“Diss” vs. “Piss”: The Blue Wave and Yellow Trickle in California’s Central Valley

Stratford’s Ernesto Zarate, Jose Vazquez, and Lorena Vazquez have no love for Donald Trump — but though they once voted for Hillary Clinton, this November they all plan to vote Republican.

Michael Gofman and Matthew Wigler explore how bucking the party line can be the key to building a winning voter coalition in California’s 21st Congressional District.

We went to Stratford because we were told it was sinking.

It was 111 degrees outside. After a day of interviewing voters throughout California’s massive 21st Congressional District, we were beginning to experience the sinking feeling that we would not find what we had set out to discover here in the sweltering Central Valley: swing voters. We found them in the unlikeliest of places.

Stratford, California. Population: Diminishing. 83.7% Hispanic.

Stratford is barely a speck on the map of the Central Valley, sometimes not appearing at all. Its population has diminished rapidly, falling from 1,277 in the 2010 census to somewhere under an estimated 900 today. Four out of every five people here are Hispanic. Four out of its five original wells, built in the 1970s, are dry. The post-office was established in 1910 and, by the looks of it, not much else has been opened here since. In the heart of town is an oval, half grey and half green, anchored by an arch advertising the town’s name. On one side of the oval there’s a parking lot and auto shop. On the other, five buildings — four of them closed. All that’s open is a dimly lit grocery store, the logo “Re-establish Stratford” painted above it. We go inside.

Zami Alrihimi, who lives in Stratford but goes to high school in nearby Lemoore, is working the counter. “There’s nothing to do here,” he complains. Nearby, Lorena Vazquez watches over him, ready to help. She was, we would learn, the leader of Stratford’s neighborhood watch.“We need more security,” she explains, “there’s a lot of theft around here.” She makes her way over to remind Zami why they are conservative: “we need to watch our money”

Not too far away, Jose Vazquez and Ernesto Zarate are chatting in Spanish. They don’t speak much English but when they learn that we’re talking politics, they make their way over to the counter to join our conversation as well. Lorena translates between languages for us: this isn’t the first time outsiders have come to talk to them, we learn.

The tap water in Stratford compares to a water bottle

Quickly, we discover that whatever other issues trouble the Central Valley, one issue dominates above all others. “The problems with water here are the most important,” Ernesto tells us in Spanish. “There are no other issues!” he exclaims. He faces a water shortage both on the farm where he works and in his home — often, he finds sulfur in his sink. The others agree. “There’s only one well left in the whole town,” Lorena explains, “water is a huge issue — it’s expensive and tastes bad.” Zami is less understated. “It’s piss water!” he shouts, “It’s not good water to shower with or nothing! It smells like egg, dude.” They guide us to the sink. Filling up a cup with tap water and comparing it to the bottled water the store sells, we realize just how bad the problem is. With the water tables beneath them emptying, towns like Stratford and neighboring Kettleman City have literally been sinking, the ground underneath them collapsing.

The water in Stratford “looks like piss” and “smells like egg” according to locals

The people of Stratford have no love for President Donald Trump. “I’m sorry to tell you,” announces Republican Lorena, “but I don’t support Trump.” In a mostly immigrant and Hispanic community, the people of Stratford feel that the President’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies are targeted at them. Ernesto shares that he hates Trump “because he doesn’t like Mexicans!” Zami shakes his head. “Trump is always dissing on Mexicans,” he grumbles.

Yet, despite their aversion to President Trump and his nativist attitude, as they fight for water in their homes and on their farms, come this November, Lorena, Jose, and Ernesto plan to vote Republican for Congress — again. While Ernesto voted for Hillary Clinton for president in 2016, he cast his vote for Republican Congressman David Valadao and plans to again in 2018. “Valadao is good for the ranchers,” he explains. “He came to our ranch personally and talked about water.” As the three blame California Democrats for their lack of water, they point to Congressman Valadao as the person most committed to fighting for their water rights.

Zami Alrihimi at work in Stratford

“When you see Valadao, tell him I say thank you,” Lorena implores us as we leave. “He helped me and my friends.”

Zami however, feels differently. “What’s the difference between a Democrat and a Republican?” he asks us, as he points out that no one in government is really helping Stratford, one way or another. “We built our own basketball court,” he mentions, as he and his neighbors work to ‘re-establish Stratford’ on their own. Come November, Zami is unlikely to vote for anyone. As we promise change — or at least attention — his last comment is for us: “People came in here before with a video camera and wrote an article. Nothing changed.”

2016 election results in CA-21, comparing the vote shares of the Democratic and Republican candidates for the House of Representatives and White House.

CA-21 stretches across California’s Central Valley from Fresno in the north to Bakersfield in the south. It is one of the seven districts throughout California that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 while sending a Republican to Congress. Clinton earned 55% of the vote in this district, beating out Trump’s 40% share by fifteen percentage points. In the same election, incumbent Republican congressman David Valadao held on to his seat with an even larger haul of 57% of votes, while his Democratic challenger received 43% of the total, beating him by a similar margin as Clinton bested Trump.

According to the Cook Partisan Voting Index, which measures how strongly an area leans towards Democrats or Republicans compared to the rest of the country, the Democrats have a +5% advantage here. Democrats here hold an even larger registration advantage of 18 percentage points over Republicans. The district is also overwhelmingly Hispanic at 71%. Given such statistics, one might expect Democrats to dominate elected office. Yet, almost across the board, the district is dominated at all levels by Republican officials.

California’s 21st Congressional District stretches from Fresno to Bakersfield across the Central Valley

The people we met in the sinking Stratford grocery store help us to understand why. In this district, where most white voters are reliably Republican and a substantial number of Hispanic voters lean to the right as well, who votes and who doesn’t will swing the outcome of November’s congressional election. If Democrats want their anticipated Blue Wave to overcome the yellow trickle of the district’s water faucets in this year’s congressional election, relying on President Trump’s anti-immigrant policies to drive Hispanic voters to the polls will not be good enough. As district Republicans buck their national party on immigration and hold on to their trust locally, district Democrats will have to buck their own state party to convince not only swing voters, but non-voters too, that they truly have their backs when it comes to water.

In Selma, California, public art murals celebrate the history of irrigation in the Central Valley, which has made agriculture — and life — possible in the arid region. Today, locals feel that state policies have placed their irrigation system — and their livelihoods — under attack. (Photo: Matthew Wigler)

When we did speak to Congressman Valadao, we had the chance to send him Lorena Vazquez’s thanks. “My district is different than others,” he told us. Unprompted, the congressman opened by explaining that two issues tend to dominate the political conversation in his district, naming the same pair that concerned the people we met in Stratford. “Water is a big deal here,” he said, “and immigration is too.” For Congressman Valadao, navigating the complex politics of each of these issues poses a conundrum. To win, he must earn the support of a fragile coalition that includes both Democrats and Republicans.

Congressman Valadao believes that the issue of water is his strong suit. “When it comes to water, districts like mine vote for people like me, because I don’t have an environmentalist stance. Democrats may be with me on one topic, but not on others. Water is one of those issues where they’re with me.”

Irrigation is the life-blood of the Central Valley — without it there is no farming here.

Many here blame the State of California, and by extension, the Democratic Party that controls its government, for the water crisis facing the Central Valley. The unelected water board in Sacramento, appointed by Democrats, is perceived as unfairly redirecting water from the Central Valley to Southern California. Some cynics we talked to allege that water redistribution reflects Democratic voting shares across the state.

“Save California’s Water: Build #moreDAMstorage” reads a sign posted along the highway between Stratford and Kettleman

Environmentalist policies are ridiculed for coming at the expense of human needs. Indeed, regulations meant to restore the imperiled Chinook salmon population of the Central Valley have prevented local farmers from attaining water for commercial and agricultural use, leaving voters feeling baffled and betrayed by liberals who seem to care more for the health of fish than people, protecting river ecosystems while letting farming communities die. The region’s highways are dotted with faded signs, asking drivers, presumably traveling between liberal population centers, if agriculture is really a waste of water. State spending on a high-speed railway that would link the Bay Area to Los Angeles is seen as a slap in the face. Most believe those funds should be invested in solving the water crisis, building dams and increasing storage capacity, rather than on using eminent domain to cut farmers properties in half.

Though he may win points on water by pinning the Central Valley’s problems on state Democrats, Congressman Valadao faces a much tougher landscape when his constituencies come into tension on the issue of immigration, making it difficult to strike the right balance in policy and rhetoric. Serving a predominantly Hispanic district, where immigrants make up much of both the voting population and labor force, Valadao has staked out a more moderate stance on immigration, even as his party’s leadership and base trend further right on the issue. While President Trump has ramped up deportations and made life harder for the many immigrants in the district, Valadao has advocated for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented people, distancing himself from his party.

“The president doesn’t campaign here,” Valadao remarked. “Where I agree with the president, I work with him. Where I don’t, I oppose him.” Much of Valadao’s opposition to President Trump has concerned the issue of immigration. It’s possible that as he splits from Trump on the issue, Valadao may be alienating his own Republican base as well, though he remains confident. “I’ve got conservatives beating me up because I only got a 30% rating with the Heritage Foundation,” Valadao remarks. “It’s not the best thing for me with the base, but voters are with me here. Members who base all they do on scorecards won’t do a good job.”

Selma Republican Kevin Wright takes a hard-line policy on immigration to the right of Congressman Valadao’s own

Voters like Kevin Wright, a 59 year old Republican from Selma, believe that “security on the border is the most important issue” and don’t know what to make of Valadao’s immigration policy. Wright believes that every illegal immigrant should be deported and then given the chance to re-apply for American citizenship through a legal pathway while based in their countries of origin. Still, Wright, at least, plans on voting for Valadao in November.

By contrast, Norma, a 70 year-old retail employee from Lemoore, might not. “Oh yeah, I voted for Trump!” she tells us, “and I will again!” However, her support for Valadao come Election Day is currently in question, thanks to his more moderate immigration policy. “I don’t like Valadao because if you’re going to be for something you need to stick to it,” she says. While Valadao maintains that he has been “consistent on immigration” throughout his term, Norma claims that he “came into office more against immigration and now he’s changed his mind.” Norma is skeptical of Valadao’s motives. “A lot of farmers are conservative, but have illegal workers on their farms. That’s why Valadao is this way,” she guesses. She would prefer to see someone more conservative on the ballot.

A mural on Wells Fargo in Lemoore celebrates the town’s centennial with images of its past. Noting how much the area has changed with immigration, some of its old residents seem to fear what more changes Lemoore’s future will bring to the town they knew. (Photo: Matthew Wigler)

Norma, however, has changed her mind before too. “I was a Democrat in the past,” she tells us. “My parents were lifelong Democrats. The party changed.” Though she clearly leans conservative, she is currently registered as an independent. “The Democrats used to be against illegal immigration — what happened?” she asks. In her estimation, she’s far from the only disgruntled Democrat in the Central Valley to leave the party over immigration. “More people here are leaving the Democrats,” she says, “the white population used to be a lot more liberal.” In fact, locally, she believes immigration is mobilizing even those who recently opposed Trump to his side. “A lot of ‘Never Trumpers’ have changed their minds. If they didn’t vote for Trump then, they’ll vote for Trump now.” Norma tells us she has 17,000 followers on Twitter.

Still, though she disagrees with Valadao on immigration, Norma appreciates Valadao’s positions on the critical issue of water policy and believes it will bring him electoral success. “I’m not an environmentalist,” she stresses. Around here, it seems to be a dirty word. “Water hurts Democrats politically, they’re giving less of it to farmers. The more Democrats there are in government, water is even harder to get.” Republican James Jones of Hanford also describes himself as being “as conservative as you can get,” and while immigration is important to him, he notes that “water is the single most important issue, if we want to stay here anyway.” Norma believes that Valadao’s position on water will be particularly advantageous reaching Hispanic voters. “A lot of Mexicans are for a more conservative view on water,” she asserts, “the water situation hurts them a lot in particular.”

In downtown Selma, the Bible Store and Drug Store are one and the same, unified as a single store.

Valadao’s policies seem tailored to a constituent like Rose, a 25 year-old Hispanic women who works at Selma’s unified Bible Store and Drug Store, which operate together as a single unit. “I’m somewhere in the middle,” Rose tells us. “I’m not really a Republican or a Democrat. I agree with both sides.” Where does she agree with each party? For her, “the number one issue is water — that’s it!” This is a farming community, she explains, and farmers need water for agriculture. “On immigration, though, I’m more with Democrats,” she shares.

Lemoore’s Angela Valenzuela, who ran for city council in 2016, says she is voting for Valadao in November. “I’m the middling type,” she explains, “I lean conservative, but I’ll vote for whoever the better candidate is.” Angela takes a moderate stance on immigration. Asked whether she agreed with President Trump on immigration, she responded “I’m on the fence, not the wall.” She believes that “a family should stay together and there should be a pathway to citizenship — but we also have to protect the country.” What would it take for her to vote for a Democrat? “To earn my vote,” she says without hesitation, “a Democrat needs a good policy on water.”

Democratic challenger TJ Cox, an engineer with a record in community development, might be that kind of Democrat. With a background in construction that includes building dams and water systems, he says that policies offer solutions that will deliver more water to the Central Valley. Just as Congressman Valadao has broken from his national party on immigration to better represent his district, so too has Cox split from his state party on water issues to better serve the interests of his would-be constituents.

The authors, Michael Gofman and Matthew Wigler, interview Democratic Congressional candidate TJ Cox at the opening of his new field office in Delano.

“Many state water policies are devastating our communities,” Cox told us, as we met him at the opening of his Delano field office. He opposes the State Water Resources Control Board’s plans to increase the amount of water running into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and then out to sea, which he believes would come at the expense of “communities that already suffer long-term economic inequity.” To explain his approach to water policy, Mr. Cox shares this story:

“I worked in Africa, building damns and working on mines. When I told people in San Francisco what I did, all they asked was — ‘oh, so you’re bulldozing the rainforests?’ But one project I worked on in Ghana raised the value of the country’s exports by some 20%. We all want a clean environment, but we have to think about people.”

“We need water not only for agriculture,” Cox points out, “but also clean water for people to drink.” Congressman Valadao says that Mr. Cox is “trying to play middle of the road” on the issue, “but you can’t be middle of the road on water.” Meanwhile, the Cox campaign argues that in five and a half years, Valadao hasn’t been able to accomplish results on water, despite sitting on the Appropriations Committee.

Cox believes that Donald Trump’s presidency has evoked outrage from much of the district, particularly when it comes to immigration. “The classic Central Valley voter is a moderate Latino,” Cox says. “When I talk to them, they say that with Trump in the White House today, something needs to be done nationally.” According to Cox, that ‘something’ is flipping the House of Representatives from Republican to Democratic control, which might rest on the results of his election in CA-21.

A Spanish-language campaign sign at TJ Cox’s new campaign office in Delano, CA

Cox himself is the son of immigrants, with a mother from the Philippines and a father from China. After World War II, his grandmother opened the first social club for African American troops in Manila, when she saw that they were facing discrimination. His bold positions on civil rights issues have drawn in volunteers like Paul Kelley, a self-described “social justice worker” who works for the famous activist Dolores Huerta.

Searching for a parallel to contemporary local and national dynamics, Cox points us back to 1974, when local Republican Congressman Bob Mathias was voted out of office in a wave election. Mathias was only 17 when he won an Olympic gold medal and became a local hero, riding his popularity to represent the region in Congress for years, after graduating Stanford and serving in the Marine Corps.

However, after the Watergate scandal, Mathias’ local hero status didn’t matter when there was an “R” next to name. He was defeated in 1974 by John Hans Krebs, a German Jewish immigrant with an accent. “Mathias lost in a wave election because people were tired of Nixon,” said Cox.

Krebs’ successor, Republican Chip Pashayan, also succumbed to similar circumstances as Mathias, when he was overcome by Democrat Cal Dooley in the 1990 wave election. “Chip was thrown out by Dooley in a wave election after the banking scandal.”

Looking back on district history, Cox observes a pattern. “It’s gone Republican, Democrat, Republican, Democrat, and now it’s Valadao.” Now, Cox believes that this year’s Blue Wave is coming for Valadao. He cited this wave election pattern as a reason he can win here this year, even in a midterm year where Republicans historically over-perform. “People think CA-21 has been some kind of anomaly — it’s not. Wave elections touch here too.”

Corcoran, California is a Democratic hub and prison town in Kings County

If the Blue Wave is to make its way through the dry Central Valley, it will be forced to overcome a number of barriers, including a criminal system that keeps many would-be voters from the polls, more mixed responses to Trump policies amongst immigrant communities, and low voter turnout, particularly amongst more liberal young people.

Corcoran, in Kings County, could have been a base for the Democratic party in the area, but, as a prison town, it also has very depressed voter registration. Visiting Corcoran, we met residents who leaned towards both parties who say they won’t be voting due to their recent releases from prison. Though it has one of the higher Democratic advantages in the district, only 17.1% of adults in Corcoran are registered to vote — of those only 57% actually showed up to the polls in the 2016 election. The impact of the prison system on depressing voter turnout should not be underestimated. The Cox campaign pointed out that while crime reduction and public safety are a priority, it recognizes that there is a critical need for a more fair criminal justice system.

Those anticipating the Blue Wave in the Central Valley may also find that the area’s immigrant voters may not be as motivated to vote against Republicans as Democrats may imagine or hope.

Arturo, who we met at a Foster Freeze in Selma, was deported from this country as a child in 1947, when he came in from Mexico without papers. But, since immigrating again legally in 1955, he supports deporting other undocumented immigrants. “I came to the US to live my own life and respect the law,” he tells us. He remembers that when he used to travel looking for work picking cotton, signs would tell him ‘No animals, no Negros, no Mexicans allowed.’ “But I still love this country,” he said, noting that “as soon as I became a citizen, I became a Democrat.” However, while Arturo says that separating kids from their families is wrong, he believes that “if you don’t have the right paper, you should be sent away,” just like he was. Eight years ago, he re-registered as a Republican.

Guillermo Martin, working the register at a convenience store in Waukena, CA

We met Guillermo Martin working the register at a convenience store at Waukena. Despite his own background, he believes that while “Trump says bad things about us, he doesn’t really do bad things.” Guillermo seems to be an example of a Central Valley voter who weighs piss water more heavily than diss words. “I’m thinking about voting in 2018,” Guillermo shares, but he doesn’t know who he plans to vote for. If Mr. Cox hopes to win the election, he will need to find a way to win over voters like Guillermo.

Still, Mr. Cox identities mobilizing millennials in the area as a key to victory. “I’m trying to bring in more young people,” Cox shares. “We’re optimistic that people will vote — we have a strong field program, driven by young people.” Yet here too, Cox’s Blue Wave strategy may encounter serious obstacles.

Karla Chavero, a 20-year old registered Democrat we met in Selma, is one of the young people the Cox campaign hopes to target. Listening to her talk about President Trump would seem to confirm Cox’s belief in young people here. “Trump is scum,” Chavero tells us, the moment she hears his name. “I can’t say a positive thing about Trump.” She has long litany of grievances against him too. “He’s locking up kids. He speaks insensitively about Me Too. I’m very far left on gun control too,” she adds. One would expect Chavero to be one of the first people lining up to flip Congress for the Democrats this November by voting for Mr. Cox.

Karla Chavero is 20 year old Democrat in Selma

Yet, Karla tells us that she is not likely to vote in this November’s midterm elections, though she says she will definitely vote against Trump in 2020. “I’m all for voting, but sometimes I get lazy,” she says. If Cox wants to win in November, this is bad news. Chavero’s energetic anti-Trump enthusiasm is little help to Cox — or to the national ambitions of Democrats hoping to retake the House — if she will not show up to vote against Valadao this fall.

Mehek Boparai, a recent high school graduate from Hanford, understands that “who wins depends on who votes.” She founded the Young Democrats at her conservative high school in Hanford and serves on her county Democratic committee at age 18. Like most voters in the area, she identifies immigration and environmental issues as the two most important. While she supports “open borders” she, like most others in the Valley, refuses to be called an ‘environmentalist.’ “It definitely has negative connotations” she says. The daughter of two immigrant parents, she has proudly adopted the mantle of “Liberal Lucy” that her classmates once used to tease her. Some, including Cox, might argue that young people like Mehek are the future of this district. Mehek tells us that she is probably not.

Mehek Boparai and Neha Nagavalli at a coffee shop in Hanford, where the two Democrats recently graduated from a very conservative high school

“Democrats like me leave this area because they find it toxic,” Mehek declares. “Conservatives stay.” She is amongst the many Democrats who are leaving — she is starting her freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania in the Fall and tells us she has no plans to return to her hometown of Hanford afterwards. Her friend, 19-year old Democrat Neha Nagavalli, is also leaving the Valley behind, attending film school at Chapman College in Orange, California. “I don’t want to get stuck in the Valley,” Neha says.

Yet, while Mehek and Neha might soon be packing their bags, there remains some hope for Democrats searching for a future in the Central Valley. “Our generation is a lot more split politically than older people,” Neha observes. Mehek also points out that even in conservative Hanford, the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida triggered a massive high school walkout that “even included many conservatives.” Though she is not treated by the other side with reciprocal generosity, facing bullying at school for her liberal politics, Mehek remains committed to seeking common ground and working together: “my main goal in politics is to try to see the other side” she says.

If Mehek’s dedication to bipartisanship is any indication, the future of the Central Valley may be less partisan. Certainly, the statements of both party’s congressional candidates this year would point in that direction.

“I consider myself a more moderate Democrat,” says Mr. Cox. “That we have only two parties is such an anachronistic system.”

Congressman Valadao expresses a similar sentiment. “At the end of the day, my party is just a party and it’s my constituents that matter,” he tells us. “If your party isn’t representing your constituents, it’s not worth being tied to.”

In the Central Valley, where the imperatives of fair and just immigration and water policies cut across party lines, both candidates have found that the key to serving their communities is rejecting the policies of their larger parties on one of the two key issues that dominate this district. For Valadao, that means embracing a more pro-immigrant policy than national Republicans, while for Cox, that means supporting water policies that contradict those of his state party. As partisanship fails the Central Valley, a bipartisan future that spurns party line on issues like water and immigration, prioritizing local needs over national and state politics when they clash, serves citizens best. For none should have to choose between hydration and humiliation, diss or piss.

A public art mural in downtown Lemoore depicts a greener Central Valley, where a diverse people might enjoy the fruits of the land