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Bernie Sanders looks for success in an 'unbelievable' place: California's Central Valley

The long road Bernie Sanders traveled Sunday took him past Buck Owens Boulevard and Merle Haggard Drive, past thousands of acres of grape vines and almond trees, past cattle barns and packing plants and banners declaring that “no water = no food.”

This great expanse, the southern end of the Central Valley, is vastly different territory than the presidential candidates usually traverse. And it shows.

On Friday in Fresno, Donald Trump naively repeated a farmer’s assertion that “there is no drought.” On Saturday in Bakersfield, Sanders expressed shock that many people here cannot drink their tap water because of contamination. The place that feeds the nation a quarter of its food remains pretty much a mystery to outsiders.

As Sanders found out over the course of two days in the valley, it also is the nexus of many of the issues foremost in the campaign, particularly among Democrats: lagging incomes, immigration complications, environmental woes.

No one, however, has delved into the central complication of the region: The very industries that cause pollution, water and income issues here are the ones on which it relies for survival: agriculture and the oil and gas industry.

Instead, in the days before the June 7 primary, the area’s struggles have been wedged neatly into the candidates’ preexisting ideologies. For Trump, that meant only environmental rules, not the dearth of rain, were to blame for the dryness that has savaged the area.

For Sanders, that meant that rapacious corporations were to blame for contamination of drinking water, not a problem just as intractable: In some areas, the drought has served to concentrate contaminants naturally present in the groundwater — when there is any groundwater.

Sanders’ campaigning here was heavy with imagery of the past. On Sunday, he traveled to the first headquarters of the United Farm Workers for a tour with relatives of Cesar Chavez who, an audience in Bakersfield was told Saturday, would surely have campaigned with the Vermont senator were he alive.

That was in some way a tit for tat for the endorsement of his rival, Hillary Clinton, by the mother of the farmworkers union, Dolores Huerta.

Sanders stood under a broiling sun in Delano as Federico Chavez, Cesar’s nephew, pointed to the sites of struggles past and current.

Although progress has been made, Sanders said in lauding the historic site, “there is no question but that a lot more work needs to be done.”

But apart from banning pesticides and fracking, the practice used here to draw gas from the ground, he offered no specifics on how he would go about making good on his pledge to restore clean water to all. He also said almost nothing about the continuing drought.

Sanders’ unfamiliarity with the Central Valley was the subject of laughter in Visalia when he told the crowd about his visit to the United Farm Workers headquarters.

“Just a few hours ago I was in Delano,” he said, accenting the first syllable. The crowd murmured, then laughed with him.

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“De-LAY-no? All right, I was in De-LAY-no. How’s that?” he replied with a laugh of his own.

Whatever the stumbles, the visit here was notable for one thing: Sanders, whose speeches rarely differ by more than a sentence no matter the location, began incorporating the stories he heard into his remarks.

“I did not know that there are thousands of homes right around here — that is unbelievable! – that people have got to go out and buy bottled water. Is that the case?” he asked in Visalia. “Yes!” thousands roared back.

“One assumes if living in the United States of America you can turn on the faucet and drink the water that comes out of the tap,” Sanders replied. “When we’re elected president, brothers and sisters, we are going to end that atrocity.”

Sanders is a long way from the presidency, of course, and some distance even from winning the California primary, although he insisted confidently at each stop this weekend that he would not only win but also claim the nomination.

The Central Valley is Republican country, home to the greatest concentration of conservatives in the state. Still, the numbers of Democrats are growing.

Sanders’ goal was to activate the same band of young voters and liberals who helped drive Barack Obama to a stunning victory in Fresno County in the 2008 general election. 

His pitch, here as elsewhere, was built on his bedrock belief that corporations act on greed alone and that governments bend to their will because of campaign donations.

That view overtakes all other explanations. For instance, his rationale for why California’s public colleges and universities now charge tuition, unlike earlier:

“What happened is the greed of the big money interests said that young people should not be able to get that free education,” he said, bypassing entirely the complications of the state’s budget.

Sanders hasn’t had the valley to himself among Democrats. Bill Clinton has already campaigned in Stockton and Fresno, where Sanders appeared on Sunday night. Hillary Clinton is expected to hit the valley before the primary.

The Clinton campaign here, as it is elsewhere, is counting on support from Latinos, a big component of the electorate here. The winner of the 2008 California primary, she also has the advantage of more than two decades spent gauging California’s political realities. For Sanders, this is new ground.

At his first stop, in Bakersfield on Saturday, he recounted how he’d driven in from Santa Maria.

“I’ve never been in this part of the world before — it’s unbelievable,” Sanders told community leaders at the Kern County fairgrounds, a sound of awe in his voice. “I mean it really is. I probably went through a part of California which is bigger than the state of Vermont. The amount of agricultural land that we saw is unbelievable.”

That day, he expressed some surprise at conditions experienced by farmworkers.

“Their faces are in the pesticides, they’re inhaling that stuff?” he asked. “Do we see illnesses as a result of that?”

When another speaker said pesticide companies had blocked full-scale investigations, Sanders returned to his comfort zone.

“Nothing new – that’s what these guys always do, they live on the greed and all they want to do is make as much money as they can, and if people get  sick or exploited or die that is not their concern,” he said.

David Villarino-Gonzalez, Cesar Chavez’s son-in-law and head of a farmworker education institute, gave Sanders points for listening.

“There are not a whole lot of people who independently know, outside of the valley, about the valley,” he said.

But Villarino-Gonzalez, who has endorsed Sanders, also had praise for Clinton. Each of them, he said, would make a good president.

And there is no doubt, he said, that Democrats will be anxious to cast general-election ballots. That is because Trump, the bane of Democrats here, will be on the ballot.

Sanders found that out as a fairly new line swiftly became the one generating the loudest shrieks of agreement.

“If we come out with the nomination,” he said at each event, “Donald Trump is toast.”

cathleen.decker@latimes.com

Twitter: @cathleendecker. For more on politics, go to latimes.com/decker and subscribe to the free daily newsletter.

 

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