Big Valley

Are ticked off Bay Area transplants now influencing Central Valley politics?

This Central Valley city has some of the nation’s longest commutes. See what it’s like

Bruce Simmons describes his long commute on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018. Simmons drives four days a week from the Central Valley on Highway 152 to Gilroy, where he catches a train to his job in Menlo Park.
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Bruce Simmons describes his long commute on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018. Simmons drives four days a week from the Central Valley on Highway 152 to Gilroy, where he catches a train to his job in Menlo Park.

The mass migration of Bay Area transplants to the Central Valley is leading to stress on local services, a squeeze on available housing and longer commute times. But will it also impact the Valley’s politics?

Despite an influx of thousands of new residents from the typically-liberal Bay Area, the Central Valley is maintaining its moderate-to-conservative politics. That’s left some to wonder whether many of those Bay Area transplants are just plain disgruntled with the coastal ideologies that define California politics — and have found a safe haven in places like Modesto.

“There may be a revulsion against Bay Area ideologies by people who feel like they’ve been priced out of the Bay and they may have enough resentment that it starts effecting their votes,” said Thomas Holyoke, a professor of political science at Fresno State. “To some extent, the true die-hard liberals want to stay in the Bay Area. If you’re really rich and living in the Bay Area, you’re fine with the status quo.”

So what’s bothering these Bay Area refugees and convincing them to vote against the coastal powers? For many, it’s a resentment toward the lack of affordability near San Francisco, a place they once called home. Or perhaps they’ve uprooted their entire family and moved to the Central Valley, only to discover the region has its own set of problems.

“They’re now living lives in the Central Valley where poor roads, poor schools and fewer high-paying jobs are a part of everyday life and they want better solutions to those issues and I don’t think that’s top of mind to people who live in the Bay Area because things are just more plentiful there,” said Kristin Olsen, a former Republican leader in the state Assembly and a current Stanislaus County supervisor. “I think people in the Central Valley feel largely ignored by government.”

The divide between Central Valley ideologies and those found in California’s wealthier coastal counties was on full display on Election Day in November.

John Cox did far better in the Valley than just about anywhere else in his otherwise disastrous attempt to defeat Gavin Newsom in the governor’s race. Proposition 6, the failed proposal to repeal the so-called “gas tax,” was supported throughout most of the Central Valley. Another proposition, Prop. 12 — which applies new regulations on farm animal confinement — was defeated in every Valley county between Modesto and Bakersfield, while it was strongly supported on the coast.

And some local candidates who ran on platforms of defending the “forgotten” class in the Valley finally broke through.

Ben Cantu, who has been running for office in Manteca for a decade, was victorious this year in his attempt to win the mayor’s seat. One of his campaign promises was to defend “Forgotten Mantecans” — those who he said watched as their city rapidly grew in recent years, but still deal with outdated libraries and worsening traffic. Nestled between Stockton and Modesto, the city has grown by roughly 18 percent since 2010, one of the fastest rates in the region.

“The timing of my campaign and the overall condition of our region, that resonated with people,” Cantu said. “There are politicians in office who are basically the status quo. Nothing’s changed, nothing’s gotten any better and (voters) want someone who makes sense on trying to improve things.”

Rob Stutzman, a Republican political consultant, said it’s unlikely the entire Central Valley will remain a Republican stronghold. He noted the victory of Fresno Democrat T.J. Cox over incumbent David Valadao, a Republican from Hanford, in their race for the 21st Congressional District. Andy Vidak, another Republican, lost his bid for re-election in the state Senate.

Voter registration figures released by the secretary of state show Democrats outnumber Republicans in the Valley. In 2010, Republicans held an advantage in the region. That could indicate that the new wave of Central Valley Democrats are more moderate than their coastal counterparts, based on this year’s election results.

“I’m not sure it manifests itself as a Republican stronghold, it may be a more moderate Democrat base with Democrats and Republicans united (on some issues),” Stutzman said.

The gas tax repeal may have been one of those issues. More than 53 percent of Central Valley voters wanted to repeal the tax, including nearly 60 percent in Kings, Madera and Tulare counties. The proposition even had support in two Valley counties — Fresno and Stanislaus — where Democrats outnumber Republicans.

However, Prop. 6 was crushed statewide, receiving just 43 percent of the vote.

“There are parts of the the state where life is hard — there’s pollution, it’s hot, infrastructure is questionable, there’s poverty and high unemployment — and then you get things like the gas tax, which is completely regressive,” Stutzman said. “It’s a policy driven by people on the coast about what we’re doing about climate change, but there’s a price to that and the price to that is going to manifest itself in the Central Valley and Inland Empire (east of Los Angeles).”

The Valley/coastal divide was also evident in the governor’s race.

Cox was soundly defeated by Newsom — the current lieutenant governor and former San Francisco mayor — and earned just over 38 percent of the statewide vote as of Thursday. However, it was a different story for Cox in the Central Valley, where he took in more than 53 percent of the votes. That figure includes the eight Valley counties between San Joaquin and Kern.

Olsen said Cox “made affordability a centerpiece of his campaign and that’s a message that really resonates with people in the Valley.” And with many Bay Area refugees moving inland because they couldn’t afford the coast — “it makes sense that affordability challenges would still be at the top of their minds, even to a higher degree because they had to transplant their entire families,” she said.

With thousands of people moving inland every year, the Central Valley is clearly changing. But Olsen and Stutzman aren’t ready to predict what the Bay Area migration may mean to Central Valley politics in the future.

“Will it start to change our dynamics over time? I don’t know,” Olsen said. “I think it’s yet to be seen whether they’re moving here early enough that they haven’t adopted Bay Area political ideologies and whether they’ll become immersed in the Central Valley culture.”

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