When it comes to considering political clout, there are some comparisons that come to mind between the well known urban areas of the state and the farming communities that make up the San Joaquin Valley. Los Angeles is the flashy, established player. Fresno and Bakersfield are the quieter country cousins.
Even given its size and its prominence in agriculture, the San Joaquin Valley does not stand out with Los Angeles or the San Francisco Bay Area—which have well-established political bases, large populations and a unified political view.
“I think the Central Valley is appropriately called the other California."
Juan Arambula, is currently a Democratic Assemblyman from the Valley. In Fresno he served as a school board member and County Supervisor. He says the Central Valley’s problems, particularly in the San Joaquin area have been overlooked for a long time.
“In the two counties that I represent Fresno and Tulare counties, we have six of the poorest ten cities in all of California. We have many people who earn less than ten-thousand dollars a year.”
Add to that bad air quality, a boom in the use and manufacture of methamphetamine, as well as huge unemployment and poverty rates. Arambula and others say much is needed to combat the problems in the eight-county region… And a place to start is with its mixed-party congressional delegation—getting them to work together and combine their political clout to get things done.
Former Congressman Tony Coelho, a Democrat, says the current house members representing the region are making strides in that direction. But he says most need more time under their belts to make a real difference.
"Seniority does count… Some of those members are gaining in seniority, they become much more influential, they get into leadership positions, all these things help on the national level.”
Others say attacking problems on a local level rather than approaching them as they affect the entire region has also hurt the area’s chances to help itself. Mark Baldassare has studied the Valley and is Research Director for the Public Policy Institute of California.
“I would say that is probably one of the greatest challenges, to the growth and the political influence of the SJ Valley, is the fact that it’s an area in which politicians and residents are still thinking very locally.”
But others say the region will come into its own very soon as the population grows. The San Joaquin Valley is expected to double its number of residents over the next forty years. Republican Assemblyman Mike Villines represents Fresno and Tulare counties. He says the status as a political player is already showing.
“People are starting to look at the Central Valley—both Republican and Democrat, statewide candidates as that swing district. As a place where you’ve got to spend time, and you make promises to.”
Mark Baldassare says much like inland areas—like Riverside and San Bernardino – the San Joaquin Valley’s status as a swing district will bring lots of attention from lawmakers. Especially he says because the region is still up for grabs among the parties.
“It’s really hard to predict whether it’s going to turn Democratic or Republican. Will the people for instance who are traditionally democratic instill more liberal opinions into the process or will they become more conservative like some of the long term residents in the area? That's the sixty-four thousand dollar question in politics in California right now.”
Baldassare says the region’s growing influence will be seen sooner rather than later—within the next decade or two… Others are pinning their hopes for rapid change on more recent developments—including the long-awaited opening of U-C Merced, which many say will put the region on the map as it’s never been before.
And then there’s the “California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley” launched earlier this summer by Governor Schwarzenegger. Its mission is to come up with a Strategic Proposal to find ways to improve economic conditions. Supporters say all will help the Valley emerge from the shadows of Southern California and the Bay Area to become a more politically influential region.