Election 2014: Five challenging Jim Costa's bid for sixth congressional term

The Fresno BeeApril 12, 2014 

Five people -- four Republicans and a Democrat -- want to take out Rep. Jim Costa in the 2014 election.

Two are under 30. Two have military experience. One may lose land to the state's proposed high-speed rail line. One ran for the seat two years ago. One has a parent who is up for election in Merced County, which is part of the district.

All of them know it won't be an easy task.

And all of them, save for Democrat Job Melton, sound very similar campaign themes.

Water. They say Costa hasn't done enough to increase the supply.

High-speed rail. They say Costa has championed it, to the detriment of the central San Joaquin Valley.

Affordable Care Act. They say Costa voted for it.

Longevity. They say Costa has simply worn out his welcome after three decades in public office at the state and federal levels.

Costa, a Fresno Democrat seeking his sixth term in Congress, doesn't shy away from his high-speed rail support, his Affordable Care Act vote or his long political career. On water, he vigorously argues that he's been successful in the past in helping the Valley and is working to leverage its hurt from the ongoing drought into additional supplies.

As for his opponents, Costa says he's ready to take on any of them.

"They try to play catch-up in six months," he says of building a campaign. "They don't understand that I do it every day."

Costa's challengers in the 16th Congressional District -- which covers all of Merced County and parts of Madera and Fresno counties -- are Fresno attorney Steve Crass; Chowchilla farmer and small business owner Joanna Garcia-Botelho; former military officer Mel Levey of Merced; Melton, a Fresno mental health clinician; and Burrel dairyman Johnny Tacherra.

The first hurdle comes June 3, when all the candidates run in the primary election. Only the top two finishers will move on to the November general election.

Click here for a list of key dates and voter registration information

All the challengers concede that Costa will be one of those two. Still, the four Republican hopefuls mostly direct their campaign rhetoric at Costa. They barely acknowledge that the June election is really more a battle to convince voters that they are the best person to challenge Costa, and not so much actually challenging him.

Because of this, political experts say intangibles will likely play a big role in the race to face Costa in November.

A key one of those intangibles could soon be coming to Crass, who appears poised to be named "On the Radar" by the National Republican Congressional Committee as part of its "Young Guns" program.

The recognition doesn't mean much at this point. The next step is "contender," and then, for the lucky few, a "young gun." That designation usually comes with NRCC money.

For Crass, a Merced native and attorney for the Baker Manock and Jensen law firm in Fresno, the advantage is that it's something he can tell donors and put on campaign literature.

It also means he's raised more than $100,000 and put together a professional campaign organization. In other words, he's potentially viable in the NRCC's eyes.

New federal campaign finance reports will be released on Tuesday.

Crass, 40, served six years as a Navy officer. He was a judge advocate at the Washington Navy Yard and later advised SEAL Team Two's commander during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

He went on to be a deputy district attorney in Merced County and then an assistant U.S. Attorney in Fresno's federal courthouse before moving into private practice.

"I am the only one with the range and breadth of experience to stand up and beat Costa," Crass says.

Levey is a graduate of West Point and served three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. He's 29.

His mother is Merced County Assessor-Clerk-Recorder Barbara Levey. She was appointed to the position, but will -- like her son -- be on the Merced County ballot in June.

That could boost his profile among voters, experts say. Merced County represents 37% of the district's registered voters.

Levey says his strength is leadership skills he learned from the military. "Leaders on both sides (Republican and Democrat) have not been good. Good leaders get things done."

Tacherra's advantage is that he's been here before.

He lost in the 2012 primary election in Costa's 16th District, but immediately after Costa's November 2012 victory said he'd run again. Tacherra was the first to file papers last August with the Federal Election Commission to run this year.

Tacherra, 38, says the 2012 run got his name out to the public. And this week, he went into Levey's backyard -- and Crass' hometown -- and earned the Merced County Republican Central Committee's endorsement.

If he gets to Washington, however, Tacherra says it's his independent streak that would stick out.

"I'm a registered R, but I'm an independent thinker. I think that's what they need in D.C."

Garcia-Botelho, 29, sees her intangible as someone who has a real-life connection to the state's high-speed rail project. One of the proposed routes runs through the Madera County almond farm where she lives with her husband.

She has an agricultural business degree from Fresno State and law degree from the San Joaquin College of Law. She's worked in the state prison system.

"I don't know Jim, but if you've been in office longer than I've been alive, it's time for the next generation to step up," she says.

Melton is the only other Democrat in the race, but he only recently changed his voter registration from Republican. He says party affiliation is irrelevant to his campaign. He changed registration, he says, only because there were already four Republicans in the race.

Melton says he's running a low-budget, unorthodox campaign that will rely on the Internet and technology, largely through a budding grassroots movement at www.placeavote.com. He says that if elected, he'll have his constituents weigh in on issues electronically to help guide his vote on key congressional issues.

Melton says today's effective input is limited to lobbying groups and influential donors.

"If you're a Regular Joe, you're not likely to speak to them, you'll talk to a staffer," he says.

Costa has a healthy campaign account and a wide range of endorsements. That includes the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which doesn't endorse many Democrats.

And despite the complaints from various corners of the Valley and the ubiquitous signs knocking him on water or tying him to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a San Francisco Democrat, Costa says he's made progress on key issues facing the Valley.

Among those are the farm bill, money for the Fresno metropolitan freeway system and the $25 million Intertie pipeline and pumping station near Tracy that links the Delta Mendota Canal to the California Aqueduct.

"We feel very good about where we are," Costa says.

16th Congressional District candidates

Jim Costa

Age: 62

Hometown: Fresno

Occupation: Congressman

Family: Single

Party preference: Democrat

Web: www.jimcosta.com

Facebook: RepJimCosta

Twitter: @repjimcosta

Steve Crass

Age: 40

Hometown: Fresno

Occupation: Attorney, former federal prosecutor

Education: University of California at San Diego, University of San Diego law school

Family: Married, three children

Party preference: Republican

Web: www.crassforcongress.com

Facebook: crassforcongress

Twitter: n/a

Joanna Garcia-Botelho

Age: 29

Hometown: Chowchilla

Occupation: Farmer, small business owner

Education: Fresno State, San Joaquin College of Law

Family: Married

Party preference: Republican

Web: www.botelhoforcongress.com

Facebook: BotelhoForCongress

Twitter: @BotelhoForCong

Mel Levey

Age: 29

Hometown: Merced

Occupation: Former Army officer

Education: U.S. Military Academy at West Point

Family: Single

Party preference: Republican

Web: www.mellevey.com

Facebook: Mel-Levey-for-Congress

Twitter: @MelLevey

Job Melton

Age: 40

Hometown: Fresno

Occupation: Mental health clinician

Education: Fresno State (bachelor's and master's)

Family: Married, two children

Party preference: Democrat

Web: n/a

Facebook: n/a

Twitter: n/a

Johnny Tacherra

Age: 38

Hometown: Burrel

Occupation: Dairy farmer

Education: Riverdale Christian Academy

Family: Married, four children

Party preference: Republican

Web: www.johnnyforcongress.com

Facebook: TacherraForCongress

Twitter: @Vote4Tacherra


The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6320, jellis@fresnobee.com or @johnellis24 on Twitter.

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