Politics & Government

Agribusiness best source of cash for Central Calif. congressmen

WASHINGTON -- San Joaquin Valley congressmen know how to harvest serious cash from the region's agribusiness leaders.

It comes with the territory, so to speak.

While none of the Valley's House members face a serious challenge, all have been diligently stockpiling their campaign war chests. For all four Valley incumbents, agribusiness remains the leading and most reliable source of funds.

"You don't contribute to get something back," said Tom Nassif, president of Western Growers, a prominent association of California and Arizona farmers. "You contribute because you have a common interest in a subject."

Roughly one out of every four dollars raised by the Valley's House members can be attributed to agribusiness, records compiled by the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics show. For instance, Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, has raised $534,564 in 2007 and 2008. Of this, agribusiness accounts for $157,122.

In a similar vein, Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, has raised $588,813 during this 2008 election cycle. Agribusiness accounts for $182,790.

Some of these contributions come from individuals. Members of Modesto's winemaking Gallo family, for instance, have poured out at least $86,000 in federal campaign contributions since January 2005, Federal Election Commission records show. The recipients include Costa and Cardoza.

In other cases, contributions come from political action committees established by groups like the California Poultry Industry Federation.

Of course, none of the Valley members have been exclusively reliant upon farm-related donations. Costa's single biggest contributor was the McCaffrey Group, a major Fresno homebuilder, which gave him $13,800. Another local development-oriented firm, ML Street Properties -- which erected Fresno's newest office tower at Kern and M streets -- likewise ranked high with contributions totaling $6,900.

Tom Richards, managing partner of ML Street Properties, cited Costa's work on multiple Valley issues.

"Whether it's water, or air, or transportation, or anything else that's important for the Valley, he's been out in front on it," Richards said.

Many of the contributions simply reflect the nature of these congressional districts: local people giving to local lawmakers. But, as often happens in political fundraising, these contributions can also come from individuals and interests with a vested interest in legislation.

Radanovich, for instance, serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, a wide-ranging panel whose jurisdiction extends from the telephone industry to health and health care facilities. As it happens, Radanovich's single biggest contributor was the phone company AT&T, which contributed $8,500, while like the American College of Radiology kicked in an additional $5,000.

Costa and Cardoza both serve on the House Agriculture Committee, which recently finished a farm bill whose five-year price tag is now pegged at about $289 billion. Cardoza, in particular, played a central role as chairman of the panel's horticulture and organic agriculture subcommittee.

Western Growers has contributed the maximum $10,000 to Cardoza's campaign treasury this election cycle. No other contributor has given Cardoza more this election cycle. The 3,000-member growers group pushed hard for additional specialty crop spending in the new farm bill, a priority that Cardoza shares.

"He's enormously important to us, and he's always been helpful," Nassif said. "He gets it; he understands the issue, and he represents many of our members."

Cardoza had $306,105 available as of March 31. He does not have a declared major party opponent. Rep. George Radanovich of Mariposa has a relatively modest $108,047 available, but lacks a Democratic opponent. Costa had $504,079 available.

"One of the ways you discourage significant opposition is to not take anything for granted, and to maintain a strong war chest," Costa said.

Costa's declared Republican opponent, decorated Vietnam War veteran James Lopez, has not yet filed any fundraising reports. Costa, nonetheless, is planning for upcoming fundraising events in Fresno and, later this year, Bakersfield.