California 18th District
The Central Valley of California is a miraculous landscape, an outdoor factory stretching as far as the eye can see. Nature created the vast flatlands, rimmed by mountains rising in the distant haze. In the 20th century, people disciplined the land with a remorseless mile-square grid of roads, the California Aqueduct, and dozens of arrow-straight canals. Pipes fitted with valves and gauges pump water, fertilizer, and pesticides to the fields in measured quantities with industrial precision. The crops grow in carefully spaced rows. The rich soil and the irrigated water are too precious to waste on decorative fountains or flower gardens. Throughout history, farming here has been a business, not a way of life. In the 19th century, the U.S. government did not give the land to 160-acre homesteaders but rather sold it to large enterprises in thousands-of-acres parcels. Among the most famous local capitalists were the Gallo brothers, Ernest and Julio, who started a winery in Modesto in 1933 with virtually no money. It now covers more than 10,000 acres of vineyards and produces 80 million cases of wine each year.
2008 Presidential Vote
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In recent years, the Central Valley has become one of California’s surprise boom areas, not just for crops but also for people. Middle-income employees in the San Francisco Bay area drive east at the end of the day on Interstate 580, past surreal windmills whirling on the bare hills of the Altamont Pass, to modestly priced homes in Modesto, the town immortalized (when it was much smaller) in the 1973 film American Graffiti. Warehouses and factories have sprung up on land that for all its farming value is cheaper than industrial land in the Bay Area. With increases in water prices, some croplands have been given over to pasture. Inland California had a 46% increase in jobs from 1990 to 2005, while jobs in coastal California grew by 10% in the same period. But there are costs. Traffic is a problem, air-pollution levels on bad days can be among the worst in the nation, and the pace of life has become more hectic. In 2009, the impact of the national recession on the Central Valley in some ways was more severe than elsewhere in the country. Stockton, pop. 260,000, suffered a higher rate of housing foreclosures than any other city in the United States. By early 2009, the city had knocked Detroit from first place on Forbes magazine’s list of “most miserable cities” to live. Rural areas were not immune to hardship. A severe drought forced farmers to face a major cutback in water supply.
The 18th Congressional District of California includes a large chunk of the Central Valley from Stockton, south to Modesto, through Merced County, to the fringes of Fresno. The political tradition here had been Democratic: In the 1960s, Democrats in Washington and Democratic Gov. Pat Brown built the irrigation canals and authorized the water subsidies; Democrats owned the McClatchy newspapers, the predominant Central Valley chain; and Democrats staffed the Bank of America, long the dominant financial force here. Signed photographs of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Brown lined the walls of insider law firms. The district produced two U.S. House Democratic whips, John McFall in the late 1970s and Tony Coelho in the late 1980s. The Central Valley has the highest proportion of families and children in California, and many of its local politicians share the natural cultural conservatism that exists here. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Central Valley trended Republican, and even the Latinos here were less solidly Democratic than those in Los Angeles. The 18th District is still modestly Democratic, because of very careful redistricting and because of a recent influx of traditional liberals from the Bay Area. In 2004, Republican President George W. Bush carried the district only narrowly, 50%-49%, and in 2008, Democrat Barack Obama won it 59%-39%. One cause of the voter shift was the increase in the Hispanic population from 42% in 2000 to 50% in 2007, while total population grew by 11%.