Politics & Government

California’s ‘Valleycrat’ a rare find

WASHINGTON — The California Valleycrat could be an endangered species.

Or maybe it was mostly mythical all along.

A storied political hybrid, the Valleycrat stresses regional loyalty first and foremost. Party labels seem secondary. Bipartisan cooperation is commonplace, particularly on farm and water issues. Cross-party personal relationships are warm or at least respectful.

Now? Not so much.

“That’s gone from both parties, there’s no question about it,” said former San Joaquin Valley congressman John Krebs, a Democrat. “Now, the well is so poisoned.”

In the past decade, relations have frayed and partisanship has increased. It often seems that Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, and Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, can barely hide their mutual loathing. Breaking a live-and-let-live tradition, Valley lawmakers are explicitly trying this year to unseat their colleagues.

In Sacramento, some Valley legislators face attack from members of their own party if they don’t toe the partisan line. In Washington, House Republicans have been writing a California water bill for the past year without letting Democrats into the room.

“For three decades or longer, Valley Democrats and Republicans worked together. We had far more in common than what differences we had,” Costa said. “All that has changed in the last couple of years.”

Not everyone agrees.

Freshman Rep. Jeff Denham, who recently moved his residence from Atwater to Turlock, insisted relations among Valley lawmakers are "good and getting better," noting that he is meeting with Costa the week of Feb. 6. Nunes, while saying the notion of a moderate Valleycrat "is gone," added that "where we can work together, we work together."

Still, Republican political analyst Tony Quinn and Fresno Republican and former Secretary of State Bill Jones agreed there has been a demise of the Valleycrat in part to the congressional and legislative districts that were drawn after the 1980 census.

The partisan gerrymandering ushered in a decade of Democratic Party dominance in California. In the process, it politically segregated parts of the Valley along racial lines, Quinn said.

A one-time Fresno County supervisor, Krebs served in the House of Representatives between 1975 and 1979. It seemed a golden era for Valleycrats.

Texas native-turned-San Joaquin Valley resident Bernie Sisk, a fellow House Democrat, was tending to the region’s farmers with the help of conservative Southern allies. From Roseville, in the Sacramento Valley, business-friendly Democrat Harold “Bizz” Johnson was pushing roads and dams with GOP help.

In 1970, the late Republican Ken Maddy won 57 percent of the vote in an Assembly seat that had just 31 percent registered as Republicans. He went on to represent the region for nearly three decades before term limits forced him out of office in 1998.

When Maddy died of cancer in 2000, then-Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles called him “the prototype of the legislator who works across the aisle to get things done.”

By that time, however, another controversial reapportionment was coming. Jones called the 2001 redistricting plan an “unholy alliance between Republicans and Democrats” that gave incumbents of both parties highly partisan districts — and safe seats.

With these districts locked into place for another decade, politicians found little reason to work with members of the other party.

"Ken Maddy couldn’t get elected today,” said Richard Lehman, a former Democratic congressman from the Valley who is now a Sacramento-based lobbyist. “I doubt Bernie [Sisk] could get elected in [his] district today, as moderate as he was.”

Term limits for state Assembly and Senate hastened turnover, and those seeking office played to the party fringe voters that dominate primary elections because that was the only election they had to worry about.

“The effect of it is you get essentially fairly conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats,” Quinn said. “You don’t get the Valleycrats.”

Other changes were demographic.

Sixty years ago, the Valley was ruled by New Deal Democrats. But as Republicans moved inland, the tide began to change. Quinn remembers when Placer and El Dorado were “labor union counties.” Now, he said, they are “Orange County north.” The change has been similar in parts of Fresno and in Clovis.

The Valley's political changes, moreover, match the hardening of political positions by both major parties in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

In 2010, the non-partisan National Journal found that every Senate Democrat had a more liberal voting record than every Senate Republican. Conversely, every Senate Republican had a more conservative record than every Democrat.

The parties have been losing their middle. That decline was epitomized in the 2010 House elections, when 24 Democratic members of the centrist Blue Dog coalition lost their seats.

In Sacramento, four now-departed Valley legislators _ Assembly Democrats Juan Arambula of Fresno and Nicole Parra of Hanford and Republican Mike Villines of Clovis, as well as state Sen. Dave Cogdill of Modesto _ all paid heavy political prices for seeking support on bipartisan Valley issues or for forging compromise on other matters.

Cogdill was ousted as the state Senate’s Republican leader the same night as a vote on a budget he helped negotiate that temporarily raised taxes.

“If you try to be a Valleycrat in either party you will be punished,” Quinn said.

In truth, even the putative good old days were ripe with personal rivalries both inside and outside of party lines. Intraparty competition, too, has always lingered beneath the unified Valleycrat veneer, particularly when careers are at stake. Redistricting has pit members against one another, if only in behind-the-scenes maneuvering.

And even with their centrist reputations, Costa and Cardoza have generally been reliable Democratic votes.

Cardoza voted with a majority of his fellow Democrats 93 percent of the time in 2010 and supported President Barack Obama 95 percent of the time, a vote tally by Congressional Quarterly shows. Costa joined fellow Democrats 86 percent of the time and backed Obama 93 percent of the time.

Costa, Nunes said, is "going all the way to the left." Nunes, Costa said, "wants to keep putting politics ahead of the Valley."

That loss of camaraderie has now seemingly hit elected Valley officials from both parties, quite possibly for good.

“It’s been a long slow death on both sides," said Quinn, the political analyst.

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Congressional Research Service report on the San Joaquin Valley


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