Political Notebook

Kevin de León tries to get past 'tumbleweeds' comment with Fresno visit

State Sen. Kevin de León has a message for the central San Joaquin Valley.

He cares about it. He works for it. He wants the state’s proposed high-speed to begin construction here — at the same time as it starts in Los Angeles and the Bay Area.

“It is critical that Fresno succeed, because if Fresno doesn’t succeed, then the state of California doesn’t succeed,” the Los Angeles Democrat and Senate president pro tem elect said Tuesday after he toured Fresno Unified’s Roosevelt High School.

De León’s words were markedly different than those in a recent George Skelton column in the Los Angeles Times, which centered on the state’s proposed high-speed rail project and the plan to start construction in the San Joaquin Valley.

“I don’t think it makes sense to lay down track in the middle of nowhere,” he said, according to Skelton. “It’s illogical. No one lives out there in the tumbleweeds.”

He then said the rail system should start at “the ‘bookends’ — San Francisco and Los Angeles.”

Now, de León says those words were misconstrued, made during a budget debate on the use of “cap and trade” dollars for the high-speed rail project. A bill passed with the state budget will funnel cap-and-trade greenhouse emission fees to the project annually — starting with $250 million.

But he admitted Tuesday that equating Fresno and the Valley with “tumbleweeds” and “middle of nowhere” didn’t go over well here. As such, his Fresno visit certainly felt like a mea culpa, with de León highlighting legislative work he has done to benefit the region and drawing comparisons between this area and his urban Los Angeles district.

Literature he brought along had headlines like “$90+ Million Headed to the Central Valley” and “Central Valley: 26 Park Projects.”

He even brought a “humble pie” to an editorial board meeting with The Fresno Bee. (Turns out, it was peach.)

De León also seems to understand that the Valley has a competitive state Senate race. As the incoming state Senate leader, no need to give incumbent state Sen. Andy Vidak ammunition in his 14th State Senate District battle against Democratic Party challenger Luis Chavez of Fresno.

On Tuesday, Chavez — a Fresno Unified trustee — was with de León during his Roosevelt High visit.

So, de León’s message is now this:

“I think that high-speed rail is a good thing for California. I think high speed rail is a good thing for the Central Valley, and San Joaquin Valley specifically.”

He said state bond money and federal dollars committed to the project should be used for construction of the line in the Valley, and the cap-and-trade cash should go toward construction in Los Angeles and the Bay Area.

Using cap-and-trade money for high-speed rail construction in the Valley could violate criteria set up in Assembly Bill 32, the state’s landmark emissions-reducing law.

“By laying down track in the Central Valley, you won’t realize those immediate carbon reduction goals for at least 10 years, and that’s why it would be quite possible that litigation will tie up those dollars,” de León said. “Therefore, I don’t think that it would be prudent that we use those cap-and-trade dollars in the Central Valley, but rather we should do so at the bookends.”

Beyond high-speed rail, de León said he’s long been a friend of Fresno and the Valley, citing Proposition 39 money for clean-energy jobs and money from his Assembly Bill 31 that has helped fund Valley park construction.

And, depending on what happens with the water bond slated to be on the November ballot, he wants to move forward with a new parks bond, and said part of it should include a new state park in the Fresno area.

Yes, de León said, some of the greatest national parks in the world are nearby, but he said there are many poor people in Fresno, and not everybody “lives in Clovis” and can drive their SUV up to Yosemite.

He also highlighted his work to battle the Asian citrus psyllid, which poses a major threat to the San Joaquin Valley’s $1.5 billion citrus industry because of its potential to carry a deadly plant disease known as citrus greening.

As for those “tumbleweeds” and “middle of nowhere” comments,de León admitted the blowback caught him off guard.

“It was an inartful comment,” he said. “... it was a tongue and cheek comment.”

But he also said “the funny thing about it was that I literally meant in between Fresno and Bakersfield because the population is not very high.”