As it grew dark on Election Day, Melissa Hurtado flipped on a flashlight and continued to knock on doors. The polls would close at 8 p.m., meaning she still had a few hours left to change a few more minds.
But the 30-year-old Sanger city councilwoman soon found she didn’t have to do much convincing as she asked for her neighbors’ vote in California’s 14th Senate District.
“People said, ‘Yes, I’m supporting you. I already voted for you. I am on my way to vote for you,’ ” Hurtado said in a Dec. 5 interview with The Bee. “I felt such a positive energy up to the last hour of voting. When I got to the watch party and saw long lines at the polls – that just told me we’re going to win.”
Hurtado, a Democrat, had prepared her family and staff members for the worst as her campaign against state Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford, entered its final day. It would be difficult to unseat the incumbent, a well-known cherry farmer who had won two elections despite a dramatic voter registration disadvantage.
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Sure enough, Vidak led after the first few updates on election night. But Hurtado, like many California Democrats on election night, knew the late returns would be larger and bend harder in her favor than in previous elections.
By the time every vote was counted, Hurtado had amassed a double-digit margin, beating Vidak by more than 14,000 votes. She lost ground in Tulare and Kings counties, two of the more conservative areas of the district. But she smashed Vidak in Fresno and Kern counties, which include heavily Latino/Democratic sections of Fresno and Bakersfield.
Vidak did not respond to a request for comment.
How the 14th was won
While most of the state’s political eyes were glued to the Senate race just north of her’s, where Assemblywoman Anna Caballero and Madera County Supervisor Rob Poythress battled for a seat believed to be the key to Democrats establishing a supermajority, Hurtado quietly rendered that discussion moot by building her own supermajority capturing campaign.
She outraised Vidak by more than 50 percent, largely through massive donations from state and county Democratic parties. Of the more than $1.7 million she raised, almost $1.4 million came from party donations – including $200,000 from San Mateo’s county party, $100,000 from Fresno County and $75,000 donations from Orange County, Humboldt County, Napa County and Tehama County.
Vidak received about $400,000 from state Republicans, raising about $1 million total – much of which came from farm groups and various corporate donations, including small checks from big names such as Disney, Comcast and Facebook.
Both campaigns spent about $1.5 million.
Hurtado said she felt confident she could reach out to voters in the small, economically challenged towns that dot the landscape of the 14th – Orange Cove, Arvin, Woodlake, Orosi.
She could identify with these people. She was born in Sanger to parents of modest means and graduated from Sanger High School. She returned to her home after graduating from Sacramento State, where she studied government and philosophy. She speaks Spanish. She’s much younger than the average state politician.
Daniel Martinez, a fellow Sanger City Council member, said this approach was key to Hurtado’s success.
“She visited the communities that feel they have been most neglected by the state,” Martinez said. “They felt like they didn’t have a voice. I don’t know if anyone in Orange Cove would even recognize Andy Vidak. She made them believe their votes mattered, so they chose Melissa.”
Martinez and Hurtado both were elected in 2016. Martinez said that during their time together on the Sanger council, he saw Hurtado take a genuine interest in constituents’ troubles. During their tenure, the council improved police staffing and re-established the Sanger Youth Council, which allows local students to present their problems to the council in a pseudo-governmental capacity.
Central San Joaquin Valley residents – particularly those who are economically challenged and have poor access to health care – have “a deeper voice in Sacramento” now that Hurtado’s been elected, Martinez said.
The councilwoman’s broad campaign promises – more jobs, improved health care access and quality, clean water, better educational opportunities – appear to have struck a chord.
She may also have benefited from outside forces.
Hurtado was a down-ballot candidate in two major congressional races – the 21st and 22nd – in which Democratic challengers TJ Cox and Andrew Janz spent millions on Democratic messaging and voter registration efforts.
Her Senate district was one of the areas that heavily favored former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over President Donald Trump, who received just 36 percent of the 2016 vote in the 14th. Registered Democrats also outnumber Republicans by nearly 19 percentage points.
GOP: Will she be beholden to party?
Fred Vanderhoof, the chairman of the Fresno County Republican Party, said he was surprised by Hurtado’s victory over Vidak, who he said “was known for strengthening farmers and small businesses” in the vast district.
Vanderhoof said he was concerned that Democratic leadership in Sacramento will now dictate how things are run in the 14th.
“When you’re a Democrat in a deep blue state, you have to follow the policies of Democratic leadership in Sacramento,” he said. “Especially for a new (senator). Leadership will demand that of her.”
Bringing water to the Valley and cutting taxes will be especially difficult for Hurtado, Vanderhoof said. He added that former Assemblyman Juan Arambula tried to act against the Capitol establishment to benefit his district and was punished. Arambula eventually left the Democratic Party in his final term.
Hurtado said she is willing to do just that, adding that her time on the Sanger City Council helped familiarize her with the debate that takes place between colleagues who both believe they have good ideas.
“I don’t have to agree with the governor or a colleague 100 percent on all issues,” she said. “We can find a middle ground and find solutions.”
Health care background
Health care was a top issue for Democratic strategists, and Hurtado brought an attractive background to the table. She worked as an advocate in the Central Valley for Health Access, a Sacramento-based consumer advocacy organization, for about a year before leaving to pursue her Senate candidacy.
Health Access executive director Anthony Wright said Hurtado will go to Sacramento with experience in working to bring resources to the Fresno area. Part of her job included educating Valley residents on what health care resources are available to them – and recently, those which would have been taken away had a Republican plan to roll back the Affordable Care Act been signed into law.
“We are happy for her constituents,” Wright said. “In our staff meetings, she was always passionate about making sure the Central Valley got its due in our statewide efforts.”
He continued: “On our behalf, she organized constituents and made cases for health care needs to legislators and Congress members. She will need to do that again to move bills or budget items.”
Hurtado has broad goals, but her precise policy plans had yet to take shape as of early December.
She had no immediate plans to support any proposed bills or put forth any of her own, though she said that may change before the Feb. 22 deadline to submit new bills. For major issues such as water, education inequality and a lack of good-paying jobs, her plans are to advocate for more statewide funding.
Hurtado said she may back a single-payer health care system in California, but it would need a clear source of funding. She would not support a new tax to pay for any Medicare for All plan.
For Temperance Flat
She supports Temperance Flat. But when asked how she planned to convince her party’s power structure that has largely rejected the proposal, she said she planned to talk to Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom about the Valley’s water problems. She was part of a Valley delegation that welcomed Newsom on Dec. 7.
“We have a real good opportunity to have his ear and let him know how important water is for the greater economy,” Hurtado said. “I want to have those conversations with him and do whatever it takes.”
Hurtado said she plans to work with Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula, D-Fresno, on bringing more resources – including health clinics – back to the Valley. She said she plans to learn from Arambula, who is a friend, as well as fellow freshman senator Caballero, who spent six years in the Assembly.
Although Hurtado is the youngest member in either Legislature chamber, she said she does not plan to be a policy voice for her generation specifically.
“I want to be a voice for SD 14 as a whole,” she said. “There’s no way I can push for one part of the district and not the other. I don’t think age or background matters.”
As the Legislature prepares for a new session in January, Hurtado still had a few holes to fill in her staff.
She has hired Aaron Skaggs as her chief of staff. Skaggs most recently served as a consultant for the Senate Rules Committee and as a legislative director for state Sen. Josh Newman, a Fullerton Democrat who was recalled in June. She also hired Maria Lemus, recently a field representative for Arambula, as her district director.
Hurtado said she was in the process of opening district offices in Fresno, Hanford and Bakersfield.
There are also a few non-state issues to attend to before assuming her new career.
“I think my check engine light has been on for months,” Hurtado said.