Sen. Barbara Boxer was almost out the door of the U.S. Senate a few weeks ago when she broke ranks with Dianne Feinstein, her fellow Democrat and Capitol Hill colleague, on a massive water-projects bill that included key provisions for California.
Boxer echoed environmental groups and backed Bay Area interests in opposing the bill, calling it a “last-minute backroom deal” that would destroy the Endangered Species Act and benefit “big agribusiness.” She lost the battle. The $558 million bill, which steers more water to farmers, eases dam construction, and funds desalination and recycling projects, was approved by the Senate and has been signed by President Barack Obama.
For some central San Joaquin Valley business and agriculture interests, it was the perfect coda to Boxer’s Senate career. Once again, they said, Boxer turned her back on this region and sided with the Bay Area and with environmental groups. It was further proof of the signs that blamed her – along with Reps. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and Jim Costa of Fresno (who, ironically, has long worked for water) – for creating a Valley “dust bowl.”
“I, like most of the Valley farmers, (am) glad to see Boxer retire,” said John Harris, a prominent west side rancher and the owner and CEO of Harris Ranch. “She won’t be missed.”
The problem for Boxer’s Valley detractors, however, is that her Senate replacement is state Attorney General Kamala Harris. It’s swapping one Bay Area Democrat for another Bay Area Democrat. And with Boxer, after four six-year terms, even her detractors say they at least know where she stood. The same can’t be said about Harris.
Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, an Exeter-based growers lobby, said Harris is “an unknown quantity to us. We were concerned that her initial focus seemed San Francisco-oriented, and those with a historical San Francisco-oriented base don’t necessarily pay much attention to the San Joaquin Valley, let alone agriculture.”
This is the challenge for Valley interests who look to Congress for help or guidance on key issues such as trade, immigration and, especially, water. Others worry about her in strictly political terms. For instance, will she be a player in Valley state or congressional races that feature a viable Democratic Party candidate?
“I’m a little nervous that she’s not going to pay attention to the Valley – even on our own Democratic needs,” said Doug Kessler, a regional director for the California Democratic Party. “She didn’t appear to pay any attention to us in the campaign.”
Hopeful on Harris
Still, Kessler remains hopeful that Harris will be good for the Valley.
Harris’ supporters say everything will be fine.
She held several roundtable discussions with farmers and agriculture representatives in the Central Valley that weren’t publicized, they say.
Bill Lyons, a Stanislaus County farmer and California Department of Food and Agriculture secretary under Democrat Gov. Gray Davis, helped set up meetings between Harris and farmers, ranchers and others in the agriculture industry, on water as well as other issues.
“I would encourage people to get to know the senator-elect,” Lyons said. “I think she is extremely bright and I think she has an open mind on agricultural issues.”
If nothing else, Lyons said, farmers, ranchers and the agriculture industry will be better off if they do work to develop a relationship. There are plenty of issues, he said, where common ground can be found.
That said, Lyons knows there will be differences. “That’s just part of politics and the different constituencies that she represents, but I think she has a tremendous amount of credibility. It won’t take very long for her emerge as a leader back in D.C.”
And it’s not as if Harris has never been to the Valley. Most of her visits, however, have been related to her attorney general duties.
For instance, in 2014 she attended a Save Mart Center memorial service for two California Highway Patrol officers killed in an accident in Kingsburg. Last year, she came to the annual Peace Officer Commendation Award ceremony, which was held in Clovis. And a few months ago, she came to Fresno State to announce that Fresno would be the inaugural location for a new cyber crime center.
Because of that, she’s well-known in law enforcement circles, but not so much outside of them.
“I have had a very positive working relationship with Kamala over the years and have found her to be responsive to my issues,” Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer said. “I am optimistic she will be attentive to the unique needs we have here in the Valley, as compared to other parts of the state, and I will make certain she is well aware of those needs.”
Harris also has campaigned in the area, though clearly not as much as in the state’s coastal regions, which largely feature strong Democratic Party registration numbers.
Still, there’s a visible nervousness.
Fresno Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Nathan Ahle would like a sympathetic ear from Harris.
“I don’t know that I would call us optimistic on that,” he said. “We’re hopeful. We certainly hope she’s going to be more reliable to the Valley than Boxer was – especially on water.”
As much as Harris seems an unknown, Boxer is a known. There are certainly plenty of Valley detractors who can’t wait to say good riddance. And in four winning elections, Boxer never was able to capture Fresno County – or win more than 45.4 percent of the vote.
As Boxer heads to retirement at the end of year, her backers say she’s done a lot for the Valley. She may not have been perfect, but she did plenty of local good in a diverse state with a multitude of competing political interests.
“As it relates to Boxer, we had a good relationship with her,” California Citrus Mutual’s Nelsen said. “We were one of two ag groups that endorsed her last re-election.”
Boxer helped both Valley citrus farmers and poultry ranchers.
On citrus, Boxer tried to help in a 1998 dispute over the import of lemons from Argentina. That won her praise from Nelsen and others in the citrus industry. She followed that up with a visit after a devastating freeze the same year and pointed out how the federal government shutdown would harm the agriculture industry.
On the poultry issue, a state law said chickens could only be labeled fresh if they were kept at 26 degrees or higher, but the federal standard for fresh was 1 degree or higher. Under that standard, imported chicken could be frozen, imported into the state, thawed and sold as fresh. Boxer was key in that successful fight, supporters said.
Boxer also helped hammer out a solution for horses and mule packers operating in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park wilderness areas and worked to keep federal agencies in downtown Fresno.
On a state level, she also worked in support of programs that helped the Valley. For instance, she was an early supporter in the mid-1990s of the Community Oriented Policing Program, known as COPS. Thanks to that, Fresno benefited from a larger police force at a time when crime in the city was soaring.
The one sticking point, even for a supporter like Nelsen, is Boxer’s actions on water issues, which above all else are the Valley’s most important subject.
Still, her most recent state director was Fresno-based. Former Fresno City Councilman Tom Bohigian has held the post for the past 12 years.
“During her years in the Senate, Sen. Boxer has worked tirelessly to make life better for the people of the Central Valley,” Bohigian said. “She has made dozens of trips to every corner of the region, she has listened to the concerns of local communities, and she has fought hard to make sure the needs of the Valley weren’t forgotten in Washington.”