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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.

Donnell Alexander

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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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