California 20th District
By car, California’s Central Valley is a monotonous landscape: mile after mile of farmland with mile-square grid roads, intersected by railroads and canals, with an occasional cluster town. The land is hilly and gets more water near the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and this is where the larger cities are. On the other side are the Westlands, where the land is flatter and the water scarcer. Its 600,000 acres are the nation’s largest irrigation district. Here the land was always developed and sold in big plots; today it has some of the world’s largest farming operations. The land produces abundantly: alfalfa, cantaloupes, cotton, grapes, lima beans, olives, peaches, plums, raisins, sugar beets, tomatoes, walnuts, wheat. The landowners are a hardy and politically independent lot, but they have been happy to receive government help over the years, with money for crop price supports (in the case of cotton), agricultural research, irrigation systems, and, most important, subsidized and plentiful water. Landowners have fought hard against liberals’ efforts at change, from Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown’s encouragement of Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers in the 1970s to former House Natural Resources Committee Chairman George Miller’s 1992 law to draw off more water to the Sacramento delta and charge higher prices for it in the valley. They were also stymied when conservatives controlled Congress, and it deadlocked on expansion of guest-worker programs pushed by valley farmers. Landowners also worry that Los Angeles users might outbid them for scarce water. After suffering several hundred million dollars in drought-related losses wthey are scurrying to restore old wells and find alternative water sources. In the Westlands, several hundred thousand acres have gone fallow.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
The 20th District of California includes most of the Westlands of the Central Valley, from Bakersfield to a point northwest of Fresno. Its irregular boundaries were drawn to maximize the Hispanic population and Democratic percentage, so the 20th includes the old downtown neighborhoods of Bakersfield and Fresno but not their more affluent neighborhoods. It includes heavily Latino towns such as Delano, Chavez’s old headquarters, and the site of a potentially large natural-gas discovery. Just 36% of Fresno’s population is included within the 20th, and just 18% of Bakersfield’s. The district’s Hispanic population is 67%, about double that of other Central Valley districts. In 60% of homes, the main language is not English. This is the most Democratic valley seat between Sacramento and Los Angeles, although in 2004 George W. Bush won 49% here and in 2006 Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger won 54%. As in most of California, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama won easily here in 2008, 60%-39%.