By John Bruce
Only seven months after electing their first female president, the Fresno County Young Democrats (FCYD) held a panel centering on women in Central Valley politics. Four women spoke about their experiences navigating the deep-red waters of Valley politics traditionally dominated by older White men.
Esmeralda Soria recently announced her campaign for Congress in District 16 against 14-year incumbent Rep. Jim Costa (D–Fresno) after spending four years serving Fresno City Council District 1. It marks a rare occasion for the Central Valley. Two Democrats challenging each other in a general election for a Congressional seat in the Central Valley is unheard of, but there’s a possibility of a Democrat-on-Democrat race in this district.
Sukaina Hussain works with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) doing work in the Central Valley. Although she works primarily with and for Muslims, many issues for which she advocates help a wide span of other minority groups in the Valley. Her advocacy has helped ease tense situations for many Valley residents.
Jewel Hurtado just broke ground on a skate park the community has been asking for in her district in Kingsburg. The 20-year-old was elected to City Council District 1 in Kingsburg only 18 months after graduating from high school. A mom of one and a college student, she emphasizes the need for more than one type of voice in the Valley.
Aileen Rizo challenged Assembly Member Jim Patterson (R–Fresno) for the District 23 seat in 2018. She also has advocated for equal pay for women since 2015, even taking her case to the Supreme Court. She focuses on generating equality for women in the workplace.
General themes of discrimination and sexism bounced between the panelists. They told anecdotes about their own experience maneuvering through the “old boy’s club” of traditional politics.
Soria told of her experience being stereotyped as an angry woman of color or as being too emotional.
“I think it comes with the territory,” said Soria. Her solution? Elect more women. She told of her experience having her credentials questioned when much less qualified men were not challenged at all.
“It’s hard to challenge your male colleagues because you don’t want to be excluded,” said Soria, telling the group that many deals are made behind the scenes.
Rizo expanded on the idea of standing up for what you believe in and fighting for a chance to sit at the table. Her experience with the Fresno County Office of Education has given her insight into how women should live professionally.
“Every time we stand up for ourselves, we stand up for someone else too,” said Rizo.
She expressed her frustration with women getting so far and having some of their progress slide back and regress.
“We have the tools, we just need to know our rights, or else we can’t use those tools,” said Rizo.
Hussain focused more on the shortcomings of Fresno rather than general oppression.
“We have a very diverse community, but our city doesn’t embrace their diversity,” said Hussain. She shared a story of when she first arrived in Fresno and how, at an event, she was immediately accepted as part of the community. She didn’t know why the city and local government couldn’t do the same.
The FCYD has called on local elected officials to step up and respond to their constituents. The FCYD also has provided education and resources about the ICE raids on the communities of Reedley and Parlier.
A sense of community and accountability is important to the FCYD. While trying to reach out by registering voters, having elected officials speak at events and advocating for issues, members are no stranger to confrontation.
Leaders in the club have faced pushback from conservative pundits in Fresno because they have been critical of the Fresno City Council’s effectiveness.
“If you follow the money, you see where their voting record comes from,” said Rizo about elected officials.
When asked about advice and what women leadership means to them, Soria and Hurtado spoke on what is important to them.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re an elected official,” said Soria. “You just need to do something.”
She expanded on that, alluding to FCYD President Clara Varner taking over the club and giving women a stronger voice in the community because she has that organization behind her.
“It’s important to have that voice when decisions are made,” said Soria.
She strongly believes in having a diverse group of leaders in order to ensure every citizen is represented and has someone they know they can go to for help if they feel slighted.
“Work hard,” began Soria. “Get involved. Build relationships. Don’t be afraid to lead if you’re able.”
Hurtado focused more on women getting involved in direct government.
“Women leadership to me is to be able to sit with my baby, go over my agenda, and show other moms they can do it to,” said Hurtado.
She brought her baby to the panel and showed that just because she has a kid, she’s still able to participate and get her job done.
“Don’t count women out, especially if you’re young. Don’t discount those small offices. Local office is incredibly important,” said Hurtado.
Ultimately, the takeaway from the first Central Valley Women in Politics Panel Discussion was for women to be their unapologetic self when running for office.
“The future is female, after all,” said Soria.
John Bruce is a writer, editor and organizer in the Central Valley. He is a co-founder of the Tulare County Young Democrats and enjoys working alongside his fellow activists.