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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

A Paradoxical Battle in the Backwaters

November 02, 2000|GEORGE SKELTON

FRESNO — Rich Rodriguez is standing on the stage grinning, looking down at thousands of cheering Republicans at the biggest campaign rally anybody can remember in Fresno. Well, actually, he's looking over the shoulder of George W. Bush. But that's OK. He's in the camera shot.

Nobody who's not a Bush insider knows exactly why the Republican presidential candidate is here on a chilly Monday night, eight precious days before the election. Is it a head fake, trying to throw Al Gore off stride? Does Bush really think he has a good chance of carrying California? Or is he here to help Rodriguez in one of the nation's hottest congressional races?

Probably all of the above. Rodriguez really doesn't care. He just sees the ballyhooed event as a huge campaign boost. "Bush will help immensely," the former Fresno TV anchorman theorizes. "It's all about momentum--people seeing me standing up there with the next president of the United States."

The Democratic candidate is Cal Dooley, a five-term congressman and fourth-generation San Joaquin Valley farmer. Dooley is getting no campaign help from Gore, who isn't even running TV ads in California.

It is one of five fiercely contested U.S. House races in the state. Democrats need to pick up a net seven seats nationally to recapture control. And this is the Republicans' best shot in California at knocking off a Democrat.

The district is in the political backwaters, where irrigation water is a perennial issue. It stretches 100 miles, from Fresno to Bakersfield, zigzagging across California 99 into portions of Fresno, Tulare and Kern counties and all of Kings.

A Dooley campaign poll shows him comfortably ahead. But an independent survey by the Bakersfield Californian found Rodriguez with a 3-point lead. Fewer than 30% of Latinos support him, but many are undecided. The consensus is it's a tossup.

What seems indisputable is that this will be the most expensive House race ever in the valley. It's pushing $5 million, with the incumbent holding a slight edge in bucks.

"It's a travesty how much money is being spent," Dooley says. "It could be $40 a vote."

*

Paradoxes fill this race.

The district was drawn for a Latino Democrat. It has the heaviest concentration of Latinos in the valley--roughly 60% of the population, nearly 40% of the registered voters. It also is the valley's most Democratic district--50% Democratic, 36% Republican.

But the Latino candidate is a Republican whose grandfather was an illegal immigrant irrigator. And the Democrat is a white farmer with large land holdings.

People who didn't know better might surmise, from just hearing his name, that Cal Dooley was some redneck, maybe a car dealer barking pickups on TV. Actually, he's a cerebral policy wonk with a soft voice and--at a slim 6 feet 4--Jimmy Stewart features. In the House, Dooley, 46, is co-chairman of the moderate New Democrat Coalition. He's the only congressman to be endorsed by both the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the United Farm Workers.

He got crossways with the California Farm Bureau--which endorsed Rodriguez--for opposing efforts to create a Mexican guest worker program. There's a 15% unemployment rate in the district, Dooley says, and it doesn't make sense to bring in tens of thousands more workers.

"You can't point to one field or orchard that hasn't been harvested because of lack of labor. No question there are enough workers," Dooley asserts. "The argument is they won't do the work. I say, maybe they won't do the work at [minimum wage]. Perhaps we'll have to pay a little more."

*

Good times favor incumbents, but the San Joaquin Valley isn't sharing in the California boom. Meanwhile, farmers fight over scarce water. This makes a climate for political change.

Rodriguez, 46, who grew up on his family's small orchard in Exeter, fits the GOP profile: a solid conservative who complains that the federal government cares more about fish than farmers. He charges that Dooley has lost touch with the district--because his family lives within the Washington Beltway--and won't fight the bureaucrats for more water.

But Rodriguez is light on details and the Fresno Bee, in endorsing Dooley, called him "intellectually lazy."

Says GOP pollster Steve Kinney: "If Bush does well, Rodriguez wins." In 1996, President Clinton carried the district by 11 points.

On Tuesday, Rodriguez still was savoring the big rally. "We're all kids," he said. "When I got in this thing, I believed one day George W. would be on stage, and I would be with him. I started to wonder whether it was going to happen. And there it was. I completed the album."

Dooley certainly hopes Rodriguez completed the album--and there won't be some swearing-in photo next January.

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