On Dec. 9, 2023, the Central Valley Leadership Round Table (CVLRT) met in Firebaugh to interview candidates for California’s 13th Congressional District, which includes parts of Merced, Madera, Stanislaus, Fresno and San Joaquin counties. The district has historically benefitted from a huge Democratic registration advantage.
Since redistricting in 2022, CD13 remains a majority-minority population with a 14-percentage-point Democratic registration advantage. Whites are 34% of the district, whereas Hispanics, Asians and Blacks account for almost 60%.
The CVLRT began as the Westside Leadership Round Table with members mostly from Firebaugh, Mendota, Huron, San Joaquin and nearby cities and unincorporated communities. In 2018, it expanded its network of grassroots and community leaders to include Merced, Madera, Tulare and Kings counties.
CVLRT meetings provide an open forum for dialogue around community concerns, and decisions are derived from consensus. The Dec. 9 gathering to consider endorsements was well attended with more than 50 participants.
Democratic candidate Adam Gray spoke of the 10 years he served as an Assembly member and part of the California Problem Solvers Caucus, which brought Democrats and Republicans together. He stressed a bipartisan approach to protect water, workers and jobs.
When asked about his priorities, Gray responded, “water, water, water.” He also acknowledged initiatives to assist workers regardless of legal status and provide access to healthcare.
Although Gray’s presentation was scripted and lacked details, he reminded the audience that he is endorsed by State Senator Anna Caballero (D–Merced), Assembly Member Esmeralda Soria (D–Fresno) and the California Labor Federation.
Incumbent John Duarte (R–Modesto) had a more polished presentation, introducing himself as a farmer and businessperson. He reminded the audience that CD13 is a “Hispanic voting district” and claimed to have a relationship with thousands of Hispanics through his nursery in Stanislaus County.
Duarte says that he wants to “get water on the farms, drill American oil and get your cost of living under control again.”
He stressed that “we need immigration laws that recognize the important contributions that you have made, and you’ll see I have taken every stand I can to get DACA fixed, to get every family out of the shadows and have a legal presence here in America.”
He claimed that he is “standing up to the Republican Party and bringing change.”
The CVLRT acted immediately following the presentations and endorsed the Republican incumbent Duarte for Congress. A joint press statement released by the Duarte campaign and the CVLRT declared that “John Duarte is the first Republican to have been endorsed by the Central Valley Leadership Round Table.”
CVLRT President Eliseo Gamiño stated, “I am pleased to have John Duarte’s commitment to work with CVLRT members to improve the livelihoods of all of his constituency.”
Duarte claims to have secured an increasing number of endorsements from Latino community leaders, businesses and organizations throughout the Valley.
Duarte’s website states that he would vote to suspend gas taxes, which is conservative messaging when referring to high gas prices that are actually driven by oil company profits. Duarte also declares that he will fight against “gated-community career politicians” who want to “Defund the Police,” branding Democratic legislators, the vast majority of whom have never uttered the words. He supports school choice “so our kids can find an environment that meets their needs.”
In 2023, Duarte voted to condemn efforts to defund or dismantle local law enforcement agencies. He voted against waivers and modifications of federal student loans. He voted against air pollution controls in new vehicles and heavy-duty engines and federal efforts to ban gas stoves.
Duarte voted against the classification of firearms with “stabilizing braces,” which increased the efficacy of “short barreled” rifles like those used in recent mass shootings.
Duarte voted for the impeachment of President Biden for high crimes and misdemeanors (Dec. 13), as well as Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas for the same (Nov. 13).
Duarte voted to expand and strengthen the Abraham Accords and to urge normalization of relations with Israel. He also voted to stand with Israel and to reaffirm Israel’s right to exist.
He voted “to condemn support for terrorist organizations at institutions of higher education, which may lead to the creation of a hostile environment for Jewish students, faculty and staff.”
He voted against the expulsion of Rep. George Santos (R–N.Y.; Nov. 1) before he voted for it (Dec. 1).
Among his top 10 supporters are LLCs with global interests in real estate, agribusiness, philanthropy, financial asset management and investments in the media, communications and entertainment industries.
One notable donor is Energy Transfer Partners, a Texas-based natural gas and propane pipeline transport company and 35% owner of the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline, which was opposed by a popular movement of indigenous and environmental groups. It was a major test of the Obama administration, which halted the project. In his first month in office, Trump issued an executive order allowing the pipeline to go forward.
Another notable donor is Bernard Marcus, co-founder of Home Depot. Marcus helped finance the anti-abortion Turning Point USA and the Federalist Society, which engineered the conservative takeover of the U.S. Supreme Court. He is also the international chair of the Israel Democracy Institute. Marcus has donated almost $64 million to Republican candidates in recent years, including Donald Trump, and declared that he would do so again in 2024.
For the 2023–2024 campaign, Duarte has raised more than $1.728 million. Gray, as of the last reporting period, had raised $235,000.
Current Political Context
There is an emerging pattern in local and national elections: Historically disenfranchised ethnic and social groups and working-class families are disillusioned with the Democratic establishment. The traditional party structure appears to lack the vision, values and commitment for their continued support and loyalty, and many feel their votes are taken for granted.
During the 2016 Clinton campaign, a precinct walker in a Fresno Latinx neighborhood observed more than one Spanish speaking household expressing, “¿Qué pasó con el señor de pelo blanco?” or “What happened to the old guy with white hair?” The primary challenger Bernie Sanders resonated with many of them, and would probably have won, but the Democratic establishment ignored the appeals of wide swaths of their base.
Hillary Clinton suffered a predictable defeat by the worst of opponents, and the nation, particularly workers, women, the poor, LGBTQ+ and immigrants, paid dearly.
Another outcome of that election can be found in the human tragedy that is unfolding in Gaza. Trump demonstrated unconditional support of Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, including recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and declaring that Israeli settlements in occupied territory were not illegal.
Trump officials also brokered the Abraham Accords, which recognized Israel’s sovereignty over Palestine and supported increased annexation and new settlements. Those actions emboldened Israel and sparked fury across the Arab world, setting the stage for what is happening today in Gaza.
The Biden administration and representatives in Congress allow billions in weapons and logistics support to flow to Israel and a rapidly escalating regional conflict. Seventy-four percent of Democrats younger than 35 sympathize with the Palestinians, and those numbers are growing. Although these same voters are unlikely to vote for Trump, what will happen if many of them simply refuse to vote? Will there be a repeat of the “Hillary phenomenon”?
Back in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, local concerns are now part of national and international struggles for justice. Community leaders are determined to hold candidates accountable and will no longer harvest votes for someone who won’t respond to their needs.
One more stumble or stutter on Biden’s part could determine the outcome of the presidential election, and control of Congress depends on a handful of races. In their outcome will lie the hopes and destiny of the poor and disenfranchised here, and perhaps the people of Palestine in their homeland.