California: Twentieth District|
Rep. Calvin Dooley (D)
Last Updated May 28, 1999
California's Central Valley by car seems a monotonous landscape: mile after mile of farmland with mile-square grid roads, cut across by diagonal railroads and canals, with an occasional cluster town. The land is hilly and gets more water near the Sierra Nevada, and this is where the larger cities cluster. On the other side is the Westlands, where the land is flatter and the water scarcer. Here the land was always developed and sold in large plots, and it has some of the world's largest farming operations today. And it produces plenty: alfalfa, cantaloupes, cotton, grapes, lima beans, olives, peaches, plums, raisins, sugar beets, tomatoes, walnuts, wheat. The owners are a hardy lot, but like most entrepreneurs they have been happy to have government help: crop price supports, agricultural research, exceptions to the immigration laws, irrigation systems and (most important) subsidized water. They have fought hard against liberals' efforts at change, from Governor Jerry Brown's attempts to encourage 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. But the greatest threats may come from conservatives: In a free market for water, Los Angeles users may outbid the farmers, and tighter restrictions on illegal immigrants have cut into the supply of farm workers; Congress has so far declined to approve guest worker programs pushed by Valley members.
The 20th Congressional District includes most of the Westlands of the Central Valley, from south of Bakersfield to north of Fresno. Its irregular boundaries were drawn to maximize the Hispanic population and possibly elect a Hispanic congressman, so the 20th includes the old downtown neighborhoods of both Bakersfield and Fresno, but none of their newer suburbs; it includes heavily Latino towns like Delano, long Chavez's headquarters, but not more Anglo places like Tulare. The 20th's Hispanic percentage was 55% in 1990, compared to 20%-26% in other Central Valley districts, but the percentage of voters who are Latino is lower, 34% in 1990 and 39% in 1997. Still, this is the most Democratic Valley seat between Sacramento and Los Angeles.
The congressman from the 20th is Calvin Dooley, a Democrat elected in 1990. He is a farmer, growing cotton, alfalfa and walnuts as his great-grandfather did before him. In the late 1987 he became a staffer for Tulare state Senator Rose Ann Vuich. In 1990, he ran for Congress in a more Republican-leaning district. Luck was with him: The incumbent had accepted contributions from S&L operator Charles Keating and then interceded with regulators on his behalf. Dooley won with a solid 55%. When new district lines were announced in 1992, Dooley and 10-year incumbent Democrat Richard Lehman both eyed the 20th, but Dooley staked it out solidly and Lehman ran in the much more Republican 19th District, which he won narrowly that year and then lost in 1994, while Dooley has been re-elected without difficulty.
Dooley's endurance has been partly a testimonial to his moderate voting record, which vies with Gary Condit's for being the most conservative of California Democrats. He tottered before voting for the Clinton budget and tax package, and he supported the balanced budget amendment and the line-item veto. In the Republican 104th Congress, Dooley voted for much of the Contract with America and supported most of welfare reform. In his committee work he tended to district interests. On the Agriculture Committee, he worked on the complex dairy issues, co-sponsoring an amendment with New York Republican Gerald Solomon to phase out butter, cheese and powder price supports and consolidate the 33 milk marketing orders into no more than 14, with a guarantee that California could set its own standard for pricing and milk solids. He was one of three committee Democrats to vote for Richard Pombo's guest worker bill. In August 1995 he switched his vote on maintaining EPA's powers because he learned that EPA would force Fresno to spend $197 million and Hanford $30 million to remove radon and arsenic from water; the amendment failed 210-210 and EPA lost. He serves on the Resources Committee and is co-chairman of the Congressional Beef Caucus and the Western Water Caucus. He backed Superfund reform and supported $18 billion for the IMF in 1998 and normal trading relations with China.
Dooley is also active on local issues, helping to secure $1.2 million for a flood control project on Arroyo Pasajero and $1.1 million to increase the capacity of Kaweah Lake behind the Terminus Dam. He helped get $3.5 million to upgrade the Fresno Yosemite International Airport and hailed the arrival of 30 new F/A-18E/F Super Hornet jets at Lemoore Naval Air Station. He helped obtain a $3.8 million grant to assist Southeast Asian refugees in Fresno County learn English and get jobs; he supported the bill to waive the English language requirement for citizenship for Hmong and Lao veterans who were recruited by the U.S. military in the 1960s and 1970s.
Dooley is a founder and co-chairman of the New Democrat Coalition, formerly the Mainstream Forum, a group of about 50 moderate House Democrats who bill themselves as seeking bipartisan solutions to the nation's problems. After the 1998 election, he ran for the vacant vice-chairmanship of the House Democratic Caucus, seeking to assemble a coalition of conservatives and Californians. But he failed to lock up either camp, and lost 124-81 on the second ballot to Robert Menendez of New Jersey. Afterward, Minority Leader Dick Gephardt asked Dooley to be one of five members of a new Democratic Leadership Council designed to encourage dialogue among Democratic factions.
Dooley had a well-financed opponent in 1996, term-limited Assemblyman Trice Harvey, and still won 57%-39%. In the small turnout of 1998 he won 61%-39%.
Potentially Competitive. Dooley has a strong, but not solid lock on this relatively conservative Central Valley district. A well-funded, well-organized challenger could give him a credible fight, but in the end it would be hard to unseat him.
- Pop. 1990: 573,555
- 27.3% rural;
9.1% age 65+;
- 48.8% White,
1.1% Amer. Indian,
54.7% Hispanic origin;
58.5% married couple families;
36% married couple fams. w. children;
26% college educ.;
median household income: $21,140;
per capita income: $8,097;
median gross rent: $304;
median house value: $64,000.
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