'I broke so many tractors, they made me work with the cows'

TULARE, Calif. — Travel north on U.S. Highway 99, leaving behind the vast swell of Los Angeles, and suddenly the cracked desert landscape bursts into a revelation of fruit trees and melon fields, of white clustering farms and endless rows of plantings.

Plums, grapes, walnuts, cotton and livestock of every description — everything seems to flourish in the cultivated cornucopia that is California’s Central Valley, everything seems to grow. Off to the east, the Sierra Nevada mountains tower against the horizon, and below and between the mountains are national parks and forests of stunning wildness and beauty.

For a moment, reality slips and you imagine it’s all true: California is where America made itself another Eden.

Then the congressman representing Eden waves his hand at the good earth flashing by in the car window and says: “This is the methamphetamine capital of the world.”

The congressman is Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), and the challenge of fixing an issue as twisted and perplexing as this one — a drug plague in the rural paradise of California’s 21st District — falls in part to him. A conservative Republican in a state dominated by Democrats from a rural area pressed between Los Angeles to the south and San Francisco to the north, Nunes has to hustle for votes more than many House members. The drug problem alone is one Nunes admits will take decades to solve.

Nunes has time on his side. This Republican wonder boy was first elected to Congress in 2002 at the age of 29. He was re-elected in 2004 with a commanding 74 percent of the vote. This winter he was seated on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, an extraordinary promotion that confirms that Nunes is one to watch.
Nunes looks older than he is, though not a lot older. Compared to the visages of some of his more life-etched colleagues, his face is baby smooth.

While he carries himself with the authority of the office, in the course of a day spent touring his district with war and death at the top of the agenda — first stop, a factory that makes combat armor; third stop, oral-history day at the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall — there are flashes of a younger man still learning the ropes. Indeed, Nunes leads by doing a lot of listening.

Does he ever doubt himself because of his inexperience?

“I get that question a lot,” he says. “Once I got into politics in 1996 I never thought I couldn’t do it. I don’t worry about what other people think. I do what I think is right. I’m not very shy.”

And much of what Nunes thinks is delivered in GOP bullet points. On Iraq or Social Security reform, Nunes sings from the party hymnal.

Though not a combat veteran himself, Nunes doesn’t flinch from chastising Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) for his recent pessimism about the war: “He should know better than to say things like that.”

Nunes is committed to his president and his leadership, a major factor in being selected to the Ways and Means Committee. (Another is Nunes’s close relationship with committee Chairman Bill Thomas, a fellow California Republican.)

There is one matter on which Nunes lets blast with some righteous idealism: redistricting. Carved up in 2000 according to the political designs of both parties, California’s congressional map now looks like a political ice floe: 53 Rorschach-shaped, gerrymandered districts frozen out of political competitiveness. In 2004, only three congressional races in the state resulted in victories of less than 60 percent.

While Nunes benefited from redistricting in his first congressional race, he has long been critical of the resulting gridlock. Nunes has been an active participant in crafting and promoting Proposition 77, the redistricting initiative that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) is presenting to voters in this fall’s special election. It would put a panel of retired judges in the position of rezoning political boundaries and remove that power from legislators.
Of course, such a change might mean the loss of safe Republican seats, some of them held by senior members of the delegation, so not all of the GOP’s elders are pleased with Nunes or Prop 77. While he won’t name names or inventory threats, he admits that no more than eight of the 20 Golden State House Republicans back his position.

But this is flak Nunes is willing to take, saying that citizens deserve contested elections that force politicians to interact with their districts.

“It’s just fundamental to democracy,” Nunes says.
What does the congressman think about the potential redistricting of fellow Californian Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R) to a federal penitentiary? Nunes cracks a smile but refuses to be drawn any further. “It’s an unfortunate situation,” he says.

He weighs his words carefully: “He’s an American war hero. I don’t want to write his obituary.”

The Fresno-area power elite holds a floating lunch, and this week it’s ensconced at the Star of Siam. Over steaming Thai seafood, the Republican mayor of Fresno and a local force, Alan Autry, is holding court. Autry’s roots run outside of politics, to football and to acting — he is best known for his portrayal of Capt. Bubba Skinner on the ’90s cop drama “In the Heat of the Night” — and he’s known by friends and rivals as a pistol of a politician unafraid to speak his mind.

One of Bubba’s friends, and the luncheon’s guest of honor, is Nunes.

“He’s my hero,” Autry waxes.

Autry confesses that when Nunes was first elected he wasn’t certain the tyro politician could get the job done for an area with such formidable problems. “I questioned: Could the kid deliver for the district?” Autry explains between bites of curried shrimp. “And I’ve been pleased to watch a guy commit with his heart to helping the San Joaquin Valley.”

And the Central Valley is a place with long need of help. For it’s these very fields that John Steinbeck mythologized in his dramas of broken lives; it was up hot black Highway 99 that the Joad family made its woeful odyssey in “The Grapes of Wrath.”

The area that makes up the 21st District — sometimes referred to as “Appalachia West” — still thwarts a lot of luck. The district’s poverty rates run above average, it’s running out of the water vital to sustaining agribusiness and the walnut trees aren’t the only green life to flourish in these pastures of plenty.

In the world famous parks and forests that constitute the eastern edge of Nunes’s district, in Sequoia and King’s Canyon, drug cartels have trespassed, seeding remote acres of parkland with marijuana. Last year, law-enforcement officers pulled 160,000 pot plants from the area, a California record.

If Steinbeck wrote his novel today, he would have to take note of this new complexity: Today’s luckless migrant to the Central Valley is an illegal Mexican immigrant lured to El Norte with the promise of work in the cotton fields, only to find himself forced at gunpoint to labor the dope crop in Sequoia National Park.

While there’s no doubt about Nunes’s commitment to improving his district, in the face of such challenges or hunkered down with older men of more experience, Nunes’s relative youth is a little disconcerting.

However, this same quality creates another impression when Nunes leads a tour of the family dairy farm outside Tulare. Immediately, Nunes is at ease at home. Unlike many veteran politicos, Nunes doesn’t treat his district like a foreign country or an occupational hazard. He’s still young enough to belong to a place other than Washington.

Nunes began farming outside Tulare on land that remains in the family. Like many families in the Central Valley, the Nunes family is of Portuguese-Azorean heritage, coming over from the islands in the early years of the last century.

“Portuguese families have strong work ethics, and they work hard no matter what industry they’re in,” he says.

Nunes was raised on the farm, and like most farm children he was put to work at an early age, tending calves and later on driving the tractor. He was, by his own admission, less of a farmer than other family members. There were incidents. Like the time he drove a tractor into a bridge, resulting in a demotion in duties.

Nunes grins sheepishly, retelling the story: “I broke so many tractors, they made me work with the cows.”

His grandmother, Evelyn Nunes, is on hand and smiles in agreement.

“Good at breaking tractors, bad at fixing them,” the congressman ruefully declares.

But with the cows came another sort of achievement. As an adolescent, Nunes joined the Future Farmers of America and took a Holstein named Gem to state competition, where she was crowned junior grand champion.

And when a meeting with House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and other GOP lawmakers turned to dairy farming, Nunes joined in with firsthand information. “I was the aficionado on the subject,” Nunes proclaims with pride.

With his appointment to Ways and Means, Nunes becomes ever that much more the Washington insider. Until recently, he kept a small plot of farmland for himself in the area. He’s given that up now. How long before the old ties slide? How long before Nunes is of them but no longer like them?

In his Beltway-regulation shirt and tie, Nunes certainly looks like the fortunate favorite. For this son of Steinbeck country, the grapes are clearly losing their wrath.