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Emilio Huerta, son of labor icon, jumps into Central Valley congressional race

Bakersfield lawyer Emilio Huerta, son of labor icon Dolores Huerta, is running for Congress against the state's most vulnerable Republicans and brings valuable name recognition to a district that has frustrated Democrats for the last two election cycles.

Huerta is the latest challenger to vie for the Central Valley's 21st Congressional District seat currently held by Rep. David Valadao (R-Hanford).

He is a labor lawyer and has worked for the United Farm Workers union, which his mother co-founded, throughout the Central Valley. 

Democrats suffered an embarrassing landslide defeat in the district in 2014 despite having a 16 percentage point edge over Republicans in terms of registered voters. Amanda Renteria, a long-time Capital Hill staffer who grew up in the Central Valley, mounted an expensive campaign that year but still lost to Valadao by the same margin as the Democrat who faced him in 2012, 57.8% to 42.2%. (Renteria is now Hillary Clinton's national political director.) 

Huerta, who quietly filed his declaration for candidacy Jan. 1, is counting on building a grassroots campaign base from his local family roots and a focus on economic issues and immigration reform. 

"We can hopefully identify and fight for resources that can be brought to the valley," he said in an interview. "Clearly we have a broken immigration policy and a dysfunctional immigration system."

So far this cycle, Democrats have struggled to field a candidate to challenge Valadao, who national Republicans have put on a list of vulnerable incumbents.

Daniel T. Parra, a fellow Democrat and Fowler city councilman, is also running for the seat this cycle but has struggled to raise funds for what is likely to be an expensive race. His campaign reported raising just under $40,000 as of the end of the last quarter, and had less than $10,000 in cash on hand as of Sept. 30. 

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Democrat Connie Perez dropped out of the race in October despite spending big bucks on a Los Angeles consulting firm and an expensive video introducing herself to voters less than a month earlier.

Huerta is already facing criticism from Republicans for an issue that could carry extra weight in the tight-knit valley: He lives a few miles outside the 21st District in a patch of the 23rd District represented by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield. 

National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Zach Hunter labeled Huerta the "handpicked candidate [of Washington Democrats] who doesn’t even live in the district."

The issue could matter more in the Central Valley than the Bay Area or Los Angeles because in this region it is important for voters to know a candidate understands local and rural concerns, said veteran California political strategist Darry Sragow. 

"If Valadao's campaign does its job it will try to make it a big issue and trap Huerta into having to defend his residency which means he will have less time to talk about issues voters really want to hear about," he said. 

The 21st District covers a vast stretch of the Central Valley from Bakersfield north into Kettleman City and Wood Ranch. President Obama won the district twice and Latinos make up 71% of the population and 54% of registered voters in the district. Still, voters here can be conservative when it comes to economic and local issues, said Mike Madrid, a Republican strategist who is an expert in Latino politics.

"It is the last backbone of conservative politics in the state," he said of the Central Valley. "The Huerta name is not going to drive out any voters that would not have turned out naturally this election cycle."

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For more, go to latimes.com/politics.

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