”
He had a difficult time in school after his roommate’s death and believes that it contributed to a decision he still regrets: quitting soccer after the coach reduced his role on the team.
“Looking back, I wish I had been strong enough to fight through it and stick with it,” he said. “It’s one of the things I regret in life and also a lesson.”
While at Dartmouth, Gonzalez interned in Washington for Senator Howard Metzenbaum, an Ohio Democrat. The summer before his senior year, he volunteered for Democratic Senator John Glenn’s 1992 reelection campaign in Ohio. Gonzalez spent most of the summer canvassing at county fairs and sometimes driving Glenn to events in his “crappy” Ford Tempo.
After graduating from Georgetown Law, Gonzalez considered going directly into government and got an offer from the Department of Justice. But the pay was low, about $36,000, he recalled.
“I had $80,000 in law school loans, and I just couldn’t afford it.” So he went back to Cleveland and joined the public finance practice at a private law firm. He worked as a bond counsel, advising municipalities and other government entities that were borrowing money for projects such as new roads or schools.
For a lawyer who liked government, the job was a good match. “I was helping [governments] create tangible results,” he said. “I could drive by schools that I helped make happen.”
In 1998, Gonzalez and his then-wife decided they needed a change and moved to the Boston area. (He says he fell in love with the city when visiting from Dartmouth.) They chose Brookline, and Gonzalez joined the public finance practice at Palmer & Dodge.
He hadn’t been involved in statewide politics since college, but in the summer of 2005, he was inspired by Deval Patrick’s candidacy for governor and got involved in his first statewide race in Massachusetts.
“I’d been reading about him, really liked what I was reading — I didn’t know him,” Gonzalez said. “It was a magical experience. This guy who couldn’t win ended up winning.”
After Patrick’s victory, Gonzalez accepted an offer to oversee the state’s capital budget, despite having recently been made a partner at his law firm.
“I just said, ‘Screw it, this is the kind of thing I always wanted to do.’ ” He was promoted to secretary of administration and finance in 2009 and served in the post until 2013.
After leaving the administration, Gonzalez worked as chief executive of CeltiCare Health and New Hampshire Healthy Families, leaving at the end of 2016 to prepare for his run for governor.
Gonzalez has two daughters with his first wife: Isabel, 18, and Abby, 14. Gonzalez and his second wife, Cyndi Roy Gonzalez, married five years ago. She had worked for him as a communications specialist at administration and finance. They began to date after she left his agency, Gonzalez said. Cyndi is an adviser to the campaign and runs a public relations business, he said.
Gonzalez seems to enjoy the glad-handing and chitchat of the campaign trail. He said he prefers to be around others, rather than being alone. “I’m not someone who does well by myself,” he said. “I draw energy from people.”
Gonzalez’s campaign is based on a promise to be bold, to take political risks despite the potential costs. Asked why voters should be confident he’ll deliver on that promise, he points to his decision to join the Patrick administration.
“It was risky for me to go work for him at the time. I had just made partner at the law firm. And on paper it wasn’t a smart decision to make, but I really believed in him and wanted to be a part of an ambitious administration. So I took a career risk to do it.”
Taking on a popular incumbent can be risky for a new politician’s career, but Gonzalez said he doesn’t care.
“I’m not concerned about my political future at all,” he said. “I’m doing this because I want the job, because the job needs to be done in a very different way.”Mark Arsenault can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark.