By Eduardo Stanley
It looks as if Rep. Jim Costa (D–Fresno) is getting seriously challenged from within his own political party. Fresno City Council Member Esmeralda Soria announced recently that she is running for the U.S. Congress District 16 seat in 2020.
“For far too long, many working families in the Valley played by the rules [and have] done what they needed to do but they are barely making it. We have to make sure we have somebody in Congress who is fighting for working families,” said Soria during an interview at Fresno City Hall.
“Just last year, my dad was forced to retire because my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and he is taking care of her. My dad now is relying on a 20-hour-a-week minimum-wage income, and you can’t survive on that.”
Soria is passionate when it comes to her goals, “We need to fix our broken health system, we need to fix the increase of housing costs, we need to make sure that our kids who are working hard to get into college or trying to get into training can access them…I went to college and grad school, and I ended up with a huge debt. This is what is happening to our future generations!”
She believes she can be part of a change and give voice to many in District 16, one of the poorest in the country, represented today by the Blue Dog, eight-term Costa, a farmer of Portuguese origin.
A self-confident Soria, who graduated from UC Berkeley and later earned her Juris Doctorate from UC Davis, put her family as an example of determination and community dedication: her older sister is also a City Council member in the city of Lindsay in Tulare County, a younger sister is a trustee of a local school district and her youngest sister is on a local hospital district. All four women of the Soria family hold elective offices in the Valley. Her only brother also graduated from UC Berkeley.
Not bad for a family of immigrant parents working in the fields and living in Tulare County, one of the poorest in the state albeit among the top producers of agricultural goods worth billions of dollars.
Soria is part of a new trend among young college graduates who feel the need to give back to their communities in the Central Valley.
She is aware of the most compelling problems of the area, which include housing, poverty, water quality and low-paid jobs, among others. And when it comes to immigration, “That’s personal to me,” says the now pre-candidate for District 16.
She is part of the discussions about Census 2020 at City Hall. The controversy generated by the possible inclusion—as per the request of the White House and several Republican leaders—of a question related to the citizenship status of those responding to the Census questionnaire was finally blocked by a court. The City of Fresno allocated $250,000 to help ensure a correct count of all residents in Fresno.
“We want an accurate count so our city benefits from the resources that the federal government provides after each Census,” said Soria. “We want to be sure every single family is counted, regardless of the immigration status.”
After graduating from UC Berkeley, Soria was offered a fellowship in Sacramento at the State Capitol for two years. She later worked for the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation. She also worked as an adviser for an elected official and served on several nonprofit boards and participated in leadership trainings and programs.
Those activities gave Soria the experience and knowledge needed for her next step: to become a council member. She was first elected to the Fresno City Council in November 2014. She was re-elected for her second term in 2018.
With this background and after consulting with several community leaders at all levels, Soria feels this is the moment to face a bigger challenge, that is, to become the representative for District 16, which includes Merced County and parts of Fresno and Madera counties. But she also feels her vision can make a positive difference and bring results to an impoverished region, considered for many as a forgotten one.
“We have to go back to basics, we have to rebuild our middle class,” explains Soria. “For that, we need people to have access to well-paid jobs, healthcare benefits, pensions. We need to rebuild our healthcare system because lots of people still don’t have access to preventive medicine so they end up going to an ER, which is costly.”
Soria feels proud of her recent appointment by Governor Gavin Newsom to the state’s Homeless Task Force. “We are facing a crisis of housing costs in California. Many families struggle to pay rent; they are at the verge of homelessness,” said Soria, who focused on the local peculiarities of the situation.
“We can build shelters, but we need to see the long-term solution, and this involves affordable housing. Fresno can’t do it by itself, so we need state and federal support, but it’s time to take action.”
Eduardo Stanley is a freelance journalist for several Latino media outlets and a Spanish radio show host at KFCF in Fresno. He is also a photographer. To learn more about his work, visit www.eduardostanley.com.