Identity Politics Center Stage In California's Central Valley Campaign

Oct 9, 2014
Originally published on October 9, 2014 5:57 pm

In California's rural Central Valley, a candidate's identity means everything in politics. Just take the race between first-term Republican Rep. David Valadao and Democrat Amanda Renteria for the state's 21st Congressional District seat, which is attracting some unusual attention this fall.

In a midterm election year where immigration remains a thorny subject, both Valadao and Renteria talk openly about the need for Congress to pass the stalled comprehensive reform bill.

At a debate in Bakersfield this week, Valadao pointed out that he was one of only three Republicans to sign on to the House immigration overhaul bill — H.R. 15 — backed by Democrats.

"I've gotten beat up from my own side for it, [but] I think it's very important to get it done," Valadao said. "My parents are immigrants; I learned so much about why it's important to have real opportunities and I think that's what made this country great."

Valadao, 37, is a dairy farmer of Portuguese descent but speaks Spanish regularly — the two candidates are also debating in Spanish.

On the campaign trail, Amanda Renteria, 39, talks often about her parents, who were migrant farmworkers in the Central Valley. She was the first in her high school to go to Stanford, and she later became the first Latina chief of staff in Congress (for Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow).

"They know where I come from; they know my dad was from Zacatecas, Mexico, and himself came with no papers at the beginning," Renteria says. "I think anyone that hears me talk about immigration reform knows my deep passion for it, and this isn't just about election time."

At times, both candidates seem to be trying to one-up the other on whose ties are stronger to the Central Valley and farming. The newly redrawn district is more than 70 percent Hispanic, and this being farm country, the contest highlights how the politics of immigration aren't as simple as they may seem.

Many farmers and big agricultural companies here that tend to lean Republican are in a full-court press lobbying Congress to pass the stalled immigration bill. It's one of the reasons Valadao is seen as a clear front-runner even in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans.

California State University, Bakersfield political scientist Stanley Clark says Valadao is likely "ethnic enough" for many voters here, in particular Hispanic men who may typically lean Democrat. Most Hispanic families in this rural valley work in farming, he says. And with the drought, fields are being fallowed and jobs are being cut. Clark says voters are looking for someone who seems like one of them.

"The clearer your association is with [agriculture], the more you are advantaged with them by comparison to somebody whose association with agriculture is more remote and vague," Clark says.

Renteria is quick to deflect criticism from the Valadao campaign that she's a carpetbagger who just moved back to the Valley a year ago with the express purpose of running for this new seat.

"When it comes to the Latino community here, they've really gotten to know me over this election," she says. "No one wonders whether or not I'm going to keep my promises."

Now that the national party has begun pulling its money from the race, though, some Democrats say 2014 may be more about the underdog Renteria reintroducing herself to Latino voters here, so she can run again in 2016.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The politics of immigration are rarely simple. That's especially true in the heart of California's farming country and it's why the race for the state's 21st Congressional seat is attracting some unusual attention. It pits two relatively young up-and-coming politicians against one another, first-term Rep. Congressman David Valadao and Dem. Amanda Renteria. The district is more than 70 percent Hispanic.

NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: In an arena on the Cal State Bakersfield campus, hundreds of people chant Amanda at an event dubbed A Rally for the Valley.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY FOR THE VALLEY SPEECH)

AMANDA RENTERIA: (Spanish spoken).

APPLAUSE

SIEGLER: Renteria then introduced a special guest who had flown out from Washington give her campaign a boost.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY FOR THE VALLEY SPEECH)

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Hey folks, how are you?

APPLAUSE

SIEGLER: It's not every day that Vice President Joe Biden turns up at a political rally in the heart of the conservative Central Valley.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY FOR THE VALLEY SPEECH)

BIDEN: We can do this. We can do this.

SIEGLER: But Amanda Renteria has the pedigree that gets national party leaders excited, especially in a region where shifting demographics are thought to favor Democrats. She's the daughter of migrant farm workers who grew up in a small town north of here. She was the first in her high school to go to Stanford and later became the first Latina chief of staff in Congress. She also talks openly with voters about immigration reform.

RENTERIA: They know where I come from. They know my dad was from Zacatecas, Mexico and himself came with no papers at the beginning. I think anyone that hears me talk about immigration reform knows my deep passion for it and that this isn't just about election time.

SIEGLER: Yet despite all the buzz, the national party has begun pulling its money out of this race. Renteria is now a clear underdog against Rep. Congressman David Valadao. One of the reasons may be that immigration isn't really a dividing issue in this part of rural California. Farmers and big ad companies that tend to lean Republican are in a full court press lobbying Congress to pass the stalled immigration bill.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Right now I want to welcome Amanda Renteria and David Valadao.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SIEGLER: At a debate this week it was clear that the 37-year-old Valadao wants to talk immigration, unlike a lot of his party.

REPRESENTATIVE DAVID VALADAO: I'm one of the three Republicans that signed on to H.R. 15. I've gotten beat up from my own side for it. I think it's very important to get it done. I mean, my parents are immigrants. I watched and learned so much from them and I learned so much about why it's important to have real opportunities and fight to come to this country. And I think that's what made this country great.

SIEGLER: Cultural identity is a big deal in this race. In the Central Valley, sometimes where a candidate is from is more important than his or her party affiliation.

VALADAO: I'm a normal guy. I'm a dairy farmer.

SIEGLER: Valadao is of Portuguese descent but also speaks Spanish. The two candidates have debate in Spanish too. Cal State Bakersfield political scientist Stanley Clark says Valadao is quote, "ethnic enough to win in this newly redrawn district that's heavily Hispanic and leans Democratic."

STANLEY CLARK: This is not Los Angeles. This is not an area where the Latinos, at least the lower income Latinos, are hotel and restaurant workers and baggage people at LAX.

SIEGLER: Most Hispanic families in this rural valley work in farming. Clark says voters are looking for someone who seems like one of them.

CLARK: Declare your association is with ag - the more you are advantaged with them, by comparison to somebody whose association with agriculture is more remote and vague.

SIEGLER: But Clark says don't necessarily count Amanda Renteria out just yet. Even with the national money drying up, she's taking a page out of the national party playbook, focusing on the grassroots. Democrats here say this race may now be more about reintroducing her to voters so she can run again in 2016.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Bakersfield, California. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.