Labor rights icon Dolores Huerta won't be on the ballot in California’s 21st Congressional District, but she has influenced the Central Valley race Democrats view as one of their biggest pickup opportunities in the midterm elections.
Elected officials, local activists and other congressional sources said Huerta is having pointed conversations to try to make sure her son, Emilio Huerta, is the only Democrat challenging Republican Rep. David Valadao. A local lawyer, he lost badly to Valadao in 2016.
So far, Huerta is the lone candidate, a statistic that stands out at a time when Democrats are averaging half a dozen or so viable candidates to run against vulnerable California Republicans with control of the U.S. House at stake.
Democrats living in the district and working in Washington said they are worried that Huerta’s appearance on the ballot a second time will imperil their chances of flipping a district that picked Hillary Clinton for president by a wide margin and where Democrats overwhelmingly outnumber Republicans.
A Democratic elected official who had been working to recruit other candidates to run against Valadao said Huerta brought up the race, unprompted, at a private event in the presence of about a dozen people last fall.
"She told me very clearly, ‘Stay out of our race,’” the official said. The impression Huerta left was, “What are you doing getting into this race?"
The official requested anonymity to speak candidly about an activist many liberals idolize.
Huerta, 87, made her name organizing Central Valley farmworkers in the 1960s, and remains a force in local and national politics by making coveted endorsements and campaign appearances. In 2012, President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Four additional people in Washington — elected officials, top congressional sources and party insiders — shared similar stories from different conversations they said they had with Huerta. They said she used similar phrasing to get across the same message: Don’t try to recruit any other candidates.
Separately, two Democrats working in the district said Huerta’s influence is so great that potential candidates opted against running after speaking with her because they fear risking her future support. One local politician said it’s difficult to imagine a Latino Democrat winning any race without her on their side. The local Democrats also asked to remain anonymous to avoid appearing publicly critical of Huerta.
The Times spoke with Huerta and asked if she was discouraging Democrats from running another candidate. She was emphatic. “I would never do that. Ever,” she said.
Huerta said what she did do was ask the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in September if the national party was recruiting other candidates. She said she spoke with some local politicians about whether they would run after hearing the committee might be recruiting them, but said she didn’t try to dissuade anyone.
“A lot of time has been invested [by Emilio]," she said. “We had heard that they were trying to recruit a candidate to run against Emilio and I had asked the question.”
A DCCC spokesman declined to comment.
Community and political organizer Joey Williams of Bakersfield told The Times that potential candidates are either waiting until 2020 out of respect for Huerta or out of concern for what a loss would mean for their political futures.
Williams said he was part of a conversation between Democratic Party consultants and a potential candidate last year.
“The big concern was opposing Dolores,” Williams said. “If you get into the race you’re going to have to square off with Dolores and her machine that’s working to get Emilio elected, and the community that supports her.”
Another local activist shared a similar story. “You don’t want Dolores Huerta mad at you; you want her endorsement,” the source said.
Emilio Huerta said local Democrats asked him to run against Valadao again after it became clear that no other Democrat would do so. He said he and his mother don’t have a “political machine” or leverage against anyone, and said he had not heard criticism of his mother’s outreach.
It’s not uncommon for a candidate or a party to try to clear the field to avoid tough competition and focus on the general election.
“Certainly we were hoping that no one else would get into the race,” the candidate said.
Huerta, 60, spent much of his childhood helping his mother as she worked with César Chávez to build the United Farm Workers labor union. He left high school at 16 to work for the union and followed his mother into union work after earning a law degree. He was once a national representative for the United Farm Workers and worked on farmworker issues such as opening banks in rural areas and building senior and low-income housing.
After announcing his second attempt in May, Huerta essentially went silent for months. He sent some email appeals asking for volunteers to knock on doors. His campaign Twitter account has published just 15 tweets. His website displays ads from the 2016 campaign. Local Democratic activists said he showed up at their meetings all summer, but never mentioned that he was running for Congress.
He raised less than $100,000 in 2017, even though he paid a consulting company $58,500 to help him fundraise. In contrast, 18 first-time Democratic candidates in other districts each have raised more than $500,000. Headed into 2018, Huerta had about $97,000 in cash on hand while Valadao had nearly $1 million.
Dolores Huerta has given $1,000 to her son’s campaign and so far has tweeted once asking people to get involved.
She has been touring the country to promote a documentary aimed at solidifying her legacy as a civil rights hero and to raise money for the Dolores Huerta Foundation, which organizes neighborhood groups in the Central Valley. She said that after the primary, she expects to focus on campaigning for her son.
Elected officials said members of Congress frustrated by Dolores Huerta’s actions and her son’s poor fundraising so far don’t plan to help his campaign. Prominent members of the California congressional delegation have lent support to candidates challenging vulnerable Republicans but not Huerta.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ political action committee has endorsed candidates in other districts but has stayed quiet in the 21st Congressional District. It endorsed Huerta in 2016.
Huerta did win the endorsement of the United Farm Workers union his mother helped found. As the only Democrat in the running, he received a preliminary endorsement from the California Democratic Party, which holds a convention starting Friday.
It’s not too late for others to enter the race — the filing deadline is March 9.
Several local Latino politicians have considered bids, and a Democratic strategist working in California politics has hinted that Democrats expect “a strong recruit” to launch in the coming weeks. The strategist requested anonymity because the candidate hasn’t yet announced.
If Huerta prevails in the June 5 primary and becomes the candidate to run against Valadao, the elected officials and local activists said they fear a repeat of his 2016 loss in a district that, on paper, seems prime for a takeover.
In this overwhelmingly Latino district, only 29% of registered voters are Republicans. Voters here have picked Democrats for president, governor and senator for nearly a decade. Just two other Republican-held House districts in the country backed Clinton by a wider margin.
Valadao has been a good fit for the district, and has easily fended off challenges since his first election in 2012.
A local dairy farmer, Valadao has focused on bringing more water to the Central Valley, something that plays well in an agricultural district hit hard by drought. He’s been willing to break with many Republicans on immigration reform, most recently signing on to support Democratic bills to resolve the legal status of people brought to the country illegally.
Valadao said he hasn’t spoken to Huerta since 2016 and hasn’t seen evidence his campaign is revving up.
“He’s a nice enough guy, we just disagree on a lot,” the congressman said.