Politics & Government

Democrat? Republican? It hardly matters in this California House race. Water does.

This is the scene of big water rally at State Capitol in Sacramento

Farmers and others rallied Monday on the steps of the Capitol in Sacramento in protest against the state’s water delivery plan plan.
Up Next
Farmers and others rallied Monday on the steps of the Capitol in Sacramento in protest against the state’s water delivery plan plan.

Stewart and Lynda Resnick have given big money to Democrats for years. But the powerful San Joaquin Valley farming couple also makes sure they give thousands to Valley Republicans.

Why? Water.

A candidate’s position on water matters more in the Valley than who’s a Republican or Democrat. And that’s why water looms as an important boost to Rep. Jeff Denham, R-California, in his race against Democrat Josh Harder.

“It’s all about water in that region and what helps (Stewart Resnick’s) bottom line,” added Adam Scow, California director of Food and Water Watch, an environmental advocacy group. “He’s pretty much admitted that in interviews.” The Resnicks could not be reached for comment.

Water also trumped partisan politics when the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau, one of the largest farm bureaus in the state, endorsed Denham in March. It has endorsed Democrats in other races.

The agriculture business is Denham’s primary industry source of donations, giving about $540,000 to his campaign and leadership political action committee so far this cycle, according to Open Secrets, a nonpartisan campaign finance research group.

Agriculture interests don’t even make it into Harder’s top 20 donor industries. About 1 percent of Harder’s campaign cash comes from within the district, with 43 percent coming from Silicon Valley and the San Francisco area.

“Water is thicker than partisanship,” said Rob Stutzman, a Sacramento-based Republican political strategist. “Jerry Brown is a Democratic governor, and this (water issue) is a handicap for Democratic candidates that’s hard to mitigate.”

The State Water Resources Control Board will hold two days of hearings on a proposal to leave more of the water in the lower San Joaquin River and its three tributaries, the Tuolumne, Merced and Stanislaus.

The water issue, which has dogged the Valley and other parts of California for decades, has a new urgency. The Democrat-appointed California Water Board was originally supposed to say this week whether it would finalize a plan to direct 40 percent of unimpaired flows from the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced Rivers into the Pacific Ocean at the expense of the Delta, a water source for a large part of Denham’s district.

Instead of issuing a final verdict, the board hosted two days of hearings for comments this week, with a final decision postponed to an unspecified date. Brown appoints board members to four-year terms.

Many farmers see the board’s actions reflecting powerful interests from California’s big cities, interests that don’t understand the farmers’ concerns.

Denham’s campaign has tried to brand Harder as “Bay Area Harder,” noting the Democrat has spent most of his adult life as a venture capitalist there. Harder grew up in Denham’s district and moved back before running this year.

Mike Lynch, a longtime Democratic strategist native to the San Joaquin Valley, said the Valley has long felt like the “unwanted stepchild” of California, particularly compared to San Francisco. That could be hurtful to Harder on the campaign, he said.

That’s why Valley interests such as the Resnicks, who identify as Democrats but whose livelihoods are in farming, are valuing water over political party. They want someone who will fight to protect and aid their interests — and understands their needs.

Tom Orvis, the Stanislaus bureau’s governmental affairs director, said Harder doesn’t seem to understand the water issue like Denham does.

“It might be because of our endorsement, but Harder has not made an overture, or even a contact, which we would welcome,” Orvis said. “And whoever writes those press releases for him does not have a depth of knowledge on the issue.”

Not so long ago, California was in the middle of a deep drought but in June its snow water equivalent rose to a heaping 170 percent of normal. NASA shows in its latest video that satellites were capturing that change.

Harder, who said he opposed the Water Board’s plan in an op-ed to Modesto Bee last week, said his political party did not matter in his fight for water rights.

“The Central Valley has been ignored by our leaders in Washington and Sacramento for far too long,” Harder said in a statement provided to McClatchy. “I’ll call out both Democrats and Republicans like Jeff Denham who have betrayed the Valley and sent our water to Southern California in exchange for campaign donations.”

Harder was referencing a federal budget bill Denham voted to approve last month, which included a provision that prevents courts from reviewing the twin tunnels project. That project, involving two underground tunnels that would send huge amounts of water from the Sacramento River south, away from Denham’s district, is also highly unpopular in the district.

Denham said while he does oppose the twin tunnels project he said he still supported the provision because he does not support burdensome lawsuits on any infrastructure projects. Lawsuits are unlikely to stop the tunnels, only possibly delay them.

At the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau, Orvis said Harder seemed to favor giving “canned comments,” which hadn’t demonstrated the kind of deeper knowledge necessary to fight for the area’s water rights.

“The door is open for Mr. Harder to come talk to us or at least send us his plan,” Orvis said. “But Jeff is the one who seems to understand the different dynamics on this.”

Kate Irby: 202-383-6071; @KateIrby
Related stories from McClatchy DC