Four years ago, Democrat Rep. Jim Costa got the scare of his political life when he eked out a two-percentage-point win over an unknown Fresno County dairyman who represented the GOP.
Fast forward to today and the 66-year-old Costa once again faces a newcomer on the Republican side, this time a dynamic first-generation Asian American who grew up in Fresno, graduated from Stanford University and got a master’s from Yale, but is also a relative unknown in local politics.
Costa held off Elizabeth Heng by six points in the June primary, but she has since been named a “Young Gun” by the national Republican party, a distinction given to newcomer GOP candidates in what the party considers the most competitive races in the November election.
Heng, 33, makes many of the same points that Burrel dairyman Johnny Tacherra did four years ago: Costa is a career politician who authors too few bills and does too little to help his 16th District. It is time for a new approach, and Heng believes she is the one to offer just that.
Heng’s life story is compelling, her energy is infectious and her intellect is obvious. The daughter of immigrant parents from Cambodia, she grew up working in their market in southeast Fresno. She went on to become valedictorian at Sunnyside High, and later student body president at Stanford. Heng would make a dynamic elected official. But her aim, and timing, are not quite right. She would serve better first in a local or state position, where she could gain important experience, before entering Congress.
What the 16th District — and for that matter, the nation — needs most right now is someone experienced who can cross party lines and work with the opposing side for actual solutions to challenging problems. Locally, there are the difficult problems of water supply, the scarcity of decent-paying jobs in the Valley economy and achieving an immigration solution that allows farmers to have a stable work force.
For those reasons, The Bee recommends that Jim Costa be returned to Congress to represent his parts of Merced, Madera and Fresno counties. But this time, more than ever, results matter.
To be certain, Costa has cast key votes since his last campaign. He’d barely left the November 2016 election when he was one of only three Democrats on a key House committee to back a plan to forgive a debt accrued by the Westlands Water District, the nation’s largest ag water district that is headquartered in Fresno. In return, it agreed to retire 100,000 acres of land from production and relieve the federal government of its obligation to construct a multibillion-dollar irrigation drainage system.
At one point, San Rafael congressman Jared Huffman, a fellow Democrat and environmentalist who has long opposed Westlands, berated Costa loudly during the hearing.
Costa cast his vote from his conviction about supporting agriculture in the Valley and solving a drainage problem that had bedeviled the federal government for years (the deal has yet to be ratified by the full Congress). He has been a consistent backer of farming in his 14 years in the House.
He has also regularly found ways to direct federal dollars to the region. As Bee staff writer Rory Appleton found on recent day spent with Costa, the congressman can literally drive through his district and point out where he landed millions of funding for things like widening Highway 99 and improving veterans homes, health clinics and hospitals.
But Costa rarely champions legislation. In 2017, he introduced the fifth-fewest bills of House Democrats, according to govtrack.us, a website that analyzes the activities and records of congressional members. Put another way, he introduced only two bills last year.
However, Costa joined bipartisan bills the sixth most often last year compared to all representatives in the House. That reflects his willingness to work with others.
In June Costa joined neighboring GOP congressmen David Valadao of Hanford and Jeff Denham of Turlock in trying to force the House to take up immigration bills dealing with the so-called Dreamers — young people who were born in another country and brought here as children. GOP leaders in the House ultimately blocked the measure, and for sure, Costa has had to toil in the 115h Congress as a member of the minority party.
If Democrats capture the necessary seats in the November election to retake the House, Costa will have the chance to once again help on a new Dream Act — and more importantly, immigration reform, including a provision for ag workers that Valley growers badly need.
Costa would also be a high-ranking member on key committees like Natural Resources, the one on which he cast the drainage vote. That could prove useful if legislation to create additional water supplies, like a new dam on the San Joaquin River or some other concept, is considered by the committee.
Importantly, Costa is also part of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a small group of House members equally divided between Democrats and Republicans whose goal is to move the chamber back toward a more bipartisan operation to achieve solutions to the difficult issues the nation faces.
Should Costa win re-election this time out, the next term could be one of the most challenging of his career, given the tensions that arise whenever the White House is at stake, and certainly more so in this era of the Twitter-happy Trump administration. Valley residents are trusting in Costa to keep his focus on growing our ag-based economy, solving the immigration issue and finding any new water source that helps the Valley’s farms, residents and businesses without harming the environment.
When asked if this will be his final campaign, Costa replies “I look at it one term at a time. I still have desire and passion to want to make a difference and help people.”
The Bee recommends Jim Costa be given another two years to do just that.
How The Bee came to this recommendation
The Bee’s Editorial Board consists of Publisher Ken Riddick, Editor Joe Kieta, Editorial Page Editor Tad Weber, Vida en el Valle Editor Juan Esparza Loera, and Vida Staff Writer Maria Ortiz-Briones. They conducted in-depth, in-person interviews with Jim Costa and Elizabeth Heng. Additional research about the candidates was also done using publicly accessible online sources and The Bee’s archives.
The recommendation is just that: a helpful opinion meant to guide readers as they reach their own decision on which candidate to choose. This recommendation is the consensus opinion the Editorial Board; the news staff does not play any role in its creation.