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Central Valley's New Political Dynamics Hard to Pinpoint

The area, originally conservative, became a Davis stronghold. That has waned, but support for his foes is scattered.

September 09, 2003|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

FRESNO — In the Central Valley, Cruz Bustamante trumpets his devotion to farm workers, Arnold Schwarzenegger touts his ties to farm owners, Tom McClintock vows to safeguard water for crops, and Peter V. Ueberroth tells voters he grows walnuts and grapes.

California's agricultural heartland has become hotly contested terrain in the gubernatorial recall race. It can swing statewide elections between the two major parties, and it promises to play a pivotal role in the Oct. 7 vote on the proposed ouster of Gov. Gray Davis.

Yet the scramble for votes in the Central Valley is a messier endeavor than usual, one that reflects the odd campaign calculus of the recall and the rapid population shifts of a region now home to 6 million people.

"It's still very much an open race," said Carol Whiteside, a former Modesto mayor who heads the Great Valley Center, a regional public policy institute.

In part that is because the Central Valley has soured on the Democratic governor: In the most recent Times Poll, 82% of likely voters there gave him a negative job rating -- higher than the figure from the state as a whole.

In the 1998 governor's race, Davis' strength in the conservative-leaning Central Valley helped drive his landslide victory over Republican Dan Lungren. Davis stressed his record as a Vietnam veteran who backs the death penalty. He used the same tactic in seeking reelection last year, but with mounting fiscal woes and lingering bitterness over the energy crisis, Davis was trounced in the valley by GOP rival Bill Simon Jr. The governor prevailed statewide thanks largely to Simon's dismal showing in coastal cities.

Now, in his fight to survive the recall, Davis has all but ignored California's breadbasket. Apart from his time in Sacramento, he has campaigned almost exclusively in the Bay Area and Southern California, trying to shore up his base of Democrats and independents.

"In a very short campaign, you can't do everything, and you can't be everywhere," said Davis campaign advisor Garry South. "You have to really concentrate on the areas that are most critical for achieving your objective."

Shaping the contest to replace Davis are the same demographic changes that enabled him to compete in the Central Valley five years ago. The 400-mile-long valley was a Democratic stronghold for decades after legions of poor farmers from the South and Midwest settled there during the Great Depression. It switched to solid Republican turf amid the social turmoil of the 1960s.

Since then, it has transformed gradually into a swing area -- competitive for both Democrats and Republicans -- amid a surge in the Latino population and a steady migration of moderate suburban voters from the coast, many of them fleeing the Bay Area's soaring housing costs. The growth of the Sacramento area -- and diversification of its electorate -- has also loosened the GOP's more recent lock on the valley.

"They're not farmers, they're not right-wing nuts, they're not rednecks," South said.

Bustamante hopes to corner the valley's growing Latino vote. The lieutenant governor, a Democrat who grew up outside Fresno and now lives in a Sacramento suburb, would be California's first Latino governor in modern times.

He recently joined United Farm Workers leaders in a dusty Kern County field to proclaim his solidarity with the union founded by Cesar Chavez. He struck a similar theme Wednesday at a gubernatorial debate.

"I've picked peaches and done the kind of hard labor that has been out there in those fields," he said.

On Sunday, Bustamante held a rally of several thousand supporters in Fresno, but his native-son advantage is tenuous. Although he won Fresno County in his first statewide election in 1998, he lost it last year in his bid for reelection. And now, in his campaign for governor, Bustamante has taken stands that could further dampen his appeal in the valley. His call for gasoline price controls, for one, could cause him trouble in Kern County, where oil extraction is a big source of jobs.

"They're trying to make a buck pumping the stuff out of the ground, and I'm sure they don't want it to become a utility," said Tony Quinn, who analyzes campaigns for California Target Book, a nonpartisan election guide.

Bustamante advisors concede that his politics generally run against the valley's conservative grain, which has maintained its strength despite the recent influx of more moderate voters. He supports higher taxes, legal abortion, gay rights and legislation that would abolish farm exemptions from smog rules.

"On the social issues, Cruz is way too liberal for them," Bustamante strategist Richie Ross said.

Demographer Hans P. Johnson of the Public Policy Institute of California said the legacy of Dust Bowl migration "is very much alive and well in the valley, with the descendants of those migrants being fairly conservative."

"I'm surprised that it is not becoming more Democratic, given the population changes," he said.

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