Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D)
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%.
Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D)
Elected: 2002, 4th term.
Born: March 31, 1959, Merced .
Education: U. of MD, B.A. 1982, CA St. U. Stanislaus.
Family: Married (Kathleen McLoughlin); 3 children.
Elected office: Atwater City Cncl., 1984-86; Merced City Cncl., 1994-95; CA Assembly, 1996-2002.
Professional Career: Agribusiness owner.
The congressman from the 18th District is Dennis Cardoza, a Democrat first elected in a 2002 contest that drew international attention because of the notoriety of his predecessor, Democratic Rep. Gary Condit. Cardoza grew up in Atwater, the son of farmers who raised sweet potatoes and dairy cows. Like many people in the Central Valley, he is descended from Portuguese immigrants from the Azores Islands (as are Democrat Jim Costa of the adjacent 20th District and Republican Devin Nunes of the 21st). Interested in politics a youth, Cardoza attended the University of Maryland just outside of Washington, D.C., and interned on Capitol Hill. In the mid-1980s, he was an aide to Condit, who was then a California assemblyman; he worked on Condit’s 1989 special-election campaign and served on his Washington staff. In 1996, Cardoza was elected to the Assembly. He very likely would have remained close to Condit had it not been for the case of Chandra Levy. She was a Modesto resident who was working as an intern in the executive branch when she and Condit began having an affair. She vanished in Washington in April 2001 and was later found murdered in the city’s Rock Creek Park. Her disappearance generated saturation media coverage. It was revealed that Condit had an extramarital relationship with her, and Condit was hounded by reporters and photographers. Though Condit had nothing to do with Levy’s tragic death (she apparently was the random victim of a sexual predator), the revelations about his personal life destroyed his career. Condit had always portrayed himself as a family man and the son of a preacher. His wife was well known and beloved in the Modesto area. When it turned out that Condit had been living another life in Washington, his loyal base of support in the district evaporated.
|Dennis Cardoza (D)||Unopposed||($962,057)|
|Dennis Cardoza (D)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (65%), 2004 (68%), 2002 (51%)
National and local Democrats urged Cardoza to enter the contest because they feared that Condit could not survive the general election and that the party would lose the seat to the Republicans. When he did, he received immediate endorsements from Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and many members of the House delegation. Condit stayed in the race despite his tattered reputation, but Cardoza beat him in the primary 53%-39%. In the general election, Republicans nominated state Sen. Dick Monteith, whose seat included 73% of the congressional district. Monteith claimed that Cardoza was too liberal for an agriculture-oriented constituency, but Cardoza cited his business-oriented reputation in the Legislature. In October, Condit’s children released a letter that harshly criticized Cardoza and urged a vote against him. But Cardoza won 51%-43%. Stockton made the difference. Cardoza led 67%-27% in San Joaquin County, which gave him a 10,000-vote margin that wiped out Monteith’s 2,000-vote lead elsewhere.
In the House, Cardoza, like Condit, established his independence from the liberal Democratic leadership and racked up a centrist voting record. He joined the moderate Democrats’ Blue Dog Coalition and emphasized the need for fiscal discipline.
Cardoza naturally gravitated to the issues of agriculture and resources. He bucked environmentalists and worked with Republicans on farmer-friendly revisions to the Endangered Species Act, including changes in designating critical habitat. He advocated solar power and other sources of renewable energy. The father of two adopted children, Cardoza also worked on legislation encouraging placement of more children in foster care.
When Democrats assumed the majority on Capitol Hill in 2007, Cardoza became chairman of the Agriculture Subcommittee on Horticulture and Organic Agriculture, a title that sounds more coastal than Valley, but it gave him a seat at the table in drafting the 2007-8 farm bill. He pushed for increasing subsidies for “specialty crops,” notably the fruits and vegetables that farmers grow in his district, and he helped secure more than $2 billion in new federal spending for those crops. With other Blue Dogs, he pushed for some constraints on overall spending and supported a provision that stops federal payments to farmers with incomes of $1 million a year or more. “This bill threads the needle,” Cardoza said. “There is something for everyone to dislike, but everyone got what they needed.”
Despite occasional differences with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, including his public support for Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer in his pitched battle against Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha for majority leader in 2007 (Pelosi backed Murtha), she gave him a seat on the leadership-run Rules Committee. He later patched things up with Pelosi by co-chairing the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Frontline” program to help endangered incumbents.
Cardoza has won re-election handily and with far less attention than in his first race.