For Lake Elsinore resident and 67th District Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, life is fast-paced and not about to slow down anytime soon.
After doing a 10-year stint in the United States Navy where she served as a translator, Melendez, who at one time wanted to be a nurse, started her own transcription business, became a city councilwoman and eventually found herself as a member of the California State Assembly.
She decided to go into the Navy after she spoke to an uncle who was a parachute rigger in the Navy and still active duty at the time.
“He started telling me that I could get the G.I. Bill, branch out, see the world and learn new skills and all that goes with being in the military,” Melendez said. “I thought, ‘You know what? Yeah.’”
Since there was no room in the medical field when she went into the Navy, Melendez decided to be a translator instead.
She focused her studies on Russian. She attended the Defense Language Institute in Monterey and became one of the first women approved to fly aboard the EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft overseas, conducting reconnaissance and intelligence gathering operations as part of the air crew. During her time of service through the Cold War, Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm, she saw many things that she may have never been privy to had she not joined the military.
“That decade that I served in the Navy really opened my eyes up to a lot of things,” she said. “First of all, it opened my eyes up to what real poverty is. Not like the poverty we have in this country but I mean poverty. When I was in the Philippines, they took me out to see how some of the girls who worked in the bars lived, and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”
Melendez said the girls she saw lived in huts with dirt floors, four walls, no electricity and a community well shared with other women in the area.
“It was pretty incredible, so definitely, it changed my perspective of the world,” she said. “Not everybody lives like we do in the United States of America.”
Melendez met her husband of 20 years, Nico, also a Navy veteran, on the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial where they were both in attendance at a reenlistment ceremony.
“He was stationed in Hawaii, like I was,” she said. “Five kids later and 20 years of marriage and we are still together and going strong.”
Melendez had her first child in 1998, after her time in the service had ended and wanted to be home with him. She said she had no idea at the time that she and her husband would end up five.
“I wanted to be able to be home with my kids if it was at all possible because my mom worked in a mill in Ohio,” she said. “She worked a lot of shift work.”
Melendez decided to start her own transcription business so she could do just that.
Little did she know at the time that she would one day become a city councilwoman and later, an assemblywoman.
“My husband and my father-in-law are the dirty scoundrels who talked me into running for city council,” she said with a laugh.
Melendez, who had never served in an elected office, other than her homeowners’ association in Virginia, said that city council was an eye-opener for her.
“You feel like you have more control of your own destiny when you are on a city council,” she said. “When you are city council your folks come to the meeting if they have a complaint, suggestion or praise. With the state, it’s very rare that you see anyone from your own district testifying for or against legislation. You get a lot of lobbyists, but you’re not getting the people it actually affects.”
Melendez said she misses those day-to-day interactions with the people she serves.
She finally made the decision to run for the Assembly after being asked to serve on a panel for the State Republican Party in Riverside at the Mission Inn.
After the panel ended, some members of the Republican Party in attendance approached her and told her they thought she should run for the 67th District Assembly seat, then held by Kevin Jefferies. So, she discussed it with her family, and upon their blessing, made the decision to run for office.
“I naively said, ‘Sure.’ I didn’t know what I was getting into. I had no idea,” she said.
Being a female Republican Assemblymember in California can be tough sometimes, but Melendez said that she likes what she does because she feels that she is giving those in her district the representation at the state level that they need and want for fair governance.
“I don’t need the title. Mom, veteran, wife, those are the top three if you ask me,” she said. “I don’t need the ego boost. I don’t need the paycheck.”
For Melendez, it’s about delivering something to those who voted her into office.
“I know what people in my district feel like, they are frustrated,” she said. “When I have days where I think, ‘This is just ridiculous, maybe I should let someone else take a stab at this.’ I’ve got people who are sending me letters, encouraging me and thanking me and that’s what gives me pause. That is what keeps me going.”