BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — California’s Central Valley is in the midst of a drought of near-biblical proportions, and Rep. David Valadao (R) is praying his response to the crisis can keep him in office this fall.
The freshman Republican has been campaigning hard on water issues in this agriculture-heavy swing district, trumpeting his work on a water bill that passed the House earlier this year that he says would go a long way to helping the region.
Water use has become his signature issue as he tirades on the trail against those he says are keeping the valley dry: Democratic lawmakers from the coast and state and national regulators. He’s hoping to tie those policies to his opponent, former Senate chief of staff Amanda Renteria (D).
“Our forefathers expected droughts, we went through droughts and we always prepared for the next one because there was always another one coming. And that's why we built the infrastructure, the reservoirs, the canals, and all those types of things,” he told The Hill in his Bakersfield campaign office Monday.
“Since the '80s they've started making it harder and harder to use that infrastructure and to send the water out into the ocean instead of allowing it to come down here and help these communities survive and that's where the change is,” he said, pinning the blame on environmentalist Democrats in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. “We can't make it rain, but it wouldn't have been as bad if we'd been allowed to pump water and put it in storage ... they're saying fish are more important than the people who live here.”
Valadao, a stoic dairy farmer, son of Portuguese immigrants and former state assemblyman, is facing his first reelection in a heavily Hispanic, agriculture-focused toss-up district. Farmers' animosity toward coastal elites has long simmered in the region, and the drought and its economic effects could help him cement his hold on a district that President Obama won by a double-digit margin.
Democrats privately concede the first-term lawmaker has done well establishing himself since getting elected. He’s not only helped himself with his water work but by backing immigration reform in a district that is more than 70 percent Hispanic — one that is much harder for Democrats to win in non-presidential years when Hispanic turnout drops. But they’re excited about Renteria, the first Latina chief of staff in U.S. Senate history and a Central Valley native who moved back to the district to challenge him.
The effects of the drought are apparent throughout the valley. Fallow fields dotted a usually verdant landscape. A thin film of dust covered cars. Cracked earth was everywhere. Signs blaring "NO WATER = NO JOBS" appear every few miles along the highway between Bakersfield and Fresno, the district's twin population anchors.
As Valadao waited to be presented with the Chamber of Commerce's top award on Monday, a local businessman delivered a somber invocation warning of great peril from the ongoing crisis.
"If we do not address these issues, especially the water problem, the nation's food supply has the potential to be greatly diminished," health executive David Womack warned as local businessmen and community leaders stood together, heads bowed in prayer. "Today we ask for wisdom as we consider what to do. We ask that we thoughtfully consider alternative actions in both the intended and unintended consequences of our choices. May we choose wisely."
Valadao also kept circling back to the issue even when asked about others. After asking a half-dozen mostly Hispanic campaign volunteers what they were hearing from constituents, he said to emphasize his work on water when asked about jobs or high-speed rail projects.
While Valadao blames government bureaucrats for stymieing the region’s economy, Renteria blasts him for voting against government programs she says are crucial for the Valley’s poor population. The district’s unemployment rate was almost 18 percent in 2012, more than double the national average, and the district’s median income was around $36,000, less than three-quarters of the nationwide median.
She says the two see eye to eye on water issues — but not much else.
“We’ve got to quit cutting education funding. Particularly in places like this you need every single dollar,” Renteria told The Hill on the way to an elementary school visit in Selma, a small town outside Fresno about 100 miles north of Bakersfield.
“I don't understand how you grow up here and you see seniors who can't just go out and get another job and you decide to cut Medicare. That doesn't make sense to me at all,” she continued a few minutes later.
“You decide to cut nursing homes when you see the kids out here who we're not sure what they're going to do next but they sure as heck better graduate and they have a 56 percent high school graduation rate — how do you cut Pell Grants, how do you cut Head Start, how do you cut a lot of the job training programs out here? How do you do that? Those are huge issues.”
At a newly built medical facility on the outskirts of Fresno focused on serving Hispanic communities in the surrounding small towns, dentists told her of children whose parents had never taken them in for a check-up. An elementary school vice principal later sang the praises of their after-school program, saying it was helping kids whose parents struggled with English literacy and couldn’t help at home. Renteria related, saying her dad struggled to read in English, so would have her and her siblings read to him instead to practice.
A fount of enthusiasm and former softball team captain at Stanford University, Renteria hugs and high-fives her way through local visits. She says she’s proven she can get things done, touting her work for Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) helping to craft the auto bailout and eventually pass the farm bill with bipartisan support through the Senate.
Valadao fires back, accusing Renteria of being a Washington insider whose backers mostly come from outside the district, and pointing out that the Senate farm bill originally failed in the House before it was modified.
He acknowledges that the water issue has helped the GOP in the area for years — and that the drought is boosting him this year.
“This water thing has been huge. If Democrats really wanted to win this seat they'd fix the water problem, get that one off the table,” he said.