Rep. Jim Costa (D)
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%.
Rep. Jim Costa (D)
Elected: 2004, 3rd term.
Born: April 13, 1952, Fresno .
Education: CA State U. Fresno, B.A. 1974.
Elected office: CA Assembly, 1978-94; CA Senate, 1994-2002.
Professional Career: Consultant, 2002-04.
The congressman from the 20th District is Jim Costa, a Democrat elected in 2004. Born in Fresno, he was raised on his family’s dairy farm. He is the grandson of Portuguese immigrants who settled in the San Joaquin Valley near the turn of the 20th century. In 1978, Costa was elected to the state Assembly, where he was known as a moderate Democrat. In 2002, after he was forced to retire that year because of term limits, Costa founded a consulting firm. Two years later, when Democratic Rep. Cal Dooley retired after 14 years, Costa entered the race and started off with solid name recognition—his former state Senate district covered the entire congressional district. But in the March primary, he faced a bruising challenge from Lisa Quigley, Dooley’s chief of staff. Quigley grew up in the Central Valley, but she hadn’t lived in the district in nearly two decades, not since leaving for the University of California (Berkeley) and a career on Capitol Hill. Costa, a third-generation farmer and a Fresno native, questioned her residency and her agricultural credentials. Quigley, who was endorsed by Dooley and national abortion-rights groups, bashed Costa’s legislative record and painted him as a special-interest lobbyist. In the campaign’s final days, Quigley ran ads mentioning Costa’s 1986 arrest for soliciting a prostitute and a 1994 incident in which police found drug paraphernalia in his home. Costa shrugged off the attacks and won the primary by an unexpectedly large 73%-27%.
|Jim Costa (D)||93,023||(74%)||($922,364)|
|Jim Lopez (R)||32,118||(26%)||($14,112)|
|Jim Costa (D)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (100%), 2004 (53%)
In the general election, Costa began as a clear favorite in this Democratic-leaning district. But the Republican nominee, state Sen. Roy Ashburn, ran a formidable campaign. He focused on cultural issues, including his opposition to same-sex marriage, hoping to win Latino votes. He criticized Costa for supporting tax policies that he said hurt low-income families. GOP heavy hitters made appearances for him, including Vice President Cheney, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, and Schwarzenegger. The National Republican Congressional Committee ran $1.5 million in ads saying, “Jim Costa—he’s gonna cost ya.” But Costa’s lengthy legislative record didn’t readily lend itself to the “liberal” label. He criticized Ashburn as an “extreme partisan” who would be a tool of the Republican leadership. In a relatively low turnout, Costa won 53%-47%. In Fresno County, which cast 42% of the vote, he won 61%-39%. Costa also carried Bakersfield-centered Kern County, 55%-45%. Ashburn won in the geographically central Kings County, 61%-39%.
In the House, Costa got seats on the Agriculture and the Natural Resources committees, both important to the valley. His voting record is the most conservative among California House Democrats and placed him near the political center of the House as a whole.
As chairman of Natural Resources’ Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee, Costa supported lifting the ban on oil drilling 50 to 100 miles off the nation’s coast, but he sought to maintain the federal ban on drilling within 25 miles of shore and to allow states to decide whether drilling is permitted between 25 and 50 miles off the coast. He has also focused on trying to restore the Chinook salmon population on the San Joaquin River; the fish died off after the Friant Dam was built near Fresno and the river dried out downstream. On the Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee, he worked with Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Fla., and with industry groups in 2009 on a bipartisan approach to toughen food safety regulation, including the creation of a foreign supplier quality assurance program, which would hold food imports to the same safety standards as domestic products.
On other issues, Costa co-sponsored a bill that would require states to establish independent commissions to handle redistricting after the 2010 census. The highly partisan process used by many state legislatures after the 2000 census resulted in heavily gerrymandered districts across the country. Costa is also a leader of the Transatlantic Legislators’ Dialogue, a biannual meeting between members of Congress and European parliaments to discuss global issues.
After his initial tough contests in 2004, Costa has not faced a significant re-election challenge.