Rep. Devin Nunes (R)
California 21st District
In California’s Central Valley, between the flat Westlands and the Sierras, is Fresno, a city that is both agricultural and industrial, middle American and ethnically diverse. Although it began as a farm-marketing center, the city has long since grown out to the north, east, and west from its downtown, and its economy has diversified. It is a creation of the Industrial Age and the Central Pacific Railroad. Fresno’s city fathers bred the local wine grape, developed the raisin industry, and introduced the Smyrna fig. These are among the area’s 300-plus crops, which include cotton, lima beans, nectarines, almonds, tomatoes, cantaloupes, plums, peaches, and alfalfa. Dairy, however, is now the biggest commodity. Fresno County produces more farm products in dollar value than any other county in the United States; neighboring Tulare County is close behind. Central Valley agriculture is industrial in its thoroughness and in its ownership by large corporations. The vineyards outside Fresno radiate in mechanical precision, with vines just 10 feet apart and exposed to the relentless summer sun: nothing romantic or quaint about it. Until recently, times were good. The weak dollar boosted farm exports, large citrus groves benefited from losses in hurricane-plagued Florida, and nuts have found new export markets. The recession, plus a serious continuing drought, hit this area hard in 2008. Among the many business setbacks was the decision by the San Joaquin Railroad, which had served farm and food centers, to abandon 39 miles of rail line. Railroad officials said that the line serving Ducor, Exeter, Lindsay, Porterville, Richgrove, Strathmore, and Terra Bella was not economically viable.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
The 21st District, the most productive farm district in the nation, covers most of Fresno County east of Fresno and all of Tulare County to the south; 42% of the population is in Fresno County and 58% is in Tulare. Here and there amid the farm fields are small cities, and connecting many of these places is state Route 99, the old Farm-to-Market Corridor that will become Interstate 9. Past Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks loom the giant peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, including Mount Whitney, at 14,494 feet, the highest point in the lower 48 states. This part of the Central Valley grew 16% from 2000 to 2007, and it is 48% Hispanic. In 2004, George W. Bush got 66% of the vote, his second-highest percentage in a California district. In 2008, Republican John McCain defeated Democrat Barack Obama here, 56%-42%, McCain’s second-highest percentage in the state, after the neighboring 22nd District.
Rep. Devin Nunes (R)
Elected: 2002, 4th term.
Born: Oct. 1, 1973, Tulare .
Education: Col. of the Sequoias, A.D. 1993, CA Poly. U., B.S. 1995, M.A. 1996.
Family: Married (Elizabeth); 1 child.
Elected office: Col. of the Sequoias Governing Bd., 1996-2002.
Professional Career: State Dir., USDA Rural Dev., 2001
The congressman from the 21st District is Devin Nunes, a Republican first elected in 2002. Nunes (NEW-nez) is the descendent of Portuguese immigrants from the Azores. His grandfather established the 600-acre-plus dairy farm that his parents ran when he was growing up in Tulare County. He graduated from California Polytechnic State University (San Luis Obispo) with degrees in agriculture, worked on the family farm, and married a local elementary schoolteacher whose family roots are also in Portugal. (Nunes and his wife, Elizabeth, had their first child, Evelyn Rose, in 2007.) In 1998, at age 25, Nunes ran for the U.S. House in the 20th District and finished second in the primary, losing 52%-48%. In 2000, he was the Tulare County campaign chairman for former Republican Rep. Bill Thomas, who chaired the powerful Ways and Means Committee before he retired. In 2001, with Thomas’s help, Nunes was appointed California director of rural development for the U.S. Agriculture Department. When California’s redistricting plan was unveiled in September 2001, the 21st District was left without an incumbent, and Nunes moved quickly. He was supported by Thomas, whose deep-pocketed campaign contributors in the pharmaceutical and insurance industries agreed to give to Nunes. At home, Nunes won the endorsement of the California Farm Bureau, the state’s largest farm organization and a powerful voice in Central Valley politics.
|Devin Nunes (R)||143,498||(68%)||($734,226)|
|Larry Johnson (D)||66,317||(32%)||($33,825)|
|Devin Nunes (R)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (67%), 2004 (73%), 2002 (70%)
But Nunes had serious primary competition. The best-known candidate was Jim Patterson, Fresno’s conservative former mayor, who was well-financed by the national anti-tax group Club for Growth. Another serious candidate was Assembly member Mike Briggs. There were few differences among them on policy. All three said that agriculture was their top priority, and all promised to seek new water sources for farmers about to lose the San Joaquin River as a primary source. Environmentalists were working to restore the river, which for years had been dammed for irrigation purposes. The candidates also called for tax cuts, fewer federal regulations, and expanded guest-worker programs in the pending immigration legislation in Congress. Nunes won with 37% of the vote to 33% for Patterson and 26% for Briggs. In his base of Tulare County, which cast 49% of the Republican votes, Nunes received 46% of the vote. In Fresno County, he finished third with 27%, but his two opponents divided the vote: Patterson got 37% and Briggs 30%. Nunes won easily in November 70%-26%.
Nunes has a mostly conservative voting record, although it tends to be more centrist on social issues. Then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert sought him out as a promising freshman and included him in a group of about a dozen House members who met informally to advise the Republican speaker each week. Legislatively, Nunes dove into the district’s most pressing issue: the use of water from the San Joaquin. He got a feasibility study for a new water reservoir near Temperance Flat, which would help farmers if the river was restored to its original flow. But he clashed with Rep. George Radanovich, a Republican from the adjacent, downstream district, over Radanovich’s push to increase water flow over the Friant Dam so that salmon could be returned to the parched lower reaches of the San Joaquin River. Nunes contended that the move would drive farmers out of business by fatally weakening the area’s water supply for irrigation.
After Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, left the House in 2005 to become U.S. trade representative, Nunes got his seat on the Ways and Means Committee. In 2008, he enacted a bill guaranteeing GI benefits to soldiers who leave the military after a sibling dies in combat. His action was inspired by Jason Hubbard, the surviving brother who returned home from his unit in Iraq after his two brothers died there. Hubbard was denied a number of benefits usually given to honorably discharged soldiers. The incident was reminiscent of the World War II story dramatized in the movie Saving Private Ryan. In 2006, Nunes sponsored a bill to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, but he distinguished it from similar proposals by adding a provision creating tax incentives for clean-energy sources, a strategy to draw votes from Democrats otherwise opposed to opening ANWR to energy exploration.
Nunes has been easily re-elected. He was an early backer of GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s referendum on a nonpartisan redistricting plan, which had lost handily in the Legislature.