Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom stepped down from a chartered turboprop last week and into the back of a borrowed van, rambling past melon fields and almond trees on the road to Joe Del Bosque’s farm.
For a politician seeking to draw a connection to the San Joaquin Valley amid California’s withering drought, the farmer’s fallowed fields are a standard course. President Barack Obama and Gov. Jerry Brown visited last year. Newsom, Del Bosque would tell him, was not the first gubernatorial candidate to make the trip.
On the ride over, a local water official accompanying Newsom described the area’s “big, big plans” before buckling under the recession and, later, drought. Salt settled in patches on bare fields. To reach groundwater, said the official, Ara Azhderian, a farmer might drill 2,000 feet, if he could find water at all.
Newsom scrawled in a pocket notebook.
“Jesus Christ,” he said.
Three years before the next gubernatorial election, Newsom and his rivals are making inroads into inland California, touring farms, holding receptions and speaking to small crowds. In addition to Newsom, two other Democrats who are expected to run, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and former state Controller Steve Westly, have both made excursions in recent months.
“The Valley is always up for grabs, and I think that’s why people come here,” said Carol Whiteside, a former Modesto mayor.
If a Democratic politician could drive up turnout in Democratic cities such as Fresno, she said, he or she could “balance off the traditionally conservative voters” outside the city limits.
“It’s an area that could carry the state,” Whiteside said. “I think a lot of people are trying to figure out what’s the secret sauce here.”
Far from population centers on the coast, the Central Valley and Inland Empire make up more than a quarter of the state’s likely voters, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. For the early frontrunners, Newsom and Villaraigosa, who have cultivated bases of support in San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively, inland California offers competitive ground.
“If this is a race between the (former) mayor of San Francisco and the (former) mayor of Los Angeles,” said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego, “you need to find new territory to win in.”
In his successful 1998 campaign for governor, Democrat Gray Davis ran television ads in Bakersfield, Chico and Fresno emphasizing his support from law enforcement groups and his status as a Vietnam veteran. Brown, governor before from 1975 to 1983, has focused on his executive experience when campaigning in the Valley.
In his re-election campaign last year, Brown, a Democrat, failed to carry Fresno, Kern and Riverside counties. But he won in Merced, San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties. An increasing number of Latino voters in inland California, as well as transplants from coastal areas, has made the area more competitive for Democrats in recent years.
“The Central Valley of today is not really the Central Valley of 20 years ago,” said Garry South, a Democratic consultant who worked for Davis and, later, Newsom in his brief, unsuccessful campaign for governor in the run-up to 2010. “Is there a more conservative strain in the Central Valley? Yes, certainly as compared to San Francisco or L.A. But we tend to think of the Central Valley as being filled with a bunch of white people from Oklahoma who escaped the Dust Bowl. And that certainly happened, but that was a long time ago, and the demographics have changed a lot since then.”
Yet to Valley sensibilities, Newsom is coming from an especially far left. The former mayor of San Francisco is known to statewide audiences for supporting universal health care and for championing gay marriage and mandatory composting.
In the San Joaquin Valley, said Firebaugh Mayor Craig Knight, “I really don’t see that playing out too well.”
Newsom searches for common ground. Last month, he introduced a ballot measure to strengthen gun control laws in California, including banning the possession of large-capacity magazines. Last week, after visiting a Valley wildlife refuge, he said he had been skeet shooting and might go duck hunting for the first time this year.
At a reception at an Italian restaurant in Los Banos, Newsom lamented that issues especially significant to the Valley, including unemployment and poverty, fail to draw sufficient attention from California’s coastal-centric Democratic Party.
“We have not done justice to the Central Valley and to the Inland Empire and to some of our rural communities, and I’ve often wondered why that was the case,” Newsom said. “Everything we claim to care about as Democrats, that drive our party’s passions – issues of income inequality, social justice, dealing with racial disparities and concentrated poverty – is manifested quite acutely in the central part of this state.”
One difficulty of campaigning in inland California is that its population is disperse, with varied – sometimes competing – interests, especially over water. Before Newsom traveled to Los Banos, he convened a group of farmers in Courtland who lobbied him against Brown’s controversial plan to build two tunnels to divert water under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the south.
“I’m here to listen, so bring it on,” Newsom said.
He left with this interpretation of their message: “Build the tunnels and we will track your great-great-grandkids down.”
Newsom has said he is skeptical of the tunnels project but is “open to argument.” His trip to the Los Banos area was taken in his official capacity as lieutenant governor and paid for by the California Farm Water Coalition, a nonprofit group that has been supportive of a conveyance.
On the flight from Sacramento to Los Banos, the group’s executive director, Mike Wade, told Newsom his group is “constantly struggling to get people to understand about water allocation, about farm water costs and crop choices and things like that.”
Water politics, always contentious in California, will likely factor heavily in the run-up to 2018. For the first time in a PPIC poll, Californians this year named water and drought the most important issue facing the state, above jobs and the economy.
Mike Stearns, a Republican who farms in Firebaugh, said that with half of his ranch fallowed, he could overlook ideological differences with a candidate if he or she made a compelling case on water policy.
During his visit last week, Newsom appeared “sincere about wanting to know what’s going on with the drought and the water management and the regulations,” Stearns said.
“I would say that I think generally the things that are most important to people in this state revolve around their food supply and things like that,” he said.
Except for listening, Newsom was not making policy commitments, and he was skeptical of some of the farmers’ complaints about federal and state regulations that have affected the agriculture industry’s access to water, including controversial protections for Delta smelt.
“At their core, they believe they’re suffering from bad public policy, and that’s the most difficult thing for them, I think, to accept,” Newsom said. “Because there’s a fundamental belief that federal policy and state policy is to blame. And I can accept aspects of that argument, but I have not concluded that that is exclusively the culprit. I think it’s a more complex issue than that.”
Back in the van, Newsom observed roadside signs that have marked the landscape for years blaming Congress – and, in particular, higher-profile Democrats than Newsom – for regulations restricting water exports to the Valley.
Newsom observed, dryly, that his name was not yet consequential enough to warrant protest.
“When I see a sign,” he said, “I’ll know I’ve made it.”