Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

High-speed rail route change unlikely to sway Valadao

Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford

UPDATE (Monday, Nov. 18, 4 p.m.):
Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, was traveling Friday and unavailable to comment for the original blog post, according to his staff. Late Friday, his staff provided this statement in response to The Bee’s query about whether Valadao thought his opposition to high-speed rail may have swayed the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s preliminary selection of a Fresno-Bakersfield route that does not go through property owned by the Valadao family dairy business:

“Congressman Valadao absolutely does not believe his objections influenced the agency’s recent vote. The High-Speed Rail Authority has never concerned themselves with Congressman Valadao or his constituents, why would they begin to now? Their refusal to respect the Central Valley has only added to the widespread opposition to this project.”

ORIGINAL POST (Friday, Nov. 15)

The California High-Speed Rail Authority’s vote last week to identify a “preferred alignment” for its Fresno-Bakersfield section is unlikely to appease Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, an ardent opponent of the agency’s bullet-train plans through his stomping ground in Kings County.

In April, the authority’s staff was recommending a route that would bypass Hanford on the city’s west side — and which would run directly past three properties owned by Valadao Dairy, the congressman’s family farming business. Those parcels amount to about 509 acres and have a combined assessed value of more than $1.8 million, according to a database on the Kings County Assessor’s Office website.

But the latest route choice, which will be submitted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for evaluation, bypasses Hanford on the east. That may still be too close for comfort for Valadao, whose family, parents or uncle own a dozen properties west of Highway 43 between Idaho and Lansing avenues south Hanford — and within a mile of the would-be route for the high-speed tracks.

Valadao was traveling from Washington, D.C. to his district Friday and unavailable to comment on the rail authority’s route vote, his staff said.

Cows at the Valadao Dairy farm south of Hanford pay little attention to freight railroad tracks that run behind the fence in the background.

“However, Congressman Valadao has been both consistent and clear when discussing his opposition to high-speed rail since entering public life, regardless of the proposed track location,” said Anna Vetter, his communications director. “One of Congressman Valadao’s original criticisms of the High-Speed Rail Authority was their refusal to truly identify a route. This has created confusion for hundreds, if not thousands, of families and businesses in the potential wake of this project.”

Valadao came under scrutiny this summer after he offered an amendment to a budget bill that, if it becomes law, could stall or permanently derail construction of the high-speed rail project. Valadao, a member of the potent House Appropriations Committee, proposed the amendment and argued for its adoption in the committee apparently without informing his colleagues that his family holdings included property along or near the rail routes. The issue raised questions about whether or not Valadao faced a conflict of interest because of the potential effects of the rail routes on property values — often cited by project foes as one factor for their opposition.

Valadao’s amendment was approved by the committee. But the ultimate fate of Valadao’s efforts remains in limbo because of the budget stalemate between the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, which is in the hands of Democrats.

Valadao is third House Republican to support immigration bill

Recently, Rep. Jeff Denham of Turlock became the first Republican to formally endorse a comprehensive immigration bill introduced by House Democrats.

In the meantime, Denham’s Republican colleague, David Valadao, was doing just about everything he could to show support for immigration reform — short of signing on as a co-sponsor of the bill.

Rep. David Valadao

On Wednesday, Valadao changed that when he joined Denham and Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen as the third Republican to sign on as a bill co-sponsor.

The 1,137-page House bill includes a pathway to legal status and, potentially, eventual U.S. citizenship for immigrants currently in this country without authorization. It also includes myriad other provisions, including border security measures, an agricultural worker program, employment verification and more.

Supporters of comprehensive immigration reform say at least 28 Republicans have publicly expressed support for a path to citizenship — but only Denham, Ros-Lehtinen and now Valadao have put their name on a bill that would make that a reality.

In a Wednesday news release, Valadao said he has been “working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to find common ground on the issue of immigration reform.”

By supporting the legislation, he said, “I am strengthening my message: addressing immigration reform in the House cannot wait. I am serious about making real progress and will remain committed to doing whatever it takes to repair our broken immigration system.”

Valadao still on immigration reform fence

David Valadao

Rep. David Valadao of Hanford said Tuesday he hasn’t ruled out a break with his Republican party’s leadership over comprehensive immigration reform.

“A bunch of us are getting nervous,” said during a Tuesday telephone news conference, The Bakersfield Californian‘s Steven Mayer reported, echoing comments he and fellow Valley Republican Jeff Denham made to Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle for a story published in Sunday’s Bee.

While Valadao said he favors a path to citizenship, he remained cautious Tuesday about whether to take the kind of risk Denham has taken and throw his support behind the bipartisan effort.

“I haven’t ruled that out yet,” Valadao said.

Several high-profile supporters of immigration reform joined Valadao at the news conference, including Fresno Chamber of Commerce CEO Al Smith, California Chamber President Marti Fisher, Nisei Farmers League President Manuel Cunha and Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims, who shared the stage for a round-table discussion (more coverage of Tuesday’s event, including video, here).

Amanda Renteria, who announced last month that she’ll run against Valadao next year, said in a statement Tuesday that Valadao is one of many in Washington who talk about problems rather than do something about them.

“Valadao could have taken part in bipartisan talks that have been going on all year, but he hasn’t,” she said. “He could have joined other Republicans and worked on a popular Democratic proposal, but he won’t do that, either. Congressman Valadao just isn’t getting the job done, and that’s unacceptable for the valley.”

Hernandez to seek 21st Congressional rematch against Valadao

John Hernandez

Last year, Fresno Democrat John Hernandez ran a low-budget, debt-ridden campaign against Hanford Republican David Valadao for the 21st Congressional District.

Valadao spanked Hernandez in the November election, winning by more than 15 percentage points — even though the district, on paper, appears to be drawn for a Hispanic Democrat.

Undaunted, Hernandez says he’s going to once again challenge Valadao. He plans to officially kick off his campaign Saturday with events in Bakersfield and Sanger.

“We’ve been working all summer,” Hernandez said. “I’m the candidate for this district.”

This time, though, it might not be so simple for Hernandez.

The main reason is Amanda Renteria, who looks like she will have the backing of most, if not all, of the Democratic Party establishment.

Hernandez has already torpedoed the Democratic Party’s plans once. Last year, it backed Fresno City Council Member Blong Xiong in the 21st District race, but in the June open primary, Valadao and Hernandez finished one-two and moved on to the general election, leaving Xiong in the dust.

But Xiong got a late start and his campaign never caught fire.

This time, Renteria is getting an early start and has some intangibles that Xiong didn’t — she is Hispanic and a female.

The 38-year-old graduate of Woodlake High School, Stanford and Harvard Business School was the first Latina chief of staff to a U.S. senator, and has now moved back to the central San Joaquin Valley to run.

This week, she picked up the endorsement of EMILY’s List, a group that supports female Democratic candidates.

Hernandez is undaunted.

“The key is we have the name recognition up and down the district,” he said. “Amanda has none of that. She’s going to have to start from scratch. Nobody knows her at all.”

Some of that echoes what Valadao has said about Renteria.

In the district, 73% of the 712,866 residents are counted as Hispanic or Latino, according to Census Bureau records.

Democrats also enjoy a 47%-32% voter registration advantage over Republicans in the district, which includes all of Kings and parts of Kern, Tulare and Fresno counties on the Valley’s west side.

Still, no Hispanic has ever been able to turn that kind of advantage into a victory.

Next year, the three hopefuls — Valadao, Hernandez and Renteria, as well as any others who jump in the race — will square off in the open primary. The top two vote getters move on to the November general election, regardless of party.

Assuming Valadao moves on as the likely lone Republican, the question is who will be his opponent — Renteria, the Democratic Party’s favored choice, or Hernandez, once again upsetting his party’s apple cart.

New Super-PAC to help Central Valley GOP congressmen

Former Republican Congressman Richard Pombo is heading up a newly formed Super PAC, which will focus on electing — or keeping in office — Central Valley-based Republican and conservative congressmen.

The federal political action committee will be known as Empower Central Valley. Pombo is the chairman — and its public face. As with so many other such independent organizations, everyone else — including donors — will remain anonymous.

Richard Pombo

But Pombo, a Tracy cattle rancher, did say that “ag interests are all gearing up to get involved.” He said many contribute significant amounts of money to Republican causes and committees, but the money ends up being sent to out-of-state candidates.

“With other PACs, very little is spent in California,” Pombo said. “They raise money here, but spend it in Ohio.”

Empower Central Valley, he said, will spend its money in the Valley.

The first order of business is ensuring that Hanford Republican David Valadao in the 21st District and Turlock Republican Jeff Denham in the 10th District hold on to their respective congressional seats. The two have earned the PAC’s initial endorsements.

Both will almost certainly be Democratic Party targets next year. Beyond that, the PAC will look to get involved in other Valley races that may be competitive, be they working to keep a Central Valley Republican in office or hoping to oust a rival Democrat.

The PAC’s initial budget, based on the current targeted seats, is $1.2 million, Pombo said.

“We can expand, based on need,” he added.

The PAC is, by law, independent of the candidates it supports.

It is permitted to raise unlimited funds and in turn advocate for the election of federal candidates.

Democrats look to Bakersfield school trustee for Valadao challenge

Local and national Democrats think a Bakersfield City School District member might make the perfect challenger for first-term congressman David Valadao, a Hanford Republican.

Andrae Gonzales is currently the board’s president pro tem. Democrats call him an “up-and-comer.” Even Bakersfield Republican political consultant Stan Harper calls him “viable” and “bright.”

Andrae Gonzales

The question is: Can he unseat Valadao in the 21st Congressional District?

Democrats are still unhappy that they failed to even put up a fight for the seat last November. They hold a 15-percentage-point registration advantage in the district over the rival Republicans, but Valadao thumped Fresno Democrat John Hernandez, 58% to 42%.

Despite the registration advantage for Democrats, it never looked good for them during last year’s campaign.

Hernandez never seemed to get off the ground. His campaign seemed unfocused and not nearly visible enough. It was also dogged by debt.

Democrats never wanted Hernandez in the first place. They preferred Fresno City Council Member Blong Xiong, but in the state’s new top two primary, Valadao and Hernandez finished one-two. Xiong was left on the sidelines.

Now, Hernandez says he’s running again. And Democrats once again want an alternative, said Matt Rogers, chairman of the Fresno County Young Democrats.

Rogers said he spoke with Gonzales on Thursday morning, and the 31-year-old is interested in a run against Valadao. And, Rogers said, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has also reached out to Gonzales.

Gonzales was also mentioned as a potential candidate to replace Michael Rubio, who abruptly resigned from the state Senate in February. A May 21 special election is set to fill that seat.

John Hernandez

But Gonzales isn’t the only potential candidate. Democrats are also talking to former state Sen. Dean Florez, as well as his mother Fran, a Shafter council member.

Florez might even be preferable for a Valadao challenge, because he twice won election in a Senate district that matches up well with the 21st Congressional District’s current boundaries — which takes in parts of Kern, Tulare and Fresno counties and all of Kings County.

But Rogers said nobody in Democratic Party circles thinks Dean Florez will run.
The bench isn’t very deep for Democrats, either. Another possibility was newly elected Kern County Supervisor Leticia Perez, but now she’s running to replace Rubio in the state Senate.

If Gonzales does run — or Dean or Fran Florez, for that matter — the next hurdle would be getting them sufficient funds to mount an effective campaign.
Rogers said Democrats want to hold on the 36th Congressional District, where Raul Ruiz upset incumbent Republican Mary Bono Mack last year. The GOP will likely target that Southern California seat next year.

There are other seats held by Democrats in the state that also must be held, Rogers said.

In the end, will there be enough cash to fund Valadao’s challenger? And, it seems, the party may also have to get that person past a primary that may include Hernandez.

Water at heart of heated email exchanges between Borba, others

West-side grower Mark Borba was forced to step down as Community Medical Centers’ board chair after he sent an email with a racially insensitive comment about President Barack Obama.

The story appeared in Tuesday’s Bee.

But Borba’s statement was just one small part of a long-running series of email exchanges on March 1 that exposed a seamier side of politics not often seen by the general public.

Mark Borba

The emails went on for hours and primarily involved Borba, Johnny Amaral, who is chief of staff for Rep. Devin Nunes, a Tulare Republican, and Westlands Water District General Manager Tom Birmingham.

Several others, including Westlands board members and staffers for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, were copied in some of the emails.

The f-word was often used, as were other expletives.

It all started with Borba thanking Rep. Jim Costa, a Fresno Democrat, for writing a letter to U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Michael Connor.

In the letter, Costa urged the Bureau to increase water pumping from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which is restricted because of protections in place to protect the delta smelt.

Borba then added: “This is total insanity. Where the Hell is Feinstein & the Administration?” He then goes on to detail the economic losses to the Valley’s west side before concluding: “The Senator’s silence is deafening.”

One of those copied on the email was Birmingham, who responded with a defense of Feinstein. He wrote to Borba that “Senator Feinstein and her staff have been pushing Interior and Reclamation behind the scenes.”

It is at that point that Borba explodes with multiple expletives and calls Obama “Blackie.” He wrote: “I’m tired of these (expletive) politicians waltzing thru here… telling us how tough things are… picking our pockets for campaign $$$$… and they returning to DC and doing nothing! Put their (expletive) careers on the line… or step down.”

Birmingham then lashed out in response, telling Borba to “give me a (expletive) break.” He then brings the Valley’s Republican congressional delegation — Nunes, Bakersfield’s Kevin McCarthy, Hanford’s David Valadao and Turlock’s Jeff Denham — into the increasingly heated email conversation.

Tom Birmingham

“The question you should be asking,” Birmingham wrote to Borba, “is where in the (expletive) were Denham, Nunes, Valadao and McCarthy, all of whom were asked to sign the (Costa) letter.”

Birmingham tells Borba that all of Costa’s Valley Republican congressional colleagues refused to sign the letter.

Borba then responds with an email to Nunes. He copied both Amaral and Birmingham. In the email, Borba tells Nunes that “standing on the sidelines… is not helpful. We’re dying out here… and you’re playing politics? What’s your excuse? If we ran our businesses like you guys run Congress… we’d be broke. Come to think of it… we’re getting there… with your ‘help.’”

Amaral responds, telling Borba he is “pathetic.”

“How quickly (Westlands) forgets what we did… and how they allowed (Feinstein) to do nothing at all. Its no wonder you guys continue to lose. Sending (expletive) letters meant to cover someones (expletive) does nothing to advance the effort,” Amaral wrote.

Borba then, in essence, asks both Amaral and Nunes — what have you done for west-side agriculture lately? Amaral replies that Nunes and his fellow Republicans did do something for the west side last year, “and you guys completely (expletive) it up and threw it away.”

At one point, Amaral writes “blah blah blah. The moment you (expletive) get your lord and savior difi (Feinstein) to do something… ANYTHING at all, the House will move a bill again.”

In an interview Tuesday, Amaral explained this part of his exchange with Borba. He said it was about H.R. 1837, legislation that would have would restored about 1.4 million acre-feet of water annually to Valley farmers who have lost water to environmental causes.

Amaral said considerable work went into the bill, which eventually passed the Republican-controlled House with the support of 10 Democrats, including Costa. But then the Senate — or Feinstein — did nothing.

“It was a gift teed up do something relevant on water and it was squandered,” Amaral said in the interview.

Instead, Amaral said, west-side ranchers and growers held a fundraiser for Feinstein.

As the emails between Amaral and Borba grow uglier and more personal, Amaral adds a new element, telling Borba he didn’t appreciate him “calling Devin a (expletive) to (Republican businessman) Tal Cloud.”

Borba responds: “Sometimes the truth hurts.”

During the exchanges, Nunes, Cloud and Fresno County Lincoln Club Chairman Michael Der Manouel Jr. weigh in. Both Nunes and Der Manouel write to Borba saying that letters are useless — Der Manouel saying they “don’t mean (expletive).”

Cloud’s contribution: “I can’t wait to hear the other side of the story on this. Most likely (Nunes) is tired of you everyone (sic) kissing Feinstein’s (expletive) when she never comes through on issues that matter.”

Amaral said Tuesday he regretted his use of profanity — but not the content of the emails.

“I will defend to my last dying breath the work Devin has done to improve the water situation in California and in the Valley,” he said. “I am proud of the work we’ve done.”

Nunes pointed out in an interview that several Westlands growers support and have donated to Democrats such as Feinstein and Gov. Jerry Brown. He said those Democrats “laugh at these guys over drinks, and they’re playing them for money.”

“This is no different than what we’ve been telling these guys,” Nunes added. “They have a flawed strategy that is doomed to failure.”

Borba and Birmingham both declined to comment on the emails. Feinstein also declined to comment.

Obama wins Fresno Co. again; shows west side strength

The San Joaquin Valley is often touted — along with Orange County and Southern California’s Inland Empire — as one of the Republican Party’s bulwarks against the rising tide of Democratic control.

But last November, Fresno County — the very heart of the Valley — once again went for Democrat Barack Obama over Republican Mitt Romney in the presidential election. It wasn’t a blowout. Obama won 49.7% to Romney’s 47.9%. So Fresno County is light blue, but blue nonetheless.

How did it break down?

Generally speaking, east went for Romney (in the 23rd Assembly District, which elected Fresno Republican Jim Patterson, Romney won 55% to Obama’s 43%) and west for Obama (in the 31st Assembly District, which reelected Fresno Democrat Henry T. Perea, Obama won big, 62% to Romney’s 36%).

These are, of course, generalizations. Turnout, for instance, was higher in the 23rd District.

For those keeping score across the Valley, the three main Fresno-area congressional districts (Republican Tom McClintock represents the sparsely populated foothill and Sierra parts) broke down like this:

In the 21st Congressional District, Obama won 55% to Romney’s 44%. This district, which covers parts of Kern, Tulare and Fresno counties and all of Kings County, elected Hanford Republican David Valadao.

In the 22nd Congressional District, Romney won 57% to Obama’s 42%. This district, which covers parts of Tulare and Fresno counties, reelected Tulare Republican Devin Nunes.

And in the 16th Congressional District, Obama won 59% to Romney’s 39%. This district, which covers parts of Fresno and Madera counties and all of Merced County, reelected Fresno Democrat Jim Costa.

Newly sworn in, Rep. David Valadao adds staff

Newly sworn-in Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, has been staffing up.

Tal Eslick, Valadao’s chief of staff in the Assembly, will carry over to the same job in the House. Eslick has prior congressional experience, with the office of Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia. Chris Marklund, a 2007 Fresno State graduate, will serve as Legislative Director, having previously worked as an assistant for Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Riverside. Cole Rojewski, another Fresno State alumnus who also once worked for Nunes, will be Office Manager.

George Andrews, who serve as campaign manager for Valadao and who was educated the U.C. Davis, will be in Hanford as  District Director. Justin Mendes, a University of the Pacific alumnus who was a field representative while Valadao was in the Assembly, will hold the same position for the House.

Valadao is likely to announce additional staff hires next week. Typically, House members may have somewhere between 14 and 17 staffers.

21st Congressional race was a Valadao rout, but Hernandez still has chance to make it respectable

The 21st Congressional District battle between Hanford Republican David Valadao and Fresno Democrat John Hernandez was, in short, bizarre.

Democrats have a 15-percentage-point registration edge in the district, but Hernandez’s campaign was consistently broke, which makes it hard to get out the message. Valadao had a ton of cash and, while the seat technically had no incumbent, an advantage as a sitting Assembly member.

Soon, political prognosticators stopped paying attention, and the race fell off everyone’s radar screen.

Then came a suggestion that Republicans saw some poll numbers that hinted at trouble, and not long after Karl Rove’s super-PAC, Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, announced it was spending more than $600,000 in anti-Hernandez ads.

Hernandez predicted a close race.

It never came.

As it currently stands, Valadao has close to a 20-percentage-point lead, 59.9% to 40.1%.

Not surprisingly, Valadao dominated in Kings County, his home turf, winning better than 70% of the vote. Be it Cal Dooley, Jim Costa, or now Hernandez, Kings has delivered spanking after spanking to Democrats.

Hernandez knew Kings wasn’t his strong area. (Not to mention parts of the district in Tulare and his home county of Fresno.) To offset Kings and win the race, he needed to win big in Kern County, where the 21st District has most of its Democrats. Hernandez was even in Bakersfield on election night.

But as of now, Hernandez is winning less than 52% of the vote in Kern to Valadao’s 48%.

Lots of votes still remain to be counted in Tulare and Fresno counties, but because a good chunk are in Kern County, it is widely expected that Valadao’s lead will shrink — though his ultimate victory margin still likely will be substantial.

Kings has around 1,500 provisional ballots left to count, so they are close to finishing.

Kern has close to 50,000, Fresno 78,000 and Tulare around 30,000. The district doesn’t cover all of Kern, Tulare or Fresno counties, so not all those will be in the Hernandez-Valadao race.

Still, that Kern has that many outstanding ballots is good for Hernandez, though outstanding votes still to be counted in Fresno and Tulare could break against him.

Hernandez is down by more than 16,200 votes to Valadao, so ultimately, all he can hope for is that those outstanding Kern ballots will make his loss respectable, instead of a landslide.