Column: The spotlight may be on the O.C, but Democrats are building for the long haul in the Central Valley

Mary Gonzales-Gomez, Raul Gomez, and Jose Ojeda and other members of the Latino Community Roundtable fold Democratic voter guides for passing out to homes in Corcoran, Calif. on May 20.
(Tomas Ovalle / Los Angeles Times)

The national and international news media continue to obsess about the congressional races underway in Orange County. Just this month I have been interviewed about how my historically conservative and now purple-ish homeland could help turn the House blue by reporters from San Francisco, Switzerland and Spain. (Step up, Sweden and Samoa.)

Democrats smell blood. They’ve poured millions of dollars into O.C. to support candidates Gil Cisneros (39th Congressional District), Katie Porter (45th), Harley Rouda (48th) and Mike Levin (49th). I get the appeal: Winning those races could help snatch a branch of Congress from the GOP’s grip, and represent a victory of irresistible symbolic value. Orange County represented solely by Democrats in Washington? What’s next? Beverly Hills turns pro-Purple Line?

But if Democrats want to hold power for a generation instead of just one election cycle, I suggest they lavish some of their cash and attention on Orange County’s country cousin: the Central Valley, which is historically even more conservative. Democratic congressional candidates there face a tougher challenge grabbing seats from Republican incumbents Jeff Denham (10th Congressional District), David Valadao (21st) and Devin Nunes (22nd).


Nevertheless, the Central Valley is competitive in ways that analysts should, well, analyze. Because the national party always overlooks them, Democrats there have had to sharpen their message and organize smarter and better to win against entrenched Republicans. Because of this, Valley ballots are filled with lessons for Democrats if they want to thwart a President Trump reelection in 2020.

Democrats in the Central Valley have had to sharpen their message and organize smarter and better to win against entrenched Republicans.

First off, the Democratic Party across the Valley knows that to get voters to the polls it sure helps to have some candidates who reflect the demographics of the region. In California, that means Latinos.

In the Central Valley, seven of them are running for Congress, state Assembly and the state Senate, only one of them a Republican. (Hey, there always has to be a token.) It’s a good mix of veterans and first-timers, the better to appeal to excitable millennials but also older folks who appreciate familiar names and want to reward politicians with proven track records.

Among the rookies is Aileen Rizo, a math educator who’s gunning for the 23rd Assembly District but first became famous for suing the Fresno County Office of Education for equal pay — an issue that resonates powerfully with young people.

Meanwhile, Tatiana Matta, a PR person from something called Rosamond, is taking on wannabe House Speaker Kevin McCarthy for the 23rd Congressional District. She has little chance of winning, but knows that it’s ultimately not about her. It’s about running against the guy who just introduced a bill to fully fund Trump’s border wall. “There’s a big Latino population that needs to be heard,” she told the Bakersfield Californian. “I think that’s where we can make a change. We’re hoping to inspire people to join the conversation.”


Newcomers like Rizo and Matta notwithstanding, Democratic Party leaders have also been creating a farm system of political candidates from Bakersfield to Sacramento. Local Democratic politicians have been gaining experience on local boards to be ready when for the big time when needed. This election shows the fruits of their labor.

Assemblyman Rudy Salas of the 32nd District started off as a Bakersfield councilman. Sanger councilwoman Melissa Hurtado is now aiming for the seat of 14th state Senate District incumbent Andy Vidak. And Kern County just switched to district elections for its Board of Supervisors to get more minorities elected, ensuring a new pool of candidates for the future.

This Valley resistance draws its power mostly from female-led groups like the Democratic Women of Kern but also young Latino lawyers and entrepreneurs tired of being treated as the region’s perpetual peons. It’s a base that’s ultimately more sustaining and attractive than the Democrats’ dalliances with union and tech-bro cash.

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Valley activists are also organizing to make sure that voters get to the polls during the midterm election, which Latinos usually, notoriously sit out. Mother Jones recently published a good analysis about the millennial volunteers at work in districts that are majority Latino and working class yet have some of the reddest Republicans representing them (Nunes is basically crimson).

Reporter Tom Philpott hung out with former Fresno State student body president Pedro Ramirez, who once got Nunes to vow he’d vote for the Dream Act. Now, the undocumented Ramirez is working to register voters as revenge, because Nunes obviously reneged on his promise. Philpott also mentioned 99Rootz, a get-out-the-vote group whose strategy director told Mother Jones, “People don’t see [Latino youth] as the change agents they can be.”


I definitely want Orange County to drown in a blue wave this election. But I’m more excited about what will happen in the Central Valley — maybe not in 2018, but for sure in 2020 and beyond. The Valley is a lot more like the rest of America than Southern California is, and if the Dems can succeed there, they have a winning message and some tested strategies to take to rural and small-town America.

So journalists, local and not: To find the true California congressional story this year, drive up Highway 99. And stop at La Michoacana Bakery in Delhi on Sundays for some of the best birria in the Golden State. You’ll thank me later for both tips.

Follow @GustavoArellano on Twitter.