Politics & Government

Nunes' World War II comparison roils California water fight

WASHINGTON — Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, is now likening his putative allies at the Westlands Water District to weak-kneed British leaders who let Nazi Germany roll over Europe.

Publicly, Westlands isn't complaining.

"Westlands and other farm groups, when they appease they lose," Nunes declared in an interview Tuesday. "Appeasing people who want to drive you out of business is pretty bad."

With Nunes explicitly comparing Westlands to former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, congressional Democratic leaders are analogously tantamount to Adolph Hitler — although Nunes doesn't say it in so many words.

"They're maybe not going to send people to concentration camps," Nunes said Tuesday of Democrats. "But are they destroying lives? Yes. ... We have massive unemployment that's been made worse by these lunatics."

Nunes insists he's "having a little fun" with his historical parallels, designed to focus attention on the San Joaquin Valley's water shortages.

Others take the comparisons more seriously. Peter Gleick, founder of the Berkeley-based Pacific Institute and 2003 winner of a MacArthur "genius" fellowship, declared on the widely read Huffington Post that Nunes "has apparently lost his mind, or at least any sense of civility."

But for public consumption, Westlands officials say there are no hard feelings.

"Westlands Water District has a very good working relationship with Congressman Nunes, and I know that he is frustrated with the situation, as we are," Westlands general manager Tom Birmingham said Tuesday in an interview. "I did not interpret Congressman Nunes' words as trying to pick a fight with Westlands."

Birmingham added that "we will continue to work with all members of Congress," including the San Joaquin Valley Democrats who Nunes sharply criticizes.

It was specifically Westlands' willingness to praise the work of some California Democratic lawmakers that prompted Nunes' charge of appeasement. He also leveled the appeasement charge at water districts, such as the Friant Water Users Authority, that supported a San Joaquin River restoration plan.

The seesaw between sharpening rhetoric and soothing tones occurs amid a broader fracturing of the California water community. In recent days, Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, pledged "the fight of a lifetime" if his Democratic colleague, Rep. George Miller of Concord, attacked San Joaquin Valley water use.

It's not surprising that Costa and Miller might clash, as they represent very different constituencies. Nunes and Westlands, on the other hand, share a water basin and agricultural sympathies.

"The reality is that Congressman Nunes has done an incredible job of bringing attention to the (water) issue," Birmingham said.

Politically combative, Nunes customarily favors phrases like "radical environmentalist" when referring to Democrats. His relations with his San Joaquin Valley Democratic colleagues, Costa and Rep. Dennis Cardoza of Merced, have suffered as a result.

Nunes further dialed up the rhetoric in his 488-word blog posting on Friday. He called Valley Democrats "drought masters" and called Rep. Miller the "radical enviromentalists' Field Marshall."

The proper spelling is "field marshal." It refers to a high-ranking military officer and is often associated with the likes of Germany's World War II Afrika Korps commander Erwin Rommel.

Nunes further suggested that Westlands might "be holding their next meeting in Munich." This is where Chamberlain met with Hitler in September 1938, after which the British prime minister infamously declared "peace in our time."

Usually, the Westlands board meets in Fresno.