Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Letter seeking Delta-pumping bill support exposes sticky water politics

To Fresno County Supervisor Phil Larson, it was the easiest vote in the world.

He wanted his colleagues to approve sending a letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, asking her support a House resolution that seeks more Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta water for the Valley’s west side.

But, as with so much else in politics, the request turned out to be anything but simple.

Phil Larson

Larson’s initial motion passed 3-0 — but Supervisors Andreas Borgeas and Debbie Poochigian abstained. They wanted the mull it over and, for Borgeas, to check with other members of the Valley’s congressional delegation before backing the letter.

The bill has been introduced by Fresno Democrat Jim Costa. But Borgeas noted that in the past few years Tulare Republican Devin Nunes had also introduced legislation that would increase delta pumping — including one last year that passed the House but died in the Senate.

Larson was frustrated. How could politics seep into a request so simple?

The board, he felt, should support all efforts — be they Republican or Democrat — to bring more water to the Valley’s west side.

Still, he agreed to the delay — just a few hours until the afternoon.

At issue is Costa’s H.R. 1927, which would tweak existing management plans — known as biological opinions — covering threatening Delta smelt and endangered salmon to allow more pumping.

Andreas Borgeas

Johnny Amaral, Nunes’ chief-of-staff, says Nunes’ 2009 effort was almost identical to Costa’s, but Costa’s people say the current effort is more nuanced in that it wouldn’t eliminate the biological opinions.

Nunes’ 2009 effort would have suspended the biological opinions and set pumping levels at 100% of the contracted amounts annually. Democrats controlled the House at the time. The effort went nowhere.

But Nunes had better luck last year, with the Republicans in control. He succeeded in passing an ambitious, pro-agriculture water bill that would have significantly increased water deliveries to the Valley’s west side.

Both Feinstein and fellow California Sen. Barbara Boxer, however, were opposed to the legislation It died in the Senate.

“The fact of the matter is if Democrats in the House and Senate actually cared about a reliable water supply, they would have supported language to allow the pumps to run when the it was offered in 2009,” Amaral said.

Rep. Devin Nunes

“It’s all just a big game to them, playing to their radical environmentalist pals. To quote Yogi Berra, its ‘deja vu all over again.’ Except now, communities and families are being devastated for no good reason. It’s time for the Senate to follow the leadership displayed in the House and do something useful — for once.”

For starters, he said the Senate should pass its own legislation so both sides can have a starting position for negotiations. Costa’s bill messes that up, he said, because it changes the House’s already established position.

“It’s like we’re negotiating with ourselves right now,” he said.

Costa has a different outlook. His strategy is for the House to pass something that has a chance to get through the Senate. He believes his current bill does that.

Which brings it all back around to the Fresno County Supervisors.

Rep. Jim Costa

They reconvened Tuesday afternoon and debated just what the letter to Feinstein should say.

Borgeas’ suggestion was that it say the board supports not only Costa’s current bill, but recognize other efforts, too, including ones “approved by the House but that have not yet been approved by the Senate.”

It is important, Borgeas said, to give recognition to Nunes’ efforts.

Supervisor Henry R. Perea then chimed in, saying that language went too far and “starts making it partisan.”

So the specific reference to being “approved by the House” but “not yet approved by the Senate” was eliminated, and the final wording only referenced current and past efforts to increase westside water deliveries.

The letter was finally approved — 5-0.

Obama’s 21st CD win shows Valadao could be vulnerable

Hanford Republican David Valadao trounced his financially strapped and listless Democratic Party opponent, John Hernandez, in last November’s 21st Congressional District race, winning by 16 percentage points.

But Democrat Barack Obama, seeking his second term as president, did pretty good himself. He won the district by 11 percentage points — 55% to 44% for Republican Mitt Romney.

Taken together, it means one thing, said Los Angeles political analyst Allan Hoffenblum, a longtime Republican strategist and author of the California Target Book: “This will be a target race” in 2014.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee appears to have picked up on that. It’s already busy attacking Valadao.

In fact, Obama not only won Valadao’s district in 2012, he also won inside those boundaries in 2008 — 52% to 46% over Arizona Sen. John McCain, the GOP candidate. And Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown won more votes inside Valadao’s district lines in 2010, Hoffenblum said.

Using some of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s own criteria, that pretty much makes Valadao’s seat competitive.

Just to the north of Valadao’s 21st District is the 16th District, held by Fresno Democrat Jim Costa. The National Republican Congressional Committee is saying it, too, is a targeted race.

But there’s one big difference in the two districts — Obama also took Costa’s district, winning by 20 percentage points. It’s why, on paper at least, Valadao looks more vulnerable.

Still, in both districts the key is recruiting a viable candidate, which Hoffenblum said is likely in the works now.

Hernandez’s campaign was consistently broke, which made it hard to get out the message. Valadao, by comparison, had a ton of cash and a $600,000 assist from the outside group Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies.

Valadao won, 58% to 42% for Hernandez.

In the 16th District, Costa outspent Fresno Republican Brian Whelan, who never seemed to get traction despite having a decent war chest. Costa won 57.4% of the vote to Whelan’s 42.6%.

But Hernandez and Whelan were never considered first stringers by party leaders. Despite efforts by both Republican and Democratic Party leaders, no heavy hitters stepped up to try and challenge Valadao or Costa.

The question is — can Democrats bring in a true challenger to take on Valadao in the 21st District, and can Republicans do the same in the 16th District?

Political Notebook: Is the 21st Congressional District competitive? The evidence is conflicting

UPDATE: On Wednesday, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee weighed in on the 21st Congressional District race for the first time.

The DCCC said it was doing a robocall on behalf of Democrat John Hernandez. The gist of the call: Vote for Hernandez because he would be the first Mexican American congressman from the district, where two-thirds of the voting-age population is Hispanic.

Here’s part of the script, which features “Maria from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.” The call says Hernandez, “unlike his Republican opponent” David Valadao, “supports the DREAM Act,” which would allow illegal immigrants under 30 who entered the U.S. before age 16 and have lived here for five years without committing a serious crime to be eligible for legal residency.

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The evidence continues to mount that Hanford Republican David Valadao won’t roll to an easy win over Fresno Democrat John Hernandez in the newly drawn 21st Congressional District.

A few weeks ago, that was the assumption. The race, just about everyone thought, was a done deal. Hardly anyone was paying attention.

Then came an article in the National Journal — a nonpartisan magazine that covers national politics and policy — that quoted a Republican saying private polling was moving “the wrong way” for Valadao.

On Friday, a group known as Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies said it had put together a television ad attacking Hernandez, and was spending more than $600,000 to buy air time.

Now, political watchers from the Valley to Washington D.C. are wondering if the race is truly competitive, or if Valadao just needs to shore up his lead.

“I think Republicans are worried that if Valadao doesn’t define himself, the person with the Hispanic surname may have an actual advantage,” says Kyle Kondik, communications director at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, which tracks federal races.

Like so many other political prognosticators, the Center for Politics’ Crystal Ball e-magazine long ago stopped considering the race competitive. But now Kondik says it “may be moving back on to the table,” though still rated as “likely Republican.”

Among Hernandez’s advantages are a nearly 15-percentage-point voter registration advantage, and a huge Hispanic electorate. Hernandez has vowed to get those voters to the polls.

In addition, President Barack Obama won the district in 2008, and Gov. Jerry Brown did as well in 2010.

But Hernandez’s disadvantages are huge. For starters, he really doesn’t have any money. He raised just $53,000 between July 1 and September 30, has just $17,700 in his account — and $40,000 in unpaid bills. His campaign has constantly been in debt.

In addition, while the Republicans seem to be pushing the panic button, Hernandez’s own Democratic Party — or any of its political allies — isn’t helping with any money at all.

This comes at the same time it is pouring hundreds of thousands into a Stanislaus County-based congressional race involving another Hernandez — former astronaut Jose Hernandez, a Democrat who is challenging incumbent Republican Jeff Denham in what is shaping up to be a very close race.

Valadao, in the meantime, has almost $800,000 in his account, and he plans to run television commercials through the November 6 general election. Coupled with more than $600,000 in ads from Crossroads GPS, and that adds up to a double-barreled onslaught of anti-Hernandez and pro-Valadao campaign advertising.

The Valadao campaign is also touting an internal poll that shows him with a 20-percentage-point lead — 53% to 33% — and 14% saying either they are undecided or will vote for neither. However, it is unknown how the questions on the race were asked.

In some ways, the Hernandez-Valadao clash has similarities to the 2010 race between incumbent Democrat Jim Costa and Republican challenger Andy Vidak.

That race was largely quiet — until mid-September. In the final seven weeks, Vidak went toe-to-toe with Costa in what turned out to be a very competitive race.

The common thread is the territory. Costa’s district at that time was largely the same as the area that is now part of the 21st District.

Costa is now gone, thanks to a redistricting that put him in a new district that runs from Fresno to the north. But could history be repeating itself in a chunk of his old westside Valley stamping grounds?