Marek Warszawski

Race between Democrats Costa, Soria will reveal much about Fresno politics

A question for voters in California’s 16th Congressional District:

How blue is your purple?

The answer couldn’t be more relevant now that Fresno City Councilmember Esmeralda Soria finally let the cat out of the bag that she’ll challenge longtime incumbent Rep. Jim Costa for his House seat in the 2020 election.

The well-respected Cook Political Report gives the 16th District a Partisan Voting Index score of D+9. Which means in the last two presidential elections, voters in the southern half of Fresno, western Madera County and Merced County, cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama by 9 percentage points above the national average.

In other words, the 16th is solid Democratic territory. Further evidenced by Costa’s comfortable margin (57.5 percent to 42.5) over Republican newbie Elizabeth Heng last November.

Soria, however, represents an entirely different challenge for the eight-term Congressman: She’s young (37), Hispanic (as is 58 percent of District 16), smart (UC Berkeley-educated attorney), has a compelling life story (daughter of immigrant farm laborers) and a Democrat.

Rather than court swing voters and Republican moderates while counting on staunch support from his base, Costa will have to reestablish his Democratic bonafides in a district that’s becoming more blue with every election cycle.

Which may prove a challenge considering Costa, a former chair of the Blue Dog Coalition, ranks by every metric as one of the most conservative members of his own party.

“A Democrat in name only,” his detractors say.

I don’t think that’s entirely fair. Representing an agricultural-heavy district, Costa has long been an advocate for farming water rights and storage. But he also has a 100 percent rating from the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and wants to see permanent protections for the 800,000 immigrants enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Costa’s track record on the environment isn’t as peachy. Unlike many Democrats (especially the party’s liberal wing) he does not support the Green New Deal and in 2015 was one of 28 House Democrats to vote alongside Republicans in favor of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. Costa also takes campaign contributions from oil companies and “Big Ag” that make up our region’s biggest polluters.

Soria, on the other hand, has pledged to not accept any corporate PAC money for her campaign.

How much will that matter to the voters of District 16? The answer will be telling.

During her time on the Fresno City Council, Soria has worked to find solutions for the homeless issue that don’t involve putting them in handcuffs (she voted against the camping and panhandling ordinances) and was a staunch supporter of the citywide parks tax.

However, she did vote in favor of the controversial industrial park in south Fresno that got ramrodded through the city government without a full environmental impact report before being rescinded when faced with a lawsuit from neighbors and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra.

That vote, in particular, did not sit well with many on the city’s political left. So it’ll be interesting to see whether Soria aligns herself with progressives such as Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, with whom Soria met with during a recent trip to Washington, D.C., or strikes a more moderate path.

(It was amusing to watch local Republicans like County Supervisor Steve Brandau practically trip over themselves to make the Soria-AOC connection. So desperate they are to paint her into a corner.)

While those of us in Fresno tend to think of the 16th District as “ours,” the voter rolls paint a different portrait. In November’s Costa-Heng contest, an almost equal number of votes were cast in Fresno County (58,854) as Merced County (58,800). The total in Madera County (25,305) was much smaller.

Costa has represented Merced County since 2013 when district boundaries were redrawn statewide. The 67-year-old is a known quantity in Merced and spends a good chunk of his time campaigning there.

Soria, by contrast, is a relative unknown outside Fresno. To make a dent in Merced and Madera (where 56.2 percent of the vote went to Heng), she’ll need to make up plenty of ground.

With all due respect to others who have declared — neither Kevin Cookingham, a Republican, nor Kim Williams, a Democrat, have held public office — it’s hard to see this as anything but a two-way race.

In one corner, we have an established moderate with a lengthy track record (Costa). In the other is an up-and-coming progressive (Soria). Both are Democrats and consider the Tower District their home base, but the commonalities pretty much end there.

It promises to be a fascinating campaign, one that will reveal just as much about the voters of the 16th District as the differences between the two front-runners.

How blue is your purple? Over the next year or so, we should have a pretty good idea.

Marek Warszawski writes opinion columns on news, politics, sports and quality of life issues for The Fresno Bee, where he has worked since 1998. He is a Bay Area native, a UC Davis graduate and lifelong Sierra frolicker. He welcomes discourse with readers but does not suffer fools nor trolls.