California 17th District
The California coast around Monterey Bay is for many a working definition of paradise. This kernel of California, site of the first state capital, still makes a fine living off the land and sea, as it has for 150 years. The locale for The Grapes of Wrath and many other John Steinbeck novels, the fields around Salinas provide much of the nation’s lettuce and cauliflower. The area is often referred to as “the salad bowl of the world.” Nearby, the farmlands around Castroville supply the country with its artichokes, and the vast greenhouses around Watsonville produce a goodly portion of its roses. In 2007, Monterey County’s agricultural yield grew to $3.8 billion. The fishing fleet and the 18 now-closed canneries of Monterey (the last sardines were canned in 1964) have generated a new industry. Once described by Steinbeck as “a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, nostalgia, a dream,” Cannery Row now is refurbished with upscale shops and hotels. The magnificent Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of California’s top tourist destinations, and the National Marine Sanctuary holds more than 400 shipwrecks and ditched aircraft. The Monterey Bay area calls itself the world’s language learning capital, with the Defense Language Institute, Language Line Services, and Cal State’s Monterey Bay Center for Intensive Language and Culture on the site of Fort Ord, which was closed in 1994. Perhaps the main attraction of the Monterey peninsula is the lush 17-Mile Drive along the Pacific Coast Highway, with Pebble Beach’s golf courses, the Del Monte Lodge, and Carmel, whose restrictive laws—no house numbers, no door-to-door mail delivery, no live entertainment, no stoplights, no cutting trees without City Council permission—reflect an effort to maintain the atmosphere of nearly a century ago, when it really was an artists’ colony. Not immune to California’s propensity for destructive wildfires, the Big Sur area, heavily dependent on tourism, suffered major fire damage in 2008, including the loss of trees on more than 220,000 acres of national park land.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
The 17th Congressional District of California includes the entire coast of Monterey Bay and follows the stunning Big Sur coastline south along the steep slopes almost to William Randolph Hearst’s castle, San Simeon, taking in some of the most beautiful scenery in America. To the north along Monterey Bay, it runs past Watsonville to Santa Cruz. The district extends inland, into sunny valleys sheltered from ocean mists, and covers some of the nation’s richest farmland. Most of the farmworkers are Latino, mainly Mexican, and in the 1990s, the Hispanic population rose from 31% to 43%, the largest increase in any Northern California district; in 2007, the share grew to 47%.
The gap between rich and poor in Monterey County is wide. It has thousands of homes valued at more than $1 million but also usually ranks high in the share of households below the poverty line. Forty years ago, this was a solidly Republican area, dominated politically by the landowners in Salinas and the townspeople who sympathize with them, plus retirees in Santa Cruz and on the Monterey peninsula. But an influx of young people, attracted less by the economy than by the atmosphere, moved the coast to the left. Monterey and Santa Cruz counties have become steadily more Democratic than the nation, and each now exceeds the national Democratic presidential vote by more than 10 percentage points. A district that once consistently voted for Ronald Reagan gave Democratic presidential nominees John Kerry 66% of the vote in 2004 and Barack Obama 72% in 2008.