Several prominent Democrats from across the central and southern stretches of the San Joaquin Valley are frustrated with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, saying the organization is more a hindrance than a help in winning local elections.
The DCCC, local Democrats say, recruits congressional candidates with little local input. It imposes out-of-state staffers on these candidates, many of whom never have run a campaign in the Valley and instead rely on their knowledge from working other races – an approach that doesn’t work here. Worse, local Democrats say, those staffers don’t want local experience on how to run an effective campaign.
Much of the anger and frustration centers on the 21st Congressional District, where Hanford Republican David Valadao has trounced two straight Democratic Party challengers, even though Democrats have a commanding 17 percentage point lead in voter registration over the rival GOP. To a lesser extent, it is also the case in the 10th Congressional District, which is represented by Turlock Republican Jeff Denham. In that district, Republicans hold a slim registration advantage.
“There’s a frustration with the DCCC deciding what the rules are,” says Doug Kessler, Region 8 director for the state Democratic Party, an area that covers the Valley. “We want some say who a candidate is, and more importantly, have people who respect and understand the Valley and do not dictate to us.”
Defenders of the DCCC say the goal for the national organization is the same as local Democrats – to win. Whatever the DCCC does, they say, is done with an eye toward victory.
In a short statement, the DCCC said pretty much the same thing.
“The Central Valley deserves a representative that will stand up for them in Washington, unlike David Valadao,” spokeswoman Barb Solish said. “We are confident that a strong Democrat can and will win this seat.”
Local Democrats, however, aren’t convinced.
In Kings County, Democrats here will vote for a local person every time over an outsider. Even a Republican.
Holly Andradé Blair, executive board representative for the Kings County Democratic Central Committee
Last year, Valley native Amanda Renteria returned home from Washington, D.C., with a sterling résumé and a mission to unseat Valadao. She raised more than $1.7 million. She lost in a landslide.
Renteria was well liked locally, and there is broad agreement that she worked hard.
But some local Democrats say she was handcuffed by the DCCC.
Outsiders help Renteria
Her first campaign manager came from Boston with previous political experience that included a stint as campaign manager for Boston Mayor Thomas Menino as well as time working for John Edwards’ presidential campaign and Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill’s campaign. After the primary election, she left and was replaced by someone from the Los Angeles area.
Victor Moheno, a Visalia attorney and prominent Valley Democrat, liked Renteria and thought she had promise. He recalled the start of the campaign, when he and other local Democrats recommended a kickoff event that would identify local leaders in the district’s major towns, and then send Renteria on a campaign kickoff caravan across the district. It would, Moheno said, give the campaign a grassroots feel.
The suggestion fell on deaf ears and went nowhere.
Moheno said the second campaign manager was Hispanic like Renteria and a majority of the 21st District, but he was from Los Angeles.
“There’s an urban-rural distinction among Latinos that is dramatic,” Moheno said. “It ain’t the same. He didn’t run a Valley campaign. Sadly, those are the pros. They get paid a lot of money, but they don’t listen to people.”
Valadao ended up beating Renteria by the same 15-percentage point margin as his 2012 win over Fresno Democrat John Hernandez, who ran a campaign on a shoestring budget and had nearly no DCCC support.
“Unfortunately, I think it’s the culture of the Democratic Party hierarchy,” Moheno says of the tendency toward top-down micromanaging, be it from Sacramento or Washington.
After the loss, Democrats chalked it up – at least partly – to low turnout and a bad overall showing nationally by Democrats. They then looked to 2016, a presidential election year with guaranteed higher turnout, and said they would do better in their quest to knock off Valadao.
I think it’s the culture of the Democratic Party hierarchy.
Visalia attorney and Democratic Party activist Victor Moheno, on the party’s tendency toward top-down micromanaging
But this year – a key time leading up to the 2016 election when candidates decide to run and start raising money and earning endorsements – has been a disaster for Democrats.
Kessler recalls a Region 8 Democratic Party meeting in Visalia this past summer, when the DCCC was invited. The organization ended up attending via telephone – and got an earful. The message to the DCCC: Why don’t you care about the Valley?
Holly Andradé Blair, executive board representative for the Kings County Democratic Central Committee, wonders if the DCCC does care.
“I’m proud to come from Kings County and proud to be from the Valley,” she says. “I enjoy living here, and when outsiders, particularly the DCCC – they’re clear across the country – look at this area, it’s an afterthought. It gets to me. We’re not an afterthought.”
Then, Fowler Mayor Pro Tem Daniel Parra was the only Democratic challenger to Valadao.
He entered the race in mid-April but has been unable to raise money. As of Sept. 30, he had raised less than $40,000 and has a little more than $10,000 in his campaign account.
The DCCC wasn’t impressed and began looking for another candidate, a move that upset some local Democrats.
In early September, word leaked that Tulare County native Connie Perez was being courted by the DCCC. In mid-October she announced her run using a slick campaign video. Less than a month later, she was out.
For some Democrats, she couldn’t be gone soon enough. Perez was a Tulare County native but was living in Pasadena while she worked as a partner at the Bakersfield-based Brown Armstrong Accountancy Corp. It also seemed she was hand-picked and groomed by the DCCC. Her campaign announcement came from a prominent Democratic communications firm in Los Angeles.
“What’s important about representation is we pick somebody we want to represent us, not some Democrats in Washington, D.C., or in Sacramento,” Blair said. “I don’t want somebody from outside picking my candidate for me. I’m perfectly capable of choosing my own candidate. Even if that candidate loses, it’s my choice.”
But it was no picnic for Perez, some supporters say.
She was being micromanaged by the DCCC, they contend. The organization designed her campaign and demanded she use their vendors. That means, for instance, that well-known Valley pollster Jim Moore was out, even though he knows the region. The DCCC would withhold money unless the candidate played by its rules, Perez supporters say.
A short time later, Bakersfield City School District Trustee Andrae Gonzales said he was exploring a run. A week later, he decided against it.
Now, the name of Bakersfield attorney Emilio Huerta, son of United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta, has emerged.
The National Republican Congressional Committee – the DCCC’s Washington, D.C., counterpart – is watching the spectacle with glee, firing off snarky emails with each Democratic Party move in the 21st District. One sentence in a news release on Huerta’s possible candidacy starts, “After four high-profile rejections …”
By this time, local Democrats say, the DCCC shouldn’t be recruiting candidates but should instead be turning its attention to winning the election.
There’s a frustration with the DCCC deciding what the rules are. We want some say who a candidate is, and more importantly, have people who respect and understand the Valley and do not dictate to us.
Doug Kessler, Region 8 director for the California Democratic Party
Moheno, the Visalia Democrat, says the locals learned what it takes to win congressional elections with Cal Dooley, a Democrat who used to hold the seat that now covers much of the same territory as Valadao’s 21st District.
Others say home-grown success goes beyond congressional wins with Dooley or Fresno Democrat Jim Costa – it also stretches to the state Senate and Assembly, to Democrats like former state Sen. Michael Rubio and outgoing Assemblyman Henry T. Perea.
The reason those Democrats won in the Valley, they say, is they understood the need to be moderate and to win crossover support from agriculture and business. Going too far left, they say, is a death knell here, but it is often part of the DCCC playbook.
Blair, the Kings County Democrat, says being local is also important, as is visiting little towns like Stratford, Avenal and Kettleman City.
“In Kings County, Democrats here will vote for a local person every time over an outsider,” she says. “Even a Republican.”
Maybe that’s why the NRCC is hitting on Huerta not for having UFW lineage, but for living just a few miles outside the 21st District’s boundaries.
Michael Evans, chairman of the Fresno County Democratic Central Committee, says there must be an understanding that the Valley’s political landscape is not only unlike the rest of California, but also the rest of the nation. Within the Valley, Kings County is different from Fresno County. These nuanced differences make local input into campaigns vital, he says.
“If you bring someone in from Sacramento, they have maybe a little bit of understanding, but you bring someone in from D.C., they have zero understanding, so yeah, that can be very frustrating,” Evans says.