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Pharmaceutical Industry Pushes to Kill CA Drug Price Reform as Bill Faces Critical Vote

The next step in deciding whether California will join other state efforts to demystify the drug pricing practices of pharmaceutical manufacturers will be taken tomorrow as the Assembly’s Health Committee votes on a drug pricing transparency bill introduced in February by State Senator Dr. Ed Hernandez.

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Bill Raden




The next step in deciding whether California will join other state efforts to demystify the drug pricing practices of pharmaceutical manufacturers will be taken tomorrow as the Assembly’s Health Committee votes on a drug pricing transparency bill introduced in February by State Senator Dr. Ed Hernandez (D-Azusa).

Update: SB 1010’s committee vote has been postponed to June 28.

The bill, which was passed by the Senate three weeks ago, comes in the midst of a growing public furor over the pricing of pharmaceuticals that has seen retail prices on many lifesaving specialty drug regimens equivalent to that of a new Porsche Panamera. Much of the outrage has been focused on pharmaceuticals companies that reap vast profits by buying up existing drugs they deem to be undervalued and spiking prices rather than performing costly research and development.

But wholesale prices of first-generation treatments for common medical conditions that have been in the marketplace for decades have also been skyrocketing without apparent justification. The cost of at least 60 brand name prescription drugs have more than doubled over the past 18 months alone — with at least 20 quadrupling in price — as drug companies resort to a pattern of year in, year out increases to drive revenues.

That sticker shock has most impacted the state’s largest purchasers of drugs — the hospitals, health insurers, the California Department of Corrections and the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) that have been forced to absorb the crippling costs whose rippling effects ultimately fall on wages, taxes and state budgets, and pressure insurers to raise premiums.

Sponsored by the California Labor Federation and the consumer organization Health Access California, Senate Bill 1010, its supporters insist, will alleviate some of that pressure by simply requiring pharmaceutical manufacturers to give advance notice of price hikes along with a justification for the increases. It would also require health plans to report the proportion of insurance premiums that is spent on prescription drugs.

“It’s such a basic and modest step,” Health Access California executive director Anthony Wright told Capital & Main, “but it would allow large purchasers to be able to start a negotiation with the drug companies rather than be totally surprised by [a hike] and just accept it as is.”

Those hikes can be as dramatic as they are stratospheric. In 2014, hepatitis C killed 19,659 Americans, making it the most lethal infectious disease in the country. About 3.5 million Americans — and about 750,000 Californians — are currently living with hepatitis C, with roughly half unaware that they are infected, earning the virus the name “silent killer.” Worldwide, that estimate is 200 million. It is the most common cause of cirrhosis and liver cancer. And it is the most common reason for liver transplants worldwide.

That same year, however, saw the introduction of the breakthrough antiviral Sovaldi by Foster City-based Gilead Sciences, which offered a virtual cure. But there was a catch. Gilead priced Sovaldi at $1,000 per pill, which made the 400-milligram tablet one of the most expensive drugs on Earth. A three-month course of the treatment cost around $84,000, and that set the stage for a battle between desperate patients and reluctant health insurers.

That cost was also a big concern for the state, because hepatitis C disproportionately affects low-income people, who are more likely to be on Medi-Cal, along with prisoners, whose health care is also the state’s responsibility. Between July 2014 and November 2015, California paid $387.5 million to treat just 3,624 patients with the disease.

Last year, CalPERS reported that specialty drug spending increased 32 percent to $438 million annually, and Governor Brown’s 2015 budget was forced to set aside supplemental funding of $228 million to pay for a fraction of the patients who are on public assistance programs to receive Sovaldi and a newer, even more expensive Gilead hep C antiviral called Harvoni.

“It’s actually a topic that makes me very angry,” said Dr. Catherine Moizeau, a Sacramento physician who specializes in treating hep C patients, most of whom are on Medi-Cal. “I’m furious about the way they’ve priced these drugs and made it so difficult for everybody.”

For hep C doctors, the concerns with the exorbitantly priced drugs come downstream with the treatment of the 75-80 percent of Medi-Cal patients whose benefits are administered by a managed care plan. Despite the drug offering cure rates greater than 90 percent, initially, managed Medi-Cal companies limited authorization for Sovaldi and Harvoni, rationing the drugs to only those patients with one foot in the grave.

“There’s been unprecedented pushback that we had in the last two years by the payers,” Moizeau recalled. “I mean [they were] literally throwing these people under the bus, saying that, ‘We’re just not gonna pay for these meds.’”

Finally last July, the state’s Department of Health Care Services changed its guidelines for the medications, lowering the standard of illness from stage 3’s advanced fibrosis of the liver to stage 2’s substantial fibrosis of the liver, “as a result of an increasing body of scientific research about the effectiveness of newer hepatitis C medications.”

“The bottom line,” Moizeau noted, “is we’ve got a situation in California where we’re still experiencing rationing for an infection of all things! Which is kind of crazy, because, you know, if a person has a relatively dangerous infection and there’s a cure for it, you would want to get that infection treated and cure it. … You have to have substantial fibrosis of the liver — F2 fibrosis of the liver! — before Medi-Cal will pay for your hep C treatment meds.”

For Big Pharma the stakes are high. The market for new-generation hepatitis C treatments is expected to reach $20 billion by 2020. And the industry insists that steep prices are necessary to recoup research and development costs, which for new drugs average around $1.4 billion before FDA approval. But exactly how that price gets calculated remains shrouded in secrecy. Though Gilead has never revealed Sovaldi’s full price tag, it did report that it spent around $880 million on development between 2012 and 2014 — but only after paying $11 billion to buy Pharmasset Inc. to acquire its research and patents on the new antivirals. Sovaldi has since paid off handsomely, generating nearly $8 billion in sales in just its first year.

And though the price of the drug has since come down, thanks in part to Merck’s lower-priced Zepatier, which was introduced in January at a list price of $54,600 for a 12-week regimen, nobody is certain how much anybody pays for any drug, since institutional and state buyers negotiate their own volume prices as well as benefitting from additional rebates and discounts that are confidential.

“California is well known to have very aggressive negotiators for our Medicaid program,” said Emalie Huriaux, director of federal and state affairs for San Francisco’s Project Inform, which advocates on behalf of hep C patients. “So we don’t know what California pays for these drugs for Medi-Cal. Gilead has said publically that they are offering Medicaid discounts in the 50 percent range. I can’t prove that that’s true or not. We hear the pharmaceutical manufacturers often will tell us something, and we’ll try to confirm it with the health plans, and they’ll tell us something different. But we often have no way of verifying what the truth is about these negotiations, what prices are, what types of discounts were offered or were accepted. And so it’s very difficult to find the truth.”

In an email to Capital & Main, Sara Radcliffe, the president and CEO of the biomedical trade organization California Life Sciences Association (CLSA), dismissed SB 1010’s transparency claims, arguing that the bill’s reporting requirements could actually backfire by creating a “gray market” in which secondary distributors might hoard drugs and sell to the highest bidder. But she also defended the current system.

“Insurers, pharmacy benefit managers, and other large purchasers will continue to negotiate discounts, rebates, and other concessions on medicines,” she offered, “setting, on average, four-fifths of any price increase on brand medicines in 2015 alone.”

Anthony Wright  said the vote result is far from certain: “[Big Pharma] is pulling out all the stops; they’re making ridiculous claims — everything from fliers to web ads that say this is getting in the way of President Obama’s ‘cancer moonshot.’ They are trying to make the case that this very modest notice for disclosure bill will somehow block the cure for cancer.”

A spokesperson for the Governor declined to comment on whether Brown intended to sign the bill should it survive tomorrow’s Assembly Health Committee hearing and a subsequent floor vote.

“I hope [SB 1010] has perhaps a chilling effect on some of these really extreme, seemingly arbitrary price increases,” reflected Sara Flocks, a policy coordinator for California Labor Federation. “To be able to really start a conversation with policy makers about all of the cost drivers in health care, and also, when we’re spending very limited dollars and when the price of drugs means that we are actually limiting access to cures, we need to have a conversation about how this market works and if there’s a market failure.”

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Politics & Government

Proposed Los Angeles Law Would Give Tenants Access to Attorneys

The City Council is considering a ‘right to counsel’ program that could help curb evictions and homelessness.

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Photo by B-A Graphix

An estimated 30,000 eviction cases are filed in court each year against Los Angeles city residents. Many more tenants do not show up in court since they know “they have limited legal rights and they have limited access to legal representation,” according to a recent report by Tenants Together, a renter advocacy organization.

Urged on by renter advocates, a Los Angeles City Council housing committee voted August 8 to support the creation of a ‘right to counsel’ law similar to ones that have been adopted by San Francisco and New York.

The committee approved a motion, authored by L.A. City Councilman Paul Koretz, which directs staff to craft a program that would give more tenants facing eviction access to attorneys.

“Basic fairness dictates that if one side of an eviction proceeding has legal representation, the other side should have representation, too, and that equality before the law shouldn’t depend on income level,” said Jerry Jones, director of public policy at the Inner City Law Center. Jones joined about a dozen speakers at the committee meeting.

Compared to the high cost of addressing the homeless crisis, eviction defense is a relatively inexpensive means to prevent people from becoming homeless, according to Jones.

County and city officials are struggling to find temporary and permanent housing for the tens of thousands of residents who become homeless every year. And while there has been a slight decrease in the county’s homeless population since last year, the number of homeless – 53,000 – is still staggering, according to the last count. In addition, more people were homeless for the first time this year than last, suggesting unaffordable rents may be pushing people onto the street.

At the hearing, Janet Gagnon, a representative of the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles, complained that a right-to-counsel program would “simply give money to defense attorneys.” She said that public money would be better spent on vouchers “so that the people can avoid the eviction process entirely.”

But a 2017 analysis of pilot programs that offered free legal service to tenants concluded that providing counsel does have benefits. Eviction cases involving represented tenants are more likely to end in settlement, and most of those settlements reduced back-owed rent or helped protect tenants’ credit by keeping eviction notices off the public record.

The study, which was conducted by the Judicial Council of California, also found that 67 percent of cases involving represented tenants settled, as compared to 34 percent of cases in which people represented themselves. While all clients in the study received eviction notices, only 6 percent were ultimately evicted from their homes.

Jim Bickhart, a representative of Councilman Paul Koretz, said that the intent of the proposed measure was to expand the capacity of the current network of legal services, which currently serves “several thousand clients a year.”

“There is no way this proposal could provide free legal service to every tenant faced with eviction, but we should start somewhere,” he added. The motion is scheduled to be voted on by the full City Council on August 17.

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Cuomo’s Cable Company War Could Enrich His Campaign Donors

Last week New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Public Service Commission revoked the authorization of the state’s largest cable TV provider to operate. The action could enrich other cable industry giants that, together, rank among Cuomo’s largest campaign donors.

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David Sirota




Andrew Cuomo photo by Diana Robinson.

When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration recently moved to shut down New York City’s largest cable television provider, Cuomo cast the maneuver as an initiative to defend consumers from a company he claimed had failed to build out service to rural customers. He did not mention that the action could end up enriching other cable industry giants that are together among Cuomo’s largest campaign donors — and that have delivered large contributions to Cuomo’s campaign in the year leading up to the decision.

Cuomo, a Democrat, is facing a primary battle against progressive actress Cynthia Nixon, who has accused him of shaping policy to benefit his largest campaign contributors.

In the current battle over New York’s telecommunication regulation, Cuomo’s Public Service Commission (PSC) last week revoked Charter Spectrum’s authorization to operate in the state. The commission’s order said the company — which is the largest cable provider in New York — had failed to build out high-speed Internet service to rural areas, as required in its 2016 merger agreement with Time Warner. Cuomo declared that the company “has been executing fraud on the people of this state.”

Cuomo aired his criticism after a reporter from a Charter-owned news outlet had asked him about corruption scandals engulfing his administration. Later, Nixon asserted that the governor was employing a Donald Trump-esque tactic to try to intimidate journalists. Whether that was in fact Cuomo’s motive, there is little doubt that his administration’s move could also open up a rare — and highly lucrative — expansion opportunity for well-positioned telecom industry competitors such as Comcast or Altice, which have delivered big money to Cuomo.

Campaign finance records reviewed by Capital & Main show that Comcast and Cablevision — the latter of which is owned by Altice and operates in New York — have together given Cuomo more than $830,000 during his career as New York attorney general and then governor – a sum that dwarfs the $191,000 that Charter subsidiary Time Warner gave to Cuomo in the same time period. Nearly $200,000 of the cash from Comcast and Cablevision was delivered to Cuomo in the last year – while Time Warner made no contributions to the governor in that period.

Meanwhile, a Cuomo aide was recently hired by a lobbying firm that represents Altice, and Cuomo’s PSC in 2015 approved the company’s merger with Cablevision over the objections of the Communications Workers of America, which argued to the Federal Communications Commission that the deal would “starve Cablevision of resources needed for service, network investment and jobs.”

Altice and Comcast did not comment in response to questions from Capital & Main. A statement from Richard Azzopardi, a spokesman for Governor Cuomo, read in part:

“If your theory were correct and anyone was influenced by contributions, Charter would not have been granted the franchise in the first place‎. Rather than serve the people of New York, for the past two years Charter has sought to advance its own interests at their expense. In addition to its failure to expand broadband service to rural, poor, and underserved communities that is at the heart of the PSC’s action, Charter misled New Yorkers through advertisements on its stations that they took down only yesterday.  At every turn they have put their own interest first, rather than keep the promises to New Yorkers they made in exchange for their exclusivity and the PSC rightly exercised its authority as a regulator.”

Potential Charter replacements like Altice “would arguably be very happy to expand their footprint in New York,” said Harold Feld, vice president of the consumer group Public Knowledge.

Altice reportedly has about three million customers in New York — and has in recent years been aiming to expand its Internet service in New York City. Comcast does not operate in New York, but does operate in neighboring New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

“For them, this would be an opportunity that is adjacent to their existing operations,” Feld told Capital & Main. “There are just so few opportunities to add a significant expansion of cable systems, and this one in particular includes New York City, which is a very significant and profitable market.”

The PSC’s order revolves around conditions Charter agreed to as part of its merger with Time-Warner. According to PSC documents, that deal required Charter to expand broadband service to “an additional 145,000 homes and businesses in less densely populated areas across the state” — an obligation that Cuomo administration officials say the company did not follow through on.

For its part, Charter denies the allegations.

“We believe we’re in compliance with the plain reading and the buildout requirements that the state imposed on us in merger conditions, and we have a very strong legal case and ability to defend ourselves,” Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge said this week during an earnings call. “And it could play out over a lengthy period of time if required.”

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Restless Valley: Can Devin Nunes Hold His Seat in November?

For years the California backbencher was a quiet blip on Congress’ radar. Then he burst into the news by trying to disrupt the House’s Russia probe. Today he finds himself increasingly on the receiving end of constituent anger.

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Donnell Alexander




Devin Nunes photo by Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images.

The eight-term congressman could not be less visible to locals if he wore a magic cloak.  Some visiting constituents have had to interact with Nunes’ people through an outdoor intercom.

The conversations swirling around at Pride Visalia blended in with feathery dance beats from a drag contest, here in Tulare County’s largest town. Southern Central Valley LGBT people and their allies had taken cars, trains and buses out of map dots from miles around to gather in fellowship at Visalia’s Old Lumberyard. All about this outdoor downtown party in America’s agricultural center, the undeniable future — even more brown than it is queer — was celebrating.

In the middle of this revelry Ruth McKee, a retired Visalia deputy district attorney, began to rail against Devin Nunes, California’s 22nd Congressional District’s representative and a major impediment to the House Intelligence Committee’s Russian-collusion investigation. He won reelection in 2016 to his drawn-safe seat with 67 percent of the vote. (Donald Trump won the district with 52 percent.)

“Nunes spews ‘Water! Water! Water!’ and won’t do anything to help get that water.”

“Nunes has been in office for 16 years. He hasn’t brought one drop of water to our family farmers,” complained McKee, who runs Tulare’s Democratic Central Committee. “Agriculture is our base, agriculture is our life, and he spews, ‘Water! Water! Water!’ and won’t do anything to help get that water.”

McKee was directly contradicting a local pro-Nunes narrative driven by AM talk radio and 300 miles of billboards appearing along Highway 99. It’s one heavily promoted by Valley Republicans.

Democratic challenger Andrew Janz says he’ll debate Nunes, but the incumbent has opted to stick with his bulk mailers.

“Congressman Nunes is doing a great job, and in the face of a lot of pressure in Washington,” Michael Der Manouel Jr., a prominent Fresno businessman and chairman of the local Lincoln Club, told Capital & Main.

The eight-term congressman has cultivated a reputation as both a water warrior and a DC representative who could not be less visible to the local public if he wore a magic cloak. From ag-rich Tulare County, where three out of four public school students are eligible for reduced-priced lunches, north to Fresno County Democrats in the wealthy, conservative suburb of Clovis, constituents fed up with Nunes have become focused on finding ways to unseat him. They seem to have made some headway.

In April, the University of Virginia Center for Politics’ influential Sabato’s Crystal Ball newsletter readjusted CA-22’s longstanding status from “safe” to “likely Republican,” in large part because 34-year-old challenger Andrew Janz, a Fresno County prosecutor, is Nunes’ first competitively-funded opponent. California’s June primary saw Nunes take 58 percent of the vote, while his Democratic rival earned a 32 percent second-place finish – and a spot on the November ballot. Businessman and Democrat Bobby Bliatout — controller of the district’s significant Hmong vote — took five percent.

The only local media Nunes remotely engages with is the conservative talk radio station KMJ, through call-in appearances.

District voters talk about Trump, of course. But water’s the greater concern in this farm country where folks with Latinate surnames are the majority and many of them are poor. And, while many residents assume, from his name, that Nunes is Latino, he belongs to the region’s powerful, mostly conservative Portuguese-American community – some of whose members, like Nunes’ family, originally came from the Azores Islands. How much water the rural South Valley gets, and to what extent it’s drinkable, are issues topping a list of voter grievances against state and national Republicans, including Nunes. In CA-22, poverty and substandard air quality are issues that trail close behind.

Energized Democrats in Clovis aren’t going to be the difference in November. Nor will Republican “Never Trumpers.” (It’s thought that, more likely, Nunes could be hurt by Republicans who just won’t bother to vote this fall.) No, the most up-for grabs-votes are here in Tulare County, where prospective voters work hard at low-paying, ag-associated jobs and have myriad reasons to not get to the polls.

“Sometimes I think the average constituent doesn’t truly understand what it means to have Devin Nunes as a representative,” said Abigail Solis, an Earlimart school board president. “They have become accustomed to living in an area that’s underserved, they have a congressman who never shows up. That’s just been the way it is. They don’t know anything different.”

Nunes has raised $7.3 million in the current election cycle, with only about 12 percent of that coming from within his district.

Nunes calls himself a family farmer, even though he sold his share of the family dairy farm in 2006 and bought into a Napa winery. The only local media Nunes remotely engages with is the conservative talk radio station KMJ, through call-in appearances. He hasn’t held a town hall meeting since 2009, when a public Affordable Care Act conversation went sideways. Some constituents who visit his Visalia office have had to interact with Nunes’ people through an outdoor intercom. (His office did not respond to requests for an interview with Nunes for this article.)

He does, however, send a breathtaking deluge of mailers. Nunes has raised $7.3 million in the current election cycle, with only about 12 percent of that coming from within his district.

Fred Vanderhoof, the Fresno County Republican Party chair, dismisses criticisms of Nunes’ absence from his district.

“The people Devin Nunes associates himself with, especially those that run his district offices and his office in Washington, have close ties with major corporations and wealthy families.”

“The outcry against him nationally has raised support within his district,” said Vanderhoof. “With what’s going on in DC, people understand that he can’t be here as much. He’s still very strong in the district.”

Nunes was first voted into office back in 1996, fresh out of College of the Sequoias. According to a New York Times profile, Nunes campaigned for a seat on the college’s board of trustees on a questionable allegation involving the school’s sale of 160 acres of campus farmland. The win marked him as a young conservative on the rise. He was 23. In 2001 President George W. Bush appointed Nunes California state director for the United States Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development section. Two years later he was elected to Congress.

Democrats have no choice but to explore deep get-out-the-vote strategies—including networks with Hmong constituents.

Although he sold his farm, Nunes has kept his aggie reputation and connections. His work with Valley congressmen David Valadao (R-Hanford) and Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) to pass 2014’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Emergency Water Delivery Act kept the goodwill coming from farmers. Nunes could tap his chief of staff Anthony Ratekin from the employ of Stewart Resnick, the Beverly Hills-based “world’s richest farmer” and Central Valley land baron — and experience no question of conflicts.

“It seems like the people Devin Nunes associates himself with, especially those that run his district offices and his office in Washington, have close ties with major corporations and wealthy families, like the Resnicks,” Visalia native Janz told me a week after Pride Visalia, having just climbed down from his campaign’s flatbed truck. “As a member of Congress, the staff that you choose should be representative of the district.”

To beat the inherently high odds of winning a seat designed to produce Republican representation in DC, the Democrats will need to over-perform in Tulare County, and that means engaging its most glaring issues. Janz said that he’ll debate Nunes, but the incumbent has opted to stick with his bulk mailers. Democrats have no choice but to explore deep get-out-the-vote strategies—including networks with Bobby Bliatout’s Hmong constituents—especially in the 459,000-resident county’s hinterlands. There, clean water is so scarce that in towns like Monson, rich farmers with drills that can reach 2,000 feet into the ground drain aquifers and leave adjacent communities with little of the clean stuff.

Andrew Janz: “We’ve seen agencies like ICE come out and target immigrant communities in a clear attempt to drive [down] their turnout numbers in November.”

“People don’t understand that there are school districts without water, in their own backyard,” said Becky Quintana, 62, the founder of Committee for a Better Seville. According to Quintana, who until recently lived in water-scarce Seville, it’s common to run into public school teachers at Walmart buying water for their students.

Not only Janz, but the 250 organizers and canvassers that his party has on the streets will have to remind constituents that having 76 percent of a county’s school kids on reduced-priced lunches is not typical — and to amplify the concerns about pesticides that farm workers are exposed to while they toil in the fields.

“We like to brag about being the breadbasket of the world,” admitted Salvador Cazarez, secretary of Tulare County Stonewall Democrats. “And I think that blinds us to some of the issues.”

I can tell you, as a prosecutor, that the Latino community and the undocumented community are disproportionately targeted by criminals,” said Nunes’ Democratic opponent Janz, an outspoken water advocate who speaks his mother’s native Thai. And they do this because they know that these folks are very shy about going to the police and law enforcement to report what’s happening.”

“Latinos make up about 65 percent of the Valley, and sadly a lot of us are tricked into voting for somebody, or we’re told to vote for somebody.”

What’s remarkable is that some of the “criminal” tactics Janz described included those of voter intimidation of minority citizens — “Something,” he said, “we’ve been worried about from day one.”

“We see the same tactic being used to intimidate them to not come out and vote, because of what we see with what’s going on with the census,” he added, referring to the U.S. Census Bureau’s insertion of a controversial  question about citizenship in its 2020 survey forms. “They’re trying to add a new checkbox, basically saying, ‘Hey, are you a U.S. citizen?’ I think that’s completely unconstitutional.”

“Beyond that,” Janz continued, “we’ve seen agencies like ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] come out and target immigrant communities in a clear attempt to drive [down] their turnout numbers in November. I think it’s purposefully done by the Trump administration, and it’s designed to scare people.” (ICE did not respond to requests for comment.)

The domination of ag culture in the Central Valley has evolved so that many of the 22nd District’s inhabitants seem unable to comprehend the fact that their government is not run by a CEO.

Census manipulation and ICE scares are newish threats, but critics claim that Valley Republicans have historically practiced nuanced forms of voter intimidation and dissuasion. While locals interviewed for this story said some farmers directly tell their overwhelmingly Mexican-American workforce who to vote for, others opt to tie policy to personal outcomes. A Tulare County grower, for example, might tell his employees that he won’t be able to help buy textbooks for their children unless a proposed tax hike fails. Valley workers also report having been threatened over their voting choices in the workplace and in classrooms.

“Latinos make up about 65 percent of the Valley, and sadly a lot of us are tricked into voting for somebody, or we’re told to vote for somebody,” said Cazarez. “It’s super common [with] farm workers that the boss is going to come over and say, Look, you’re going to vote for this person or I will fire you.”

Add to this the inherent distrust of local politicians that many Mexican immigrants bring to the Valley. For a population disproportionately concerned that voting might expose holes in their families’ documentation, the barriers to mass electoral engagement can appear to be on the verge of insurmountable.

Those are major problems, and they lead back to the question over which McKee became so exercised: Why don’t the locals get it? Examples of Valley residents “not getting it” seem to abound.

The week before Pride Visalia, Tulare Mayor Carlton Jones had come under heavy political fire, after saying on Facebook that the agriculture industry can be destructive to the environment. Farmers began calling for his ouster.

“He’s kinda like the CEO of the town,” said Xavier Avila, a Tulare dairy man, told a reporter. It was soon in doubt whether Mayor Jones could survive the backlash. He didn’t — a few weeks later he was booted out of office by Tulare’s city council.

The domination of ag culture in the Central Valley has evolved so that many of the 22nd District’s inhabitants seem unable to comprehend the fact that their government is not run by a “CEO” and that agribusiness has no legal role in dictating the quality of the air they breathe and the water they drink. The job of Andrew Janz between now and November isn’t just to tease out these issues for a numbed and neglected pool of voters, but for his campaign to convince these Americans to put more than a vote on the line. The job of Devin Nunez during that same period will be to ensure that those same voters continue to vote for him.

Copyright Capital & Main

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How a Young Progressive Democrat Is Shaking Up Michigan Governor’s Race

Abdul El-Sayed, a 33-year-old physician, is running for Michigan’s Democratic gubernatorial nomination on a promise to create a single-payer health-care system in the state.

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David Sirota




Abdul El-Sayed image: Michael Buck/Wood-TV8 via AP, Pool.

In 2016, Michigan was supposed to be part of the Democrats’ Blue Wall — the nickname given states that have traditionally voted Democratic in presidential elections. But it didn’t turn out that way — Donald Trump won the state, which helped him win the whole election.

Now, less than two years later, the state faces a hotly contested governor’s race — one that is part of an intensifying debate over the future of the Democratic Party. At the center of that debate is Abdul El-Sayed — a 33-year-old physician who is running for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination on a promise to create a single-payer health-care system in Michigan.

After 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning upset primary win over Rep. Joe Crowley in New York, one top Democratic leader, U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, appeared on CNN and warned that “you can’t win the White House without the Midwest and I don’t think you can go too far to the left and still win the Midwest.”

In a new podcast interview with Capital & Main, El-Sayed rejects that assertion — arguing that the only way for Democrats to win in places like Michigan is to take on what he calls “corporatism.”

El-Sayed faces former state senate Democratic leader Gretchen Whitmer and entrepreneur Shri Thanedar in the August 7 primary. Whitmer, who has been leading in polls, has been boosted by Blue Cross Blue Shield executives and has declined to support single-payer health care. El-Sayed — who was previously appointed to run the Detroit Health Department after the city’s bankruptcy — recently received the endorsement of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, who won the 2016 Michigan Democratic primary.

What follows is a lightly edited excerpt of the podcast interview. Podcast subscribers can click here to listen to the full interview.

David Sirota: Michigan had been considered a Democratic-leaning state, but it has a Republican legislature, a Republican governor and Donald Trump won the state in 2016. Is Michigan now a GOP stronghold?

Abdul El-Sayed: I reject the premise that Michigan is a Republican state. If you look at what’s happened in our state legislature, that’s just the slow ticking away of the process of gerrymandering that Republicans have been pushing for a long time. You look at our Republican governor, and he’s center-right, relative to at least where the Republican spectrum is right now. And then this state went for Donald Trump by 10,000 votes because we had a Democratic nominee that was unwilling to come here, and didn’t have a message for the folks in this state.

More importantly, I point to the fact that Senator Bernie Sanders won his primary in 2016, and this is by all means a progressive state. Our job, though, is to put forward a politics and a message on the left that actually speaks to the lived experience of people in our state. Unfortunately, Michigan Democrats haven’t been able to do that for a very long time.

Almost everybody knows somebody who either lost a job and health-care, or was that person themselves in 2008. Everybody knows somebody who has been locked out of the economy since then. We all know that our public schools have suffered…And our teachers are trying to do more and more with less and less because of the Betsy DeVos agenda.

We are a progressive state that has failed to put up progressive candidates, and therefore lost our mantle to folks on the right who are talking about the same populist issues that Democrats are talking about, but ascribing it to, unfortunately, a virulent and disgusting strain of racism, saying, “The reason you don’t have a job is because the brown people took your jobs and the black people took all the benefits.” And that was in effect Donald Trump’s message.

Barack Obama twice won Michigan, and then Hillary Clinton lost it. What changed?

I don’t think much actually changed. I think people were frustrated by the message in 2016 from Democrats, which is to say that everything’s okay and the economy’s back.

And if you look at Barack Obama’s message in 2012, he was talking about the responsibility we continue to have to get the economy working for people again. To some degree, he presided over a “recovery” that didn’t really reach down for poor and working people in the way that it should have. And so it left Hillary in 2016 talking about an economy that was “back,” except for all we saw, corporate profits were up, labor participation had stagnated and real wages had fallen.

So for most people, like my Uncle Rick who voted for Donald Trump, [the] economy’s not back for them. They’re looking at an economy where they feel locked out, where they’re watching as the corporate elite are making out with more money than they ever made before the recession, and they’re left without jobs or even the means of building their own small businesses.

Your campaign has been cited as one of many high-profile progressive candidacies that are part of a larger national trend. Why are we seeing so many challenges to the Democratic Party establishment?

Progressives are sick and tired of watching our communities be sick and tired. We are standing up and saying that our politics have to stop trying to go halfway. We’ve got to go all the way there. And the only way that Democrats win is when we are honest and conscious about our message. When we stand up and we say that a government for people and by people means that we are not taking corporate money from the same old folks who tend to get away with pushing forward a set of policies that ultimately hurt people.

It means that we stand unabashedly for universal health care and the best means of getting there, which is clearly single-payer or Medicare-for-All style health care. It means we stand up for 100 percent renewable energy. No more halfway solutions. No more kowtowing to the corporations who have corrupted Democrats’ messaging…

You have put forward a detailed plan to create a single-payer health-care system in Michigan. The California legislature has been debating moving in the same direction — but critics have argued that individual states just do not have the resources to do something like that on their own. Why do you disagree?

I think that is an absurd argument because number one, let’s learn from our history. The Canadian health-care system, which is a single-payer system, didn’t start at the federal level. It actually started because the province of Saskatchewan decided that they wanted to do something about the fact that too many people in their province didn’t have health-care. And so it started at the local level and then became federal policy in Canada.

Number two, I’m not about to sit back and wait while 600,000 people in my state go without access to health care. We put together what is the most thorough state-level single-payer health-care plan that’s been proposed. It would provide every Michigander access to health care. That’s number one. But beyond that, it actually saves the average Michigan family [that’s] earning about $48,000 a year $5,000. And it also saves businesses money. This is something we can do. The resources are there. Question is, whether or not the priorities are there.

Typically, the health-insurance industry has succeeded in blocking universal health-care proposals with fearmongering — basically, it’s a mishmash of claims that people will no longer be able to choose their own doctors, they will face long wait times and they will face crushing tax increases. Why do you think those arguments will fail this time around?

I think enough people in our state have enough experience without health-care or [with] being dominated by these corporations, that they are done with it. And yeah, the insurance industry is going to spend a ton of money against our plan. They’re already spending a ton of money against me, for my corporate Democratic opponent. But the fact of the matter is that it is about messaging. It’s about having the right conversation with people. And unfortunately with Democrats, sometimes we’re not very good at telling the story of the experience of the policy we want to push.

Here’s the thing: The way most people’s experience with insurance works right now is that your employer pays a tremendous amount of money so you have insurance — but you have to also pay a tremendous amount of money in your payroll that comes off the top of your salary. So now you’ve already paid for your [health care] and then when you want to actually use it you have to pay upfront in a co-pay, and it doesn’t kick in until you’ve actually made your deductible. So premiums, co-pays, deductibles.

Even beyond that, you’ve got to jump on the phone and have an argument with your insurer every time you want to use it because your doctor was out of network. That’s the experience that most people have with insurance, if they have it. And then there’s everybody who just doesn’t have insurance or, if they’re on Medicaid, can’t find a doctor who takes their insurance.

If you are elected, you would be the first Muslim governor in American history. Have you faced pushback from political power-brokers who argue that your Egyptian heritage and Muslim faith will harm your chances to win the election?

Obviously I knew when I jumped into this race that I was going to face bigotry and racism. And obviously the white supremacist extremists on the right have made a lot of hay of the fact that I’m Muslim and have sown a bunch of conspiracy theories. But what’s been worse is the blatant bigotry that says, “Well look, there are those white supremacists extremists and if our nominee is a Muslim and an Egyptian-American, that’s going to be used against him, and I just don’t think Michigan’s ready.”

What a lot of those folks, however well-meaning, don’t realize is that, if you are even second-order using my ethnicity or faith against me, you are playing to that same set of issues. I hope that we on the left, the party of inclusion, the party that has stood up against marginalization, that we can get past that because it’s quite sad to see, to be quite honest. We don’t win elections as Democrats because we’re able to get racists to vote for us. We win elections because we’re able to get our own people out because they’re excited about a vision for the future that includes all of us.

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Politics & Government

Tom Steyer and the Case for Impeachment

Tom Steyer, one of the Democratic Party’s biggest financial supporters, talks to David Sirota about his campaign to impeach Donald Trump.

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Tom Steyer at the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference in 2013. Photograph by Stuart Isett.

Tom Steyer has been one of the Democratic Party’s biggest financial supporters. He made his fortune in the investment world, and has spent tens of millions of dollars to support Democratic candidates, as well as to support efforts to reverse climate change. Lately, he has made headlines with a new project – a campaign to impeach Donald Trump. The campaign is called Need to Impeach, and can be found at

Capital & Main’s David Sirota recently spoke to Steyer about his impeachment campaign, America’s divided politics and the role of money in politics.

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Infographic: Charter School Money is Pouring into the California Election

Gubernatorial candidate Antonio Villaraigosa and state superintendent candidate Marshall Tuck are raking in donations from charter school supporters.

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Blue State/Red District

Seven Restless GOP Districts Revisited

This week, in a run-up to the June 5 primary, we are re-highlighting our profiles of seven Republic congressional districts whose flipping would signal a fundamental groundswell against the Trump administration.

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Julie Damon, a high school senior, sits outside a Democratic candidates' forum for California's 25th Congressional District, in Newhall. (Photo: Steve Appleford.)

On February 1 Capital & Main launched its Blue State/Red District series profiling seven Republican-held congressional red districts — specifically, the challenges shaping their destinies and the policy rifts between the districts’ representatives and their constituents. We began the series because, in 2016, seven of California’s 14 Republican-held congressional districts returned all GOP incumbents to the House of Representatives, yet majorities in seven of those districts chose Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump for president. The districts were located in places long associated with rock-ribbed conservatism: The High Desert, Orange County, interior San Diego County and the Central Valley.

This week, in a run-up to the June 5 primary, we are rerunning these stories in the hope of returning attention to these key districts, whose flipping would signal a fundamental groundswell against the Trump administration and its policies.

CA 49 (Northern and Central San Diego County) — Kelly Candaele. Co-published by International Business Times.

CA 48 (Coastal Orange County) — Judith Lewis Mernit. Co-published by The American Prospect.

CA 10 (Central Valley) — Larry Buhl. Co-published by International Business Times.

CA 25 (High Desert) — Steve Appleford. Co-published by International Business Times.

CA 21 (San Joaquin Valley) — Larry Buhl.

CA 45 (Orange County) — Judith Lewis Mernit. Co-published by International Business Times.

CA 4 (The Gold Country) — Kelly  Candaele.

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Blue State/Red District

Blue State/Red District: Trump May Blow Reelection Headwind at David Valadao

Co-published by International Business Times
A Central Valley Congressman may be worrying that the fallout from Donald Trump’s policies could land on himself.

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Pictured: Hanford, David Valadao’s hometown and political base.

Whether voters hold Valadao accountable for his repeated efforts to repeal Obamacare, and his failure to protect Dreamers, remains to be seen.

Co-published by International Business Times


California’s 21st Congressional District, which includes all of Kings County and portions of Fresno, Tulare and Kern counties, expands northward through the dusty flatness of the southern San Joaquin Valley, anchored by two main arteries, Interstate 5 and Highway 99. To the south, precisely planned orchards, occasionally interrupted by clusters of gas stations and restaurants at the exits, give way to pump jacks and fracking wells around Bakersfield.

The district is represented in Congress by Republican David Valadao, a dairy farmer, small-business owner and son of Portuguese immigrants. His vigorous support of agribusiness interests makes him a good fit for any politically conservative farming district, but CA-21 does not really tilt conservative. Although Valadao beat Democratic challenger Emilio Huerta in a roughly 57-43 percent split in 2016, Hillary Clinton won the district. Barack Obama carried it in 2008 and 2012.

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Valadao’s vocal support for immigrants should put him in good stead in a district that is 71 percent Latino, but it also places him at odds with his party, while other critics attack what they say is Valadao’s lack of concern for environmental and worker protections, as well as for his votes on health care. Valadao represents a particularly vulnerable constituency. CA-21 has a poverty rate of just over 30 percent, making it among the poorest congressional districts in the state. Only 57 percent of residents have earned a high school diploma or higher, and fewer than 10 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher. The median household income is just under $40,000, significantly less than the statewide median household income of $64,000.

Oil fields and Kern River, viewed from Bakersfield’s Panorama Bluffs. (Dean Kuipers)

But these families do not form Valadao’s donor base. According to Open Secrets, oil and gas interests donated nearly $205,000 to Valadao between 2011 and 2018, making them his sixth-largest industry contributor (behind crop production, dairy and real estate). Leadership PACs, comprising contributions from unnamed sources, came in at number three.

Last year Valadao, along with fellow  Central Valley GOP representatives Jeff Denham, Devin Nunes and Kevin McCarthy, voted for the American Health Care Act (ACHA) or “Trumpcare,” the proposed Republican replacement for the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Valadao had also voted to repeal the ACA during the Obama administration. Though the effort to repeal and replace the ACA with the highly unpopular GOP bill failed in the Senate, a significant number of residents in counties that make up CA-21 would have suffered with the passage of the ACHA, which would have severely cut funding for Medicaid. According to the California Department of Health Care Services, 55 percent of the population of Tulare County was eligible for Medi-Cal, the state version of Medicare. Nearly 50 percent of Fresno County, 46 percent of Kern County, and 38 percent of Kings County were eligible for Medi-Cal.

After February’s ICE raids, “People are afraid to take their kids to school and to visit local businesses.”

The counties that comprise CA-21 also have a very high number of people who use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), according to county-by-county data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2011, the latest year available. That could present a political challenge for Valadao because, while the 2018 renewal of the House Farm Bill gives additional subsidies to cotton farmers (an important constituent in the district), it also imposes new restrictions on SNAP eligibility. Valadao voted for the Farm Bill, which passed in the House Agricultural Committee in mid-April. (Valadao did not respond to interview requests made through his Washington office.)

Whether voters hold Valadao accountable for his repeated efforts to repeal the ACA remains to be seen. Republican leaders now openly fret about the headwinds going into the 2018 midterms, though they’re reluctant to pin the blame on Trump, or even voter opposition to GOP policies. According to the political forecasting site FiveThirtyEight, Valadao has voted with Trump policies nearly 99 percent of the time, tied for second place as the “most Trump-aligned,” along with more than 40 other GOP House caucus members. If Valadao faces trouble going into the midterm, it could be in spite of the few important issues where he’s broken with the party line.

ICE Raids and Tariff Threats

Immigration and agriculture are intertwined in CA-21, which is dotted with historical markers of the farmworker movement. South along the 99 lies Delano, the site of the 1965 labor strike against grape growers by the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee and the United Farm Workers. Farmworkers are the fuel of the economic engine here, and a large percentage are undocumented immigrants — the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service pegs the nationwide percentage of undocumented farmworkers at 50 percent. Some estimates give California a much higher figure. Finding enough farmworkers during peak harvest times has been difficult, even before the Trump administration ratcheted up rhetoric about illegal immigration and border walls, as well as an improving economy in Mexico.

Increasingly, farmers have been turning to the temporary agriculture worker visa program, H-2A, which allows employers to bring in foreign agricultural workers if the growers can provide free housing, demonstrate an agricultural labor shortage and pay wages high enough that they wouldn’t undercut the local labor market.

Valadao has been an outspoken supporter of H2-A, despite criticism that it is too expensive and too bureaucratic.

The environment is one area where there’s little if any daylight between Valadao and Trump.

But Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids here have made it unlikely that the worker shortage will improve. In February, ICE made a sweep across the Central Valley and arrested 232 people, including 180 who ICE said were convicted criminals or had been issued a final order of removal or had been previously removed from the U.S. In an email, the United Farm Workers confirmed to Capital & Main that 26 of those arrested in the sweep were farmworkers and that it has received reports of even more detentions, and that ICE is still present in Kern County. One ICE raid in March in Delano led to a high speed chase and crash resulting in the death of two farmworkers.

Leydy Rangel, a UFW spokesperson, said the union has received reports of even more farmworker detentions than the 26 reported. “People are afraid to take their kids to school and to visit local businesses,” she said.

Valadao’s office provided a statement in response to the ICE raids: “Recent incidents involving immigrants and immigration authorities have left many in our community concerned and scared – which is exactly why we must pass comprehensive legislation that repairs our broken immigration system from the ground up. Just last month, I cosponsored H. Res. 774, a legislative maneuver that will allow the House to individually debate and vote on four different pieces of immigration legislation.”

A trade war could make a bigger impact on Valadao’s district than the farmworker shortage. In March President Trump announced tariffs on steel and aluminum, mostly aimed at China. Beijing quickly imposed retaliatory tariffs of up to 25 percent on $3 billion worth of U.S. imports, including pistachios and almonds, California’s first- and second-largest agricultural exports to China. Valadao signed a letter to President Trump urging him to “reconsider the idea of broad tariffs to avoid unintended negative consequences to the U.S. economy and its workers.” He also released a statement denouncing broad tariffs – but not tariffs generally – saying, “Agriculture continues to be the foundation of the Central Valley economy and we must protect strong trade relations with foreign nations.”

As far as Valadao’s 2018 electoral chances go, he may need to worry that the sins of his party – or its leader, Trump – on trade policy and the attendant fallout could be visited upon himself. On immigration, the popular perception is that his ties to Trump could hurt him even more.

On DACA, Taking Heat for His Party

The White House had set March 5, 2018 as the expiration date for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), pushing 700,000 recipients of this Obama-era program into uncertainty, although that termination is now being challenged in courts. Valadao has supported a permanent solution for DACA, declaring in December that it was not a partisan issue and that Congress “must come together to provide a legislative solution so these individuals may continue to live in the only home they know: the United States.”

Valadao has continually affirmed his commitment to repairing the “broken immigration system,” and his website mentions his support of the failed 2013 immigration reform package, H.R. 15, as well as his vote against a defense bill amendment that would block undocumented youth from serving in the military, and his cosponsoring of both H.R. 496, Bar Removal of Individuals who Dream and Grow our Economy Act (BRIDGE) Act, and H.R. 1468, the Recognizing America’s Children (RAC) Act, which promised a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children.

Critics say Valadao’s GROW bill would let California farmers grab more water at the expense of wildlife protections and public input on water projects.

Nevertheless, Tania Bernal, an undocumented immigrant and political science major at Bakersfield College, blamed Valadao for lack of legislation that would protect her.

“He said he would do everything in his power to protect Dreamers and he failed,” she told me. “It’s very disappointing because they are stringing us along. About 19,000 Dreamers have lost their DACA and they’re vulnerable to deportation right now.”

While admitting that technically it was the party, led by President Trump, that failed on DACA, Bernal said she and other local Dreamers also hold Valadao accountable for not delivering a “clean” Dream Act — legislation giving people covered under DACA a way to obtain permanent legal status in America, unconnected to border security upgrades or any other provisions.

A January, 2018 CBS News poll showed nearly nine out of 10 Americans want DACA recipients to remain in the U.S. Valadao’s stance should make him bulletproof on DACA. But he has faced resistance from the far right of the GOP in his attempts to do anything for undocumented immigrants. It’s not clear how many of his constituents will blame him for the inaction of his own party, especially as it relates to Dreamers. But people I talked with for this story who had an opinion on the matter were not willing to separate Valadao from the GOP.

While in Bakersfield, which is awkwardly split between CA-21 and CA-23, I visited a rally held by Faith in Kern, a grassroots group fighting for racial equity, outside the office of Valadao’s fellow GOP Congressman, Kevin McCarthy. The rally was part of a 40-day political action coinciding with Lent (the demonstrators promised to later protest at Valadao’s office on the other side of town). They said that they would hold both men responsible for the inaction of their party, which controls Congress. The three-dozen demonstrators were more polite and respectful than angry, and featured several DACA Dreamers who shared their stories. Eloisa Torres tearfully recalled that the recent deaths of her grandparents – whose funerals she couldn’t attend in Mexico because of her precarious status – emboldened her to speak out. “If you’re not fighting for what you want, you’re not going to get it,” she said.

Earlier, Stephanie Smith, a faith leader at Tehachapi Community United Church of Christ, had condemned Congress, Valadao and McCarthy for showing “a general disregard for people,” while scolding the representatives for voting for H.R.-620, which, she said, guts the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“There are no bills for a path to citizenship under consideration, no solution for them, but we’ve ramped up the deportation machine that terrorizes our families, or friends, or coworkers, the people who go to our church. Human connectedness should mean more than artificial borders.”

Diesel and Dust

Almost everywhere in CA-21 one is aware that mountains exist somewhere in the distance, to the east or the west. But most days they’re airbrushed gray-brown by the valley’s infamous smog. The American Lung Association’s “State of the Air 2018” report lists two regions within CA-21 – Bakersfield and Visalia as, respectively, second- and third-worst for year-round particle pollution, also known as soot. They were also, respectively, second- and third-worst in ozone pollution because of diesel particulates from semis whizzing through their thoroughfares, and from the dust stirred up by farm operations.

The environment is one area where there’s little if any daylight between Valadao and Trump.

Valadao has not supported efforts to combat climate change, and does not believe that the weather in the Central Valley, in which the last five years were the hottest in history, is a direct result of climate change. Climate activists have slammed Valadao’s support of S.J. Res. 24, a “resolution of disapproval” under the Congressional Review Act that would nullify the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan.

But Valadao’s office pushed back on any assertion that he had blamed California’s drought on regulation, rather than climate change. The office pointed to a more nuanced comment on his website, which stated, “While legislation cannot make it rain, it can provide relief by addressing complex and contradictory laws, court decisions, and regulations at the state and federal level that have made recent droughts increasingly detrimental.”

In 2017, Valadao introduced H.R. 23, the “Gaining Responsibility on Water Act” (GROW), that he has proudly touted as a plan to modernize water policies. Critics have said GROW would let California farmers grab more water at the expense of wildlife protections and public input on water projects. Also in 2017, Valadao co-sponsored, with Kevin McCarthy, H.R. 806 (the Ozone Standards Implementation Act), which has been criticized for undermining the EPA’s ability to set healthy ozone and particulate-matter standards, and delaying the implementation of clean-air solutions.

In March 2017, in the lead-up to the bill, the House heard testimony from the deputy executive officer of the California Air Resources Board, who said, “H.R. 806 would mean more people would breathe dirty air longer.” Jeff Denham and Devin Nunes, who represent the rest of the smoggy Central Valley, voted for Valadao’s bill.

Gary Rodriguez, a fourth grade teacher in Shafter, told me that people in the district are growing fed up with the air quality.

“Some days we can’t let kids out for recess because of the air quality,” he said. “The local air district does a lot of spinning about the cause of pollution. They’ll say it’s geography or that it’s blown in from the Bay Area, Los Angeles or even China.”

“You name it we’re breathing it, from fracking to pesticides to vehicles,” said Lupe Martinez, assistant to the director for the Center on Race Poverty & the Environment (CRPE), when I spoke with him in Delano. Martinez also connected the dots between the environment, immigration and poverty, saying that farmworkers, the backbone of agriculture, haven’t benefited from the success of the industry.

“There are communities that don’t have natural gas to heat their homes, so they’re using wood and butane. It’s not that they don’t want to have natural gas, it’s just that natural gas has bypassed the communities.”

And that wood smoke, he said, increases air toxicity, worsened by temperature inversions that trap soot from agricultural burn-offs, especially in the winter. Martinez said he and other activists are pushing the state Public Utilities Commission to increase access to natural gas. “I don’t even know if [Valadao’s] aware of it,” he said.

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Blue State/Red District

Blue State/Red District: The Education of Mimi Walters

Co-published by International Business Times
Lowering taxes, shrinking the size of federal government and reducing the deficit were issues that played well in Mimi Walters’ conservative Orange County district. Then came the Parkland massacre.

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Judith Lewis Mernit




Donald Trump listens to Mimi Walters, far right. (Photo: Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images)

Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in CA-45, a sign that at least some of its conservative voters might be more loyal to ideals of diversity and tolerance than they are to their party.

Co-published by International Business Times


Early in her political career Congresswoman Mimi Walters, a Republican from inland Orange County, California, minted her reputation as a gun-rights advocate. From 2004 to 2008, while representing the county’s southern coastal cities in the state Assembly, she twice voted against bills requiring the microstamping of bullets from automatic firearms, despite law enforcement’s support of the measure. Later, while serving in the state Senate, she said nay to background checks for ammunition buyers, to banning large-capacity conversion kits and to prohibiting people under domestic violence restraining orders from obtaining firearms.

Since she began representing California’s 45th Congressional District, Walters has had fewer opportunities to prove her Second Amendment bona fides; gun-related bills have rarely come up for a vote in House Speaker Paul Ryan’s Congress. But gun-rights groups continue to contribute to her campaigns. For her 2018 reelection campaign, gun groups have invested $5,150 in Walters, the third-largest contribution from gun groups to a single candidate in this cycle so far.

Before Parkland, the subject of gun rights almost never came up in Walters’ campaign statements, social media feeds or literature; it was just one part of the agreed-upon conservative platform, along with opposing abortion and beefing up the military. The issues Walters has chosen to focus on — lowering taxes, shrinking the size of federal government, reducing the deficit — have played well in historically conservative CA-45, where Republicans enjoy a nine-point registration advantage. On November 8, 2016, Walters won re-election with a 17-point margin.

The Cook Political Report has changed Congresswoman Walters’ district from solid red to “lean Republican.”

But a lot has happened since then. For starters, despite Walters’ victory, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in the district by five points, a sign that at least some of Walters’ conservative constituents might be more loyal to ideals of diversity and tolerance than they are to their party. (Irvine, the largest city in the district, is 40 percent Asian.) Nor has Trump’s reputation improved since he became president and promptly issued an executive order banning travel to the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries.

There are even some signs that Congressional Republicans more broadly have fallen from favor in Orange County. When Walters voted in May of 2017 in favor of the Republican replacement for the Affordable Care Act, a plan that would have left an estimated 23 million people uninsured, the Cook Political Report changed CA-45 from solid red to “lean Republican.”

Trump also pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement. “That’s when a lot of people sprang into action, meeting with Walters and her staff,” says Kathleen Treseder, an ecology professor at the University of California, Irvine. Last October, Walters officially changed from a climate-change skeptic to a believer, Treseder says, and joined the Congressional Climate Solutions Caucus. Her voters, Walters’ staff explained, persuaded her.

After Parkland, Walters’ social media feeds became overrun with gun-control advocates.

Finally, a group of Parkland teenagers launched the #NeverAgain movement in response to the mass shooting at their high school, potentially altering the calculus of National Rifle Association monetary campaign support versus voter preference in the 2018 election. A survey conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California in late March found that California voters’ concerns about school shootings had risen dramatically, with 73 percent of respondents admitting they were worried about a mass shooting at their public school.

Orange County high school students, many in Walters’ district, and nearing voting age, rallied against guns in March and April, joining national events. And Rep. Walters’ social media feeds became overrun with gun-control advocates. From mid-February to late March, any conversation that Walters started — on tax reform, avocados or her own successful amendment to reduce sex-trafficking — was directed back to firearms in replies and comments.

“I am so inspired by all of the #Olympic athletes who continue to give it their all in #PyeongChang despite injuries and days of back to back competition,” Walters tweeted in mid-February.

“Gun control, Mimi,” answered @amysls, aka Amy Jones. “Focus.”

Thirty years ago, many CA-45 cities were in the throes of master-planned sprawl. Manicured suburbs mingled with strawberry fields and orange groves, remnants of the vast agricultural fields the suburbs displaced. Their curvy streets, lined with houses that are, literally, all the same, bespoke a politics of its own. Irvine, as Los Angeles architect William Pereira designed it in the late 1960s, reflected a dreamy utopianism, where children could safely play within traffic-calmed enclaves, high walls sheltering them from thoroughfares where cars moved at near-freeway speeds. As it was later constructed by the Irvine Company’s Raymond Watson, Irvine became an assemblage of little villages, buffered by tidy parks and shopping centers from the ragged, needy world beyond.

Irvine is no longer the bastion of white Midwestern transplants that it was in the 1980s.

Irvine no longer smells like an orange grove. Most of the strawberry fields have been replaced with more carefully plotted communities and some random sprawl. Nor is the city still the bastion of white Midwestern transplants that it was in the 1980s. Twenty percent of eligible voting-age adults in Irvine hail from South Asian or Asian countries or have parents that do. Among U.S. cities, only Honolulu has a larger Asian plurality.

That concentration of immigrants and first-generation Americans is not everywhere present in the district. Mission Viejo, for example, is less than 10 percent Asian. But overall, one-fourth of registered voters in the district are naturalized citizens, according to a survey conducted by California 45th, a grassroots, nonpartisan research group, in May of 2017. While 46 percent of voters in the district who were citizens at birth have registered as Republicans, 72 percent of naturalized citizens are either Democrats or no-party-preference voters.

Two of Mimi Walters’ Democratic challengers in the June primary say they were motivated to run because of Trump’s travel ban.

If previous polls and studies have shown that immigrants don’t participate in elections with the same enthusiasm as other voters, Trump’s travel ban may have politicized them — along with Iranian-Americans and Arab-Americans in the district. Two of Walters’ five Democratic challengers in the June primary — Dave Min, whose parents immigrated from South Korea in the 1970s, and Kia Hamadanchy, a first-generation Iranian-American and Irvine native — say they were motivated to run because of the travel ban. Hamadanchy says his grandmother has not been allowed to visit him in America since the ban went into effect.

“When people tell me to go back where I came from,” says the 32-year-old Hamadanchy, who graduated from Irvine’s Northwood High School, “I tell them that’s exactly what I’m doing.”

In past elections, the gun control issue — along with the environment, immigration policy and health care — might have taken a back seat to the economy, which residents of Orange County’s fiscally conservative cities consistently rank as their number one issue. They have voted, by and large, in the interest of keeping their federal and state taxes low, even as many of them invest relatively high local taxes in well-staffed public schools. (Eighty-six communities and school districts in Orange County are subject to a special tax, referred to as the “Mello-Roos tax,” that helps pay for schools, roads, parks and other public amenities.)

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As of the 2018 tax year, however, homeowners who itemize — more than 40 percent of the district — will have a $10,000 limit placed on the state and local taxes they can deduct from their federal taxable income. That will make a difference to the district’s wealthier residents. “If you can afford to live in a Mello-Roos development, that 10-grand limit is going to cost you,” says Alexandra Cole, a Mission Viejo resident who teaches political science at California State University, Northridge and leads the California 45th team. Two other Orange County legislators, Dana Rohrabacher and Darrell Issa, voted against the tax bill under pressure from their constituents. Walters supported it wholeheartedly.

“She keeps posting about how it will benefit the district,” Cole says. “But the problem I have as a constituent is at no time does she ever say how it will benefit the district, because so many of us take those state-and-local tax deductions.” For instance, she says, “I have 14-year-old twins. Once they turn 17, they reach the age where the child tax credit expires, and I’m paying higher taxes.”

When Cole conducted a survey of CA-45 voters’ opinions on the tax bill, she found only 45 percent of them supported the bill, while 47 percent opposed it — including, significantly, 63 percent of no-party-preference voters.

“That’s harsh,” she says. “People are really concerned that their taxes are going to go up.”

Cole is cautious, however, about suggesting any of it means a Democratic win in November. CA-45 is still a red district and even the no-party-preference voters, who now make up more than a quarter of the district’s voters, skew conservative on the economy, if not on the environment or immigration.

“There’s this real tunnel vision,” Cole says, “thinking that everyone’s angry and they’re going to rise up in this big blue wave in November. But you can’t rely on fantasies. You have to rely on what are issues that are of concern to people.”

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Blue State/Red District

Blue State/Red District: What Do the Suburbs Want?

Seven Republican congressional districts in California went for Hillary Clinton in 2016. CA-4 was not one of them but Democrats are hoping to unseat Tom McClintock in November.

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Kelly Candaele




Video and images by Kelly Candaele.


CA-4’s Gold Country counties are recipients of an urban exodus fueled by affordable housing, a desire for good schools and the expansion of high-tech jobs into suburbia.


On the day of her funeral, Barbara Bush’s image beamed down from an electronic billboard along Interstate 80 outside of Sacramento, along with a quote: “Believe in something bigger than yourself.” Her image and words lasted five seconds before an insurance ad flashed up.

As an unofficial welcome to California Congressional District 4, which includes suburban and exurban Placer and El Dorado counties, plus several other rural and sparsely populated counties, the former first lady’s image is apt. Her husband and son both carried the district by wide margins in the presidential elections of 1988, 1992, 2000 and 2004. While no friend of the Bushes, Donald Trump won the district with 54 percent of the vote to Hillary Clinton’s 39 percent.

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There are seven congressional districts in California with Republican incumbents that Clinton won but CA-4 is not one of them. What gives Democrats buoyancy here is the general chaos of the Trump presidency, along with positive results of special elections elsewhere in the country, and some solid-looking candidates running in the CA-4 Democratic primary. Conservative Republican Tom McClintock, who actually lives 15 miles outside of District 4, first won the seat in 2008, when his Democratic opponent got within 1,800 votes. In the last four races, he has beaten every challenger by at least a 20 percent vote margin.

If CA-4 is dicey as a flippable district, part of the reason is because of demographics (it has relatively few Latinos or Asians) and because, in many ways, McClintock’s hard-line anti-immigration policies and close hewing to President Trump fit the district’s conservative tilt. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, over 26,000 people in CA-4 were enrolled in an Affordable Care Act (ACA) health plan in 2017 and another 49,000 gained coverage from the expansion of Medicaid. McClintock voted against the January 2017 congressional budget resolution to repeal Obamacare – a resolution that Trump supported – only because it did not go far enough in repealing the ACA. The political analysis site FiveThirtyEight has McClintock, some of whose largest contributors are real estate developers with projects in his district, voting in line with Trump’s wishes about 86 percent of the time.

Main Street, Placerville.

McClintock has shown no sympathy for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) students, describing the program as an “unconstitutional usurpation of legislative authority,” and he is a reliable vote against a woman’s right to have an abortion. The large mega churches that often accompany suburban sprawl, like Bayside Church in Granite Bay, with its 12,000 members, help anchor the district’s culturally conservative base with a mixture of Christian/New Age uplift and entrepreneurial flair.

On a recent Friday afternoon, while watching her son play Little League baseball at a Roseville park, Heather McCarthy reflected on why she has become increasingly active in politics. “I’ve never been concerned that our political system could be taken over by billionaires and corporate interests,” she said, “so it has been a wake-up call for me.”

McCarthy, a Roseville real estate agent, participated in the Sacramento Women’s March last January, but has not followed the congressional race closely. She has a college degree, is not particularly ideological and is concerned that the Trump tax reduction, which McClintock supported, will mainly benefit the wealthy and explode the deficit. “I don’t think the average person realizes how disproportionate the benefit is, or how the Republican Party that used to be fiscally conservative has abandoned that.” she added.

Two articulate women candidates, Jessica Morse and Regina Bateson, have experience in policymaking and have demonstrated an ability to attract supporters and raise money, and now lead a field of four Democratic primary contenders. In rural Calaveras County, where Mark Twain invented his story about jumping frogs, ordained minister and Democratic Party activist Mickey Williamson outlined the long-shot logic of her party’s campaign at a park in Angels Camp. Williamson says the political atmosphere feels different this year: “The [Democratic] candidates are moving up and down the district, events are happening, thousands of dollars are being raised. It’s just a different ball game than we have ever had before.”

Robin McMillan Hebert.

Williamson has a worry, however: That after the June 5 primary, supporters of the losing candidates will stay home, replicating some of the internecine fighting that characterized the Clinton/Sanders contest and which continues to roil the Democratic Party throughout the country.

While most of CA-4 is rural, the key geographic areas where the majority of voters live, and where elections are won or lost, are found along the I-80 and I-50 corridors — places whose dairy farms and orchards not too long ago reached to the outskirts of Sacramento. The cows have been replaced by “Tuscan”-style housing estates with names like Serrano Village, and by retirement communities, large retail centers, high-tech business parks — and relatively few people of color. Over 70 percent of the congressional vote will come from here.

Ricardo Calixtro holds a Bible as he stops to talk in front of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church after services one April Sunday. An anti-abortion banner hangs on the front of the church asking for prayers for the unborn. He says that the abortion issue is the first priority for him and that it would be difficult to vote for someone who does not share that position.

Calixtro, a registered Democrat who lives in Murphys, a town tucked in the Sierra foothills, works three jobs as a bartender, baker and house cleaner. “I don’t mind working hard,” he says, “but it’s hard for a regular Joe trying to make it on minimum wage.” Calixtro voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary and, later, for the Libertarian Gary Johnson for president.

When told that McClintock agrees with him on abortion but is opposed to raising the minimum wage because it would “hurt minorities,” Calixtro becomes speechless for a long half minute. “Wow, that’s a tough one,” he finally responds. He says he is contemplating leaving the area for better opportunities: “I’ve heard Oklahoma and Kentucky are good states to live in right now.”

Calixtro is not the stereotypical working-class voter duped by “cultural” issues instead of watching out for his own economic interests. Yet President Trump has triggered feelings and responses that are pulling many voters away from single issues like guns and religion that previously determined their vote.

Others are sticking with Trump and McClintock despite the president’s seemingly daily scandals. In Placerville, an old gold-mining town along the route to Lake Tahoe, Trump supporter and former correctional officer Robin McMillan Hebert was concerned that gun rights and public safety were under threat. “I believe in law and order, otherwise there would be chaos — and I don’t believe in chaos,” she said. “Sacramento is a good example. There have been a lot of recent protests there.” A registered Republican, she compares President Trump’s treatment of women to Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy’s. “I’m not going to expect someone to be perfect when I myself can’t be perfect.”

In Roseville, a man who works for the city utility company and is a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, talked about the threat of outsiders.

“I’m tired of seeing cities burning down, and all the lawlessness,” he said, directing traffic for his crew of municipal workers. “It started with Occupy Wall Street.” He added that homeless people were like cats: “If you feed them they keep coming back.”

The man, who refused to give his name, said his wife is a vice principal at a local public school, and claimed she “got emotional” last January and went to the local Women’s March. He believes it was organized “not to defend women but to hate Trump.” He also thinks that homosexuality is morally wrong and is “pushed in your face” by liberals.

He said he supports McClintock but is reluctant to talk publicly about electoral politics because he thinks liberals will “throw a brick” at him if he expresses his opinions. “Now we have to accept transgender. Come on.”

Placer and El Dorado counties are recipients of the flight from cities — an exodus fueled by affordable housing, the desire for good schools and the expansion of high-tech jobs into suburban and exurban environments. Indeed, the suburbs surrounding Sacramento were among the top 25 growth areas in the country between 2015 and 2017.

Retiree: “Men have screwed it up a bit,
let’s put some smart ladies in there.”

The evolution of such suburbs is complex. In general suburbs are becoming more diverse and increasingly polarized economically, and more people are living in them today than in cities.

Following the June primary, Democratic frontrunners Morse or Bateson will have to work to attract significant numbers of Republican moderates and those with no party preference if Democrats are to pull off another Conor Lamb-type upset and topple McClintock. And since registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by over 60,000 voters, many Republicans will also have to stay home in November for such a reversal to occur.

Two local residents — former Republicans who intend to vote for a Democrat — explained why they think it’s possible for a Democrat to win here.

Jack Chittick stands on his front lawn in Sun City, a retirement community in Roseville built by Del Webb. Instead of carpool lanes, Sun City has lanes for golf carts. Chittick, an 84-year-old retiree who was a top executive at the Pirelli Tire Company, points to the hardcore Republicans who walk past his house to the golf course across the street. “I like the cleanliness of this place,” he says, “the golf course, the big homes, the shopping areas and the good hospitals.”

He doesn’t think McClintock represents the average person in the district and wants a congressperson who can make the tax structure fair for the middle class. Reflecting on his life, he admits he got “carried away” with his career as a corporate manager and the values that came with it. “I had achieved everything by myself,” he once believed, “so why couldn’t everyone?” But he had a change of heart when his wife started working with the homeless, and pointed out to him that the challenges they face were enormous.

“Democrats have a 50-50 chance,” he says, handicapping the race. “Men have screwed it up a bit, let’s put some smart ladies in there,” he adds, referring to Morse and Bateson. “I’m sure they couldn’t do worse, and they could do a lot better.”

Bob Toste is another Roseville retiree and former Republican, who “bought into the trickle down theory” before it registered with him that birth determines economic class more than any other factor. He is careful about who he talks to about politics in his neighborhood, especially on immigration issues. Toste wants someone who is sympathetic to the undocumented immigrant students called Dreamers and is angered by McClintock’s vote to repeal Obamacare. “I have good health insurance, having retired from a utility. But health insurance for our nation is very important for me. And trying to go back on that right now is horrendous,” he said.

If the Republican National Committee and its well-funded conservative political action committees pour money into CA-4 after the June primary to shore up McClintock, it will be an indication that the party brand is in deep trouble.

Come November here, Barbara Bush’s billboard admonition might come to pass. Sun City retiree Jack Chittick also wants voters to believe in something bigger than themselves – a change of political heart in District 4.

Video and images by Kelly Candaele.

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