Devin Nunes: Farmer? Leader? Traitor? A community struggles to define its congressman

Devin Nunes has gained national notoriety as a conservative firebrand, waging open war against the Department of Justice, his colleagues, the media and anything else in the Tulare congressman’s way.

As chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and one of President Donald Trump’s closest congressional allies, he has drawn the concentrated ire of one side of the political aisle while rising to the top of the heap on the other.

But to the people of his district – leaders, farmers and teachers who’ve watched him since the tall, opinionated 22-year-old ran for school board – Nunes’ highly televised movements in the national landscape have stirred up mixed reaction.

For some, Nunes has lost his way – a third-generation dairyman who ran as an outsider and warrior for his fellow farmers, only to become a shiny cog in the machine he railed against. A sign hanging from a Goshen overpass in the south of Nunes’ district calls him a traitor and depicts the Russian flag.

Others believe he is the same man he’s always been: principled, determined and focused on bringing his constituents results. They contend he’s still an outlying force who has simply changed tactics, playing a national political game to bring major results – tax reform, Obamacare repeal and others – home to the 22nd.

Interviews with residents and 22 years of archival coverage of Nunes’ career yield several clear takeaways.

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Nunes has a distinct vision of the world: what’s right and wrong, who the good guys and bad guys are and what the duty of a public servant is. He is willing to direct all of his efforts, which can include public attacks and millions in campaign dollars, toward furthering these ideals.

Nunes is almost certainly the most powerful man in his home county, capable of blessing local candidates with hundreds of thousands of campaign dollars or helping to direct millions in federal grants to aid projects.

He also seeks total control of his messaging.

He’s posted hundreds of blog entries, written a book and several reports and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on mailers. He recently started a podcast. He’s shunned most traditional media in favor of the warm embrace of spot appearances for partisan news sources, where like-minded messaging is assured.

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Nunes refused to be interviewed for this story.

For these reasons and more, even his most ardent supporters are leery of speaking publicly of Nunes. Of the dozens of current and former elected officials, farmers, community leaders, college students, former staff members, donors and residents contacted, only a handful were willing to be quoted in The Bee. Those who did offered a glimpse into one of the Valley’s most polarizing figures.

From ‘the farm’ to DC

Nunes was 22 years old when he first ran for public office.

The third-generation dairyman, still fresh from his college graduation, took on an 18-year incumbent for a spot on the College of the Sequoias board of trustees in 1996. His campaign focused on a central message: “Save the Farm” – a reference to the college’s seemingly imperiled agricultural campus in Visalia.

This message carried him to victory, despite one small issue: The farm didn’t actually need saving.

“The board had no intention of getting rid of the farm, but it hadn’t explained itself well,” said John Zumwalt, who has served on the board since 1994.

The farm, Zumwalt explained, was landlocked. Increased enrollment size necessitated a larger facility, and the board was looking into that, but had no concrete plans.

Zumwalt didn’t much like Nunes at first, but said he grew to like and respect a just-turned 23-year-old with a clear vision of the world and the guts to stand up to his 50- and 60-year-old peers.

Nunes was a leader in establishing a new, 495-acre campus in Tulare, Zumwalt said. “He really pushed the board to get it. He thought, ‘What’s right is right and making friends doesn’t matter.’”

Nunes has climbed high in the 22 years – half of his lifetime – since that first campaign.

He stumbled at first, failing to make it out of the 1998 Republican primary for the 20th Congressional District, a seat then held by Democrat Cal Dooley.

Nunes had to score a victory just to make it into the 1998 race. At 24, he was deemed too young to run for Congress by the California Secretary of State’s office. He protested, saying the U.S. Constitution clearly stated a person must be 25 to serve in Congress, not run. Born on Oct. 1, Nunes would have been 25 by the time his term started had he won.

A judge agreed, ordering the state to add him to the primary ballot.

Nunes would go on to lose a tight Republican primary race against Clifford Unruh, a Reedley small business advocate. Dooley comfortably beat Unruh in November.

In 2001, Nunes was appointed state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development section under President George W. Bush. He then secured $1 million in federal money for what eventually became UC Davis’ Veterinary Medicine Teaching and Research Center in Tulare.

Congressman for eight terms

Nunes ran for Congress again in 2002 in the newly created 21st District, a chunk of eastern Fresno County and all of Tulare County tailor-made for a Republican. As such, the Republican primary was the true election, and it pitted Nunes against state Assemblyman Mike Briggs of Fresno and former Fresno Mayor Jim Patterson.

Nunes won the contentious race, edging Patterson by four percentage points and Briggs by nine. Briggs and Patterson split the Fresno vote, with Tulare County’s support of its native son proving to be the difference maker.

In the 16 years since, Nunes has not faced a political challenge even remotely close to the one he has this year.

The 29-year-old Nunes was immediately made an assistant whip under Rep. Roy Blunt. He was appointed to resources, veterans and ag committees.

In the years since, he’s also served on the House Ways and Means committee, as well as the House Budget committee. He joined the House Intelligence Committee in 2011, becoming its chairman in 2015.

Throughout most of his early years, Nunes worked to secure small victories for his district.

He immediately began his push for Temperance Flat as an above-ground water storage solution for farmers. The plan has been reworked several times and remains largely unfunded by the state and federal governments.

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During his last interview with The Bee in February, Nunes said the elevation of the central San Joaquin Valley’s water needs – a “national issue” – was his top accomplishment in his 15 years in Congress, though he acknowledged the problem remained largely unsolved.

“I’m not satisfied with where (the water issue) is, but people now know – the San Joaquin Valley is on the map because of the work that we’ve done in Congress,” he said. “People understand the San Joaquin Valley has a big water problem.”

Nunes has fought the state bitterly over water allocation, saying Democratic conspiracies and tiny fish have hurt thousands of farmers’ livelihoods.

In his first decade in Washington, he also secured millions of federal dollars for parking garages, highway and roadway construction and local projects. He appeared in person at community events and in support of local causes.

But in the last few years, Nunes’ public appearances and direct involvement with local projects have tapered off. The reason for this depends on who you ask.

He’s changed, some say

Shirley Kirkpatrick and her family have grown citrus in the Exeter area for decades. She lived in Nunes’ district for about a decade, before 2012 redistricting put her in House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s district.

Kirkpatrick and other local growers have been hurt by Trump’s trade war, she said. She recently received an email from the California Citrus Quality Council warning all exporters that China had, within a matter of months, increased tariffs on citrus imports from 11 percent to 51 percent in response to U.S. tariffs on steel, aluminum and other Chinese products.

She also was aghast to hear the Trump administration was looking at Depression-era loan programs to help farmers.

Kirkpatrick believes that Nunes, with his farming background and the close ear of the president, is uniquely suited to help her and other farmers in the area.

But, she said, he hasn’t.

“Devin must speak out against Trump when it’s important to his constituents,” Kirkpatrick said.

She also said Nunes and his staff have grown more extreme and far less approachable.

“He went from a local man who knew everyone and about everything in his district to a Washington insider who is nasty,” she said. “He used to be able to speak without being so nasty.”

Kirkpatrick continued: “Now, he’s always talking about ‘environmental extremists’ and all that. There are middle-of-the-road people. It’s not always black and white.”

Paul Buxman, a stone fruit farmer in Dinuba, shares many of Kirkpatrick’s concerns.

Water issues have cost him orchards and dried his well. Immigration crackdowns have thinned his neighbor’s workforce, and he worries his employees are next. And he worries the tariffs will have lasting consequences on his crops’ market.

But Buxman has taken his discouragement one step further: Because Nunes has forgotten Valley farmers, he said, the congressman should no longer be able to count himself among their ranks.

On Aug. 9, Buxman petitioned the Sacramento Superior Court to remove “farmer” from Nunes’ ballot designation.

“I want to change that word so people know he is no longer a farmer – no longer connected to the heart of our Valley,” Buxman said. “(Farmers) are important. We aren’t more important than teachers, doctors, bus drivers or any other specific group. But if you eat breakfast, you eat lunch, you eat dinner – we’re important to you.”

Near the end of 2006, Nunes’ parents and brother moved their farm to Sibley, Iowa.

According to Iowa state records, Toni Dian Nunes, Devin’s mother, registered Nustar Farms LLC in November 2006. It remains an active business as of 2017.

A 2009 Dairy Star story reported that Anthony Nunes Jr., Devin’s father, and Anthony Nunes III, Devin’s brother, run the family dairy in Iowa. Nunes Jr. sold his 5,000-acre “cropping and custom farming operation” in Tulare County before moving to Iowa.

Nunes’ uncle, Gerald, remains in charge of the Tulare County dairy operation previously ran by Nunes’ grandfather.

The newly elected congressman – with a farming pedigree – visited Buxman at his farm in 2003 and came away with a supporter. Although he’s a Democrat, Buxman said, he felt an outsider with a farming background would be good for Congress.

But now, he described his congressman as angry, partisan and impossible to reach.

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Buxman recently called Nunes’ office to try to advise him to be more civil and engaged. He said a staff member told him, “That doesn’t work anymore. Devin calls it like it is, and we’re not going to soft-pedal anything anymore.”

Buxman stressed he does not hold any personal animosity toward Nunes, who he “prays for regularly” and “is still welcome on my farm.”

“He is not the enemy,” Buxman said of Nunes. “He is a tragic figure. The hate mail has hurt him. In some cases, it was deserved, but that broke him. He is lashing out, an isolationist, paranoid.”

Buxman urged Nunes to return to the farm, where healthy living can restore him.

“This is just something that happens when you spend too much time in Washington,” he said.

Mary Haven has managed to avoid politics for most of her life. She retired in 2009 after 23 years as a teacher at Tulare Union High School. Though she taught when Nunes attended school at Tulare Union, she does not know him personally.

It wasn’t personal, then, when she penned a scathing letter to Nunes when he recently sent a mailer explaining how constituents can reach him with comments or concerns.

“I have voted for you consistently in the past,” the letter begins.

She then outlined 11 terms that Nunes must meet to secure her vote this year. Most centered around Nunes breaking with Trump – demanding his tax returns, opposing his “blatant disregard” for women, veterans, the disabled and the LGBTQ community and so on.

Haven also demanded Nunes work to increase the security of U.S. elections, address immigration, protect national parks and work to increase bipartisanship in Congress by “being the first to move toward it.”

She does not expect a response. In fact, she doubts her letter will ever reach her longtime congressman.

“Some staff guy will throw it away,” she said. “But it makes me feel better to vent my frustrations. It’s like when you write a letter to someone, then tear it up.”

Haven, who is registered as decline to state, said she first started wondering about her congressman when she attended a town hall meeting held a few years ago in her hometown of Visalia. Nunes was invited. He did not attend.

“There was no violence or yelling,” she said. “We just wanted to know why he isn’t answering our questions on water, ag and other things.”

“I support Tulare County,” Haven continued. “I’ve lived here most of my life. Why won’t he support us instead of just supporting himself?”

Haven conceded that Nunes likely couldn’t meet her demands, but said he could earn back her vote if he showed her that he was trying.

It’s complicated, Shuklian says

Tulare County Supervisor Amy Shuklian is a political outlier.

Although she holds nonpartisan office, she is far more left-of-center than the traditionally Republican board she now serves on. Prior to besting a Nunes-backed, 12-year incumbent for supervisor in 2016, she served two four-year terms on the Visalia City Council.

A stand-up comedian by trade and Armenian by birth, Shuklian is believed to be the first openly lesbian member of either Visalia city or Tulare County government.

Of the dozen or so elected officials contacted for this story, Shuklian was the only one to offer any criticism of Nunes.

She believes Nunes once represented her community well, particularly during his early attempts to solve the Valley’s water crisis.

“He really fought the good fight with water,” Shuklian said. “But in the last few years, I’m not really sure what he’s doing regarding that issue. Everything’s been overshadowed by the stuff with the Trump administration and Russian investigation.”

Shuklian said she had a cordial relationship with Nunes for years. Letters of support for various local projects would usually arrive from his office if needed. She still feels she can call his office and at least receive some sort of response.

But she expressed some frustration over what she characterized as Nunes’ recent shift further to the right, which she said “makes those of us who are moderate or to the left not feel represented.”

She hopes to attend a town hall hosted by Nunes, but she believes there could be security risks.

“A lot of people are out to get him,” Shuklian said. “He is constantly attacked online. I wonder if these people want a town hall to discuss the issues, or do they just want to yell and scream at him?”

She continued: “If that happened to me, I’d have to think, ‘Why? What am I saying or doing that’s putting off a large portion of my constituents?’”

No, he hasn’t changed, others say

Clovis Mayor Bob Whalen has a bit of a personal stake in this year’s 22nd District election. The longtime Nunes supporter is also Democratic challenger Andrew Janz’s supervisor at the Fresno County District Attorney’s office.

Although complimentary of Janz’s work as a prosecutor and drive to serve, Whalen remains a steadfast Nunes supporter.

“He recognizes our Valley has a backbone of agriculture, and that’s right in his wheelhouse,” Whalen said.

Whalen praised Nunes as a fiscal conservative who has not been afraid to oppose rubber stamps and people pulling him in particular directions.

Much of the negativity surrounding Nunes is actually due to hatred of Trump or the difficult nature of Nunes’ role as head of the House Intelligence Committee, Whalen added.

“Devin has not changed, but his circumstances have changed,” Whalen said. “The Devin I knew when he was first elected has the exact same values and principles as this Devin.”

What has changed, Whalen pointed out, is the position Nunes now finds himself in on the national stage.

Whalen described a visit he and several other Fresno County leaders made to Nunes’ Washington office shortly after the congressman was named to Trump’s transition team.

They had questions about the new president, but Nunes quickly focused their gaze on a national agenda that he and other Republican leaders could now push with control of Congress and the presidency.

Nunes had begun to focus on tax reform, “sharing a vision” of how it could be with this new control. And he got it done, Whalen said, noting that the tax reform bill passed in 2017 was essentially the same document as Nunes had explained to them in 2016.

The “vision” also included a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which failed in Congress but was trimmed slightly by the aforementioned tax plan.

Nunes had begun to think bigger, telling the local leadership cohort what these large, sweeping reforms would do for Valley residents.

Even Whalen, however, has noticed one small change in Nunes’ behavior since the 2016 election.

“Some things have gotten under his skin lately, and that’s unfortunate,” Whalen said. “His approach is to get defensive when approached with negatives, but who am I to question that?”

Others are happy to question that.

Armen Devejian is an architect who is moving back to Clovis after a few years away from the Valley. He also is a lifelong Republican who worked on George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaigns, volunteered on George W. Bush’s campaigns and served on a state advisory group for juvenile justice under Republican Govs. Pete Wilson and George Deukmejian.

He also hates Nunes.

“He has betrayed every oath he has taken,” Devejian said. “There’s been no response to his constituents – no town hall where I can say, ‘I’ve voted for you, I’ve supported you and I have some questions.’”

Chief among these questions, Devejian said, is why Nunes continues to support Trump “over (Nunes’) constitutional duty to provide a check and balance to (the) executive.”

Devejian described Trump as “hostile to education, science, tolerance and open thought while embracing ignorance, tribalism and xenophobia.”

He said Trump, Nunes and the current Republican party have left him and other conservatives behind by damaging the free market with tariffs and agricultural bailouts while also moving away from the family values that drew him to “the party of Lincoln, Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Reagan.”

Devejian, who said he voted for Nunes in each of the last three elections, planned to vote against Nunes in protest no matter who ran against. But he has since come to support Janz for his criminal justice background and value system, even though he disagrees with many of the candidate’s economic stances.

“Your congressman is your closest tie to Washington,” Devejian said. “It’s way more personal than the relationship to your president or even your governor. I worked for two governors, and I felt no personal relationship to them.”

He continued: “But our congressman is hostile to his constituents and his hometown newspaper. And he feels like he can get away with this, as if there’s no penalty for treating your constituents with such blatant disregard.”

Devejian does not believe this is anything new for Nunes.

“I don’t think (Nunes) has changed at all,” Devejian added. “I think he’s always been this way.”

Assemblyman Devon Mathis, a Visalia Republican, has perhaps as much reason to dislike Nunes as anyone in Tulare County. By Mathis’ count, Nunes has spent roughly $300,000 supporting challengers to knock his fellow Republican out of the State Assembly.

Nunes has established himself as a master fundraiser, raising about $20 million so far in his congressional career – though much of that money comes from outside his relatively poor district. According to Open Secrets, nearly $8 million came from political action committees. As he routinely walks to victory, he is free to spread millions to both national and local campaigns and causes.

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Mathis is one of several Tulare County candidates to survive the would-be kingmaker’s checkbook, but he maintains there are no hard feelings – even saying he looks up to Nunes.

“Political campaigns are political campaigns,” Mathis said. “You shake it off after the race. We have continued to work well together on constituent issues. I send them to him for federal issues, and he sends them down to me for state issues.”

Mathis said he’s “always kind of looked up to Nunes,” who he said has worked hard for Valley water. Progress on water has, however, been limited due to “Sacramento Democrats,” he added.

Mathis dismissed the notion often put forward by Nunes critics that he is too involved in the Russia investigation and not focused on the Valley.

He said committee work takes up a lot of an elected representative’s time. When Nunes was on the agriculture or ways and means committees, Mathis said, he fought for issues relevant to those positions. Nunes’ caucus trusted him to lead the important Intelligence Committee, so it’s only natural he focus on issues brought before him in that capacity.

Mathis pointed to Nunes’ regular attendance at water rallies and his congressional Facebook page, which sometimes shares photos of Nunes touring ag facilities or families who have visited his office in Washington, as evidence that Nunes does still care about his constituents.

“Look, he’s my congressman,” Mathis said. “I respect the guy. We’re Republicans. We’re here for each other. That’s how it’s supposed to be. It’s Reagan’s 11th Commandment: Don’t talk ill of a fellow Republican.”

“We need him,” Mathis continued. “There’s a lot of work to be done in this state.”

Rory Appleton is a fourth-generation Fresnan and graduate of Fresno State. He covers politics in the central San Joaquin Valley. Since 2016, his work has earned six California News Publishers Association awards, including best investigative and best in-depth reporting. He can be reached at: 559-441-6015, @RoryDoesPhonics

How we reported this story

The reporting for this story included roughly 60 calls and emails made over a two-month period and requesting comment from various sources, many of whom did not respond or would not agree to an interview. Those who did not respond to requests included former congressmen Cal Dooley, George Radanovich, Bill Thomas and Richard Pombo; current congressmen David Valadao and Kevin McCarthy; Tulare City Councilman Carlton Jones and other elected officials.

Rep. Jim Costa initially agreed to an interview, but then said he did not have the time to do it.

Rep. Devin Nunes would not agree to an interview, nor would he answer any questions relevant to this story.

Former Nunes chief of staff Johnny Amaral, now with Westlands Water District, did not respond to several requests for comment. Regular financial supporters Bob and Bill Smittcamp, Ralph Fagundes, John Moons and Arlene Hettinga also did not respond.

The reporter reviewed nearly 22 years of Fresno Bee archival information regarding Nunes. He also read several of Nunes’ blogs, congressional reports and a few chapters of Nunes’ book: “Restoring the Republic.”

The reporting also included more than 10 hours of various online research, including social media, news article and public document review.

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