California News

Redistricting has Local Leaders Worried for South County Ag Industry

Losing funding for projects, including reconstructing the Pajaro River levee, are among many concerns

A tractor operator works a field at a farm off of Harkins Slough Road in Watsonville in 2021. PHOTO: Tarmo Hannula

When the California Citizens Redistricting Commission published a draft Congressional map on Dec. 13 that proposed wide-ranging changes to representation on the Central Coast, dozens throughout the Pajaro and Salinas valleys hurried to denounce the alterations—some even going as far as claiming the 14-member commission was blatantly gerrymandering the region.

Among those protesting the changes were regional business giants, local politicians and everyday people who felt splitting the 20th Congressional District overseen by Jimmy Panetta would, among other things, negatively impact the area’s top industry: agriculture.

A week after the commission solidified its final maps, many still fail to see a silver lining in the massive political shift. Barring an unlikely legal challenge to the new Congressional map, Watsonville, the lone city separated from its Santa Cruz County neighbors, will face an uphill battle in having its voice heard at the federal level, says Santa Cruz County 2nd District Supervisor Zach Friend.

“The new map puts Watsonville on an island,” Friend says. “I’m not sure how you can look at the new maps and make a case that it’s a good thing for that community or the county.”

Making Moves

Every decade following the release of census data, jurisdictions must adjust their district lines to account for possible shifts in population from one area to another. This is done to ensure that all elected districts remain as fairly represented as possible in government and communities of interest—a group of residents with a common set of concerns that may be affected by legislation—are protected. While most cities and counties throughout the state leave the local redistricting process up to their elected leaders, the national and state offices—Congress and State Senate and Assembly—are determined by five Republicans, five Democrats and four people not affiliated with either of those two parties selected to the commission.

According to the new maps, Santa Cruz County will be split among three Assembly districts. Most county residents will be familiar with Mark Stone and Robert Rivas—the former represented much of the county in the 29th District, and the latter oversaw Watsonville in the 30th—but will have to get acquainted with Jordan Cunningham, a Republican who lives in Templeton and oversaw the 35th District.

The new 30th District, which Cunningham will move into, will stretch from Live Oak down the coast into San Luis Obispo County, ending near Pismo Beach. Along with Watsonville, Rivas’ new district, the 29th, will cover Gilroy and the Salinas Valley, and Stone’s new district, the 28th, will continue to oversee North Santa Cruz County, while also welcoming Los Gatos and Morgan Hill.

In the State Senate, not much will change for Santa Cruz County, as Senator John Laird’s 17th District only saw significant alterations to the east—it now includes San Benito County and relinquishes parts of South Santa Clara County.

The local congressional district, however, saw massive upheaval that many throughout the Central Coast say could negatively impact the region. The 20th District was split down the spine of the Salinas Valley, creating a new L-shaped 19th District to the west that starts in the Santa Cruz Mountains, runs down the coast into Northern San Luis Obispo County and curves east to hug the southern border of the new 18th District. That district contains the majority of the Salinas Valley, San Benito County, Watsonville, Gilroy, Morgan Hill and parts of San Jose, including much of the city’s downtown.

These districts take effect with the June primaries and continue for the next decade.

List of Concerns

Friend was one of the first Santa Cruz County politicians to express concern when the final proposed Congressional map was released. The commission pitched the move as a way to create a Latinx majority district that would ultimately benefit communities similar to Watsonville, but Friend, whose 2nd District represents parts of Watsonville and much of the farmland surrounding the county’s southernmost city, strongly disagrees that will be the case.

In a letter to the commission, he argued that splitting Watsonville from the rest of the county would dilute its influence at the federal stage. Friend wrote that he saw parallels between the goals of the new map and the landmark court case Gomez v. the City of Watsonville. Much like that 1988 lawsuit, which found Watsonville’s at-large elections were unconstitutional, the new redistricting map would limit Watsonville’s power to elect a leader of its choosing, Friend wrote.

“This proposal for the new Congressional district brings forth many of the same concerns—diluting Watsonville’s voice on the federal stage and, in particular, diluting the voices of Santa Cruz County farmworkers, non-native speakers and first-generation residents,” he wrote.

A few days after Friend submitted his letter, the Watsonville City Council voted to file a similar objection with the commission. Friend called Watsonville’s stance “unprecedented” because of the fact that the city was strongly against the move despite the commission’s belief that it was in the municipality’s best interest.

“They’re saying that [the move] is in the opposite of our interest and to not have that taken into consideration, that’s tough,” Friend says. “I think it’s going to be a 10-year shift where you’re going to need whoever is in Congressman Panetta’s seat to really be backfilling the needs of the city of Watsonville much more than I would rely on a Silicon Valley representative to do.”

And the needs in Watsonville are many. Along with gathering some $260 million in federal funding for the reconstruction of the Pajaro River levee, the agricultural industry is at a critical junction, says Jess Brown, the executive director for the farm bureaus in Santa Cruz, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.

Chief among the litany of issues facing agriculture today, Brown says, is the labor shortage fueled in part by a broken and outdated immigration policy. Immigration reform took a positive step early last year when President Joe Biden introduced the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021. But Brown says he wonders how far down immigration reform will fall on Congress’ to-do list now that one of the country’s key agricultural hubs is fighting for federal assistance with big tech in San Jose.

He is also concerned about what that move could mean for Santa Cruz County’s unique agriculture industry. While there are similarities to the agriculture industry in the Salinas Valley, Brown says that Santa Cruz County’s role as a bastion of organic farming and the work it conducts at the Co-op Extension at UC Santa Cruz differentiate it from its Central Coast neighbors.

“Not only does it split up the County of Santa Cruz for us, but it also puts a major emphasis on an urban area of the [new 18th] district,” Brown says. “It’s disappointing, and it leaves us with a lot of questions going forward.”

Brown says the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau submitted a letter of opposition to the commission after the proposed map was released. The farm bureau also asked its members and community partners to submit letters calling for the Central Coast to be kept together. In retrospect, Brown doubts the dozens of comments submitted to the commission had any effect on its decision-making process over its final week of public meetings.

“I don’t think [the commission] acknowledged the comments they received,” Brown says. “District 20 has traditionally been an agricultural-based voice, and that’s probably going to change going forward … We can only hope that the new representative can really delve into the industry and understand agriculture’s role in our area.”

“What’s driving the economy of the heart of the district now is tech,” says Friend. “A community of interest between ag and tech is a stretch. I don’t see a lot of C&N Tractor dealerships in downtown San Jose. So you’re trying to balance the Tesla dealership with a C&N factory, and they’re just fundamentally different interests. Whether or not that individual can bridge that gap is going to be a real testament to that individual’s success.”

New Challenger

Panetta has already said he will seek reelection in the new 19th Congressional District, and San Jose Democrat Zoe Lofgren, who has been in Congress since 1994, has said she will do the same in the new 18th District.

Though some politicians, including Seaside City Councilman Jon Wizard, have already come forward to challenge Cunningham in the new 30th Assembly District, no challengers have stepped forward in upcoming local Congressional elections. Lofgren, who scored the endorsement of the United Farm Workers last week, will likely be the Democratic candidate that Watsonville voters will see on their ballot later this year.

It won’t be an easy task for Lorgren to connect with Watsonville, San Benito County and the Salinas Valley, says former State Senator Bill Monning. Elected in 2012 into the 17th Senate District in the year after last decade’s redistricting lines were solidified, Monning says the focus of his first year in office was meeting as many people as possible in the district’s new communities.

“My advantage is it was pre-Covid,” Monning says. “I can’t imagine learning a new district or new communities in the district during [the pandemic]. Maybe things might be a bit easier because you can reach more people over a video conference, but that’s not what being a public servant is about. It’s about the relationships you make when you meet people, and that, obviously, is tough today.”

Monning, who exited politics in 2020 after serving as the State Senate Majority Leader, says that “it’s tough to make sense” of the commission’s decision to make San Jose the population center for the 18th District. But, as he studies the new map and tries to play the devil’s advocate over a phone interview, he finds two possible positives for Watsonville residents. 

The first is that having Santa Cruz and Monterey counties split between two representatives could mean that they have twice the say at the federal level if the pair works hand-in-hand on issues that affect their residents. It’s a theory that he’s heard before, but that he somewhat disagrees with.

The second is a more straightforward takeaway: The establishment of the Latinx majority district could mean Watsonville can elect a candidate that truly represents its large Latinx population.

“For somebody in Watsonville, I think it’s fair to be concerned about the move,” Monning says, “but the question now should be ‘OK, we’re out of Santa Cruz County, but will this give us a representative that better reflects our community?’ I think you have to look at this situation through multiple lenses.”

Former Watsonville Mayor Daniel Dodge, Sr. is a little more pessimistic about those prospects than Monning. Dodge, currently the president of the Monterey Bay Central Labor Council, says that although the district might be majority Latinx, that does not necessarily translate into a representative that would benefit the Central Coast.

“We know this from previous elections, not all Latinos are the same,” he says.

He is also dubious of how a candidate from the Pajaro and Salinas valleys and San Benito County would compete with a candidate backed by Silicon Valley donors. The real question, Dodge says, is not whether a candidate from those communities can run a successful campaign against a Silicon Valley candidate, but whether the latter is willing to listen to and fight for the agricultural community they will represent.

“It looks good on paper—I think this might give the impression that the Latino population might be represented in this district—but the voting power is still located in Santa Clara County and the money is, too,” Dodge says. “Can a candidate from Watsonville, Salinas, King City, Soledad really beat someone from Silicon Valley? We don’t know. I hate to be negative, but the odds are not great.”

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