ATWATER – In his first town hall before a Merced County crowd, Republican U.S. Rep. John Duarte demonstrated he knows what it will take to win a second term in this politically divided district: He’ll have to balance himself on a very narrow platform.
Central Valley Journalism Collaborative
Ideological differences reflected among the nearly 150 people packed into the Veterans Memorial Building on Tuesday indicate any candidate who aims to please one side will only end up angering the other. Duarte won applause by stressing that he’s putting Valley interests over partisan battles.
“I don’t care about party politics,” said the 56-year-old Modesto farmer and businessman. “I can serve this district.”
“I am here to get everything I can, resource-wise, for this district.”
Protecting water and farming interests is a long-practiced strategy for San Joaquin Valley politicians. The region’s tricky character — Democratic-leaning but with a strong conservative streak — inspired a label for the moderates who’ve succeeded here by pledging loyalty to place over party: the Valleycrat.
Last year, Duarte eked out one of the slimmest victories of any Congressional race, beating Democrat Adam Gray by just 564 votes out of 133,556 ballots cast — less than half a percentage point. It was among a handful of nail-biter races that gave the GOP its narrow House majority.
CA 13 Congressional District
U.S. District 13, which was redrawn before the 2022 midterm elections, today stretches over the counties of San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Merced, Madera, and Fresno. Credit: Ballotpedia.
The 2022 Duarte-Gray race was a first in the newly-drawn U.S. District 13, a vast region stretching over five counties. Merced County is the only one fully within the district and is home to more than a third of its registered voters. Last November, Duarte lost the county by nearly 2,500 votes, but pulled ahead thanks to strong support in Madera and Fresno counties.
In 2024, he’ll again face Gray, who’s from Merced. As of February, Democratic voter registration in the district surpassed Republicans 43% to 28%, according to state figures.
Water a Top Priority
One of Duarte’s top priorities is building new infrastructure to secure water for the San Joaquin Valley. Not only is water needed for farms and for the workers who make up the ag industry, he said, water is needed to put food on tables and to create more access to housing.
“When you don’t have abundant water resources, developers can’t pull the permits to build housing,” he said.
Duarte called the behind-schedule and over-budget High-Speed Rail system that will connect Merced and Bakersfield a “boondoggle,” saying the project’s funding would have been better spent on water infrastructure and highways. And the country, he said, needs to secure its economic and energy future by moving to “drill American oil.”
During the evening, any response that veered toward one party’s line or the other stirred reactions in the audience. The push for oil drilling and highways prompted murmurs to simmer among those near the rear of the hall. When Duarte opened the floor up for questions, the first speaker turned up the heat: What was the congressman doing to close the border?
While many of his Republican colleagues win points by going hard on immigration, Duarte described himself as “immigration fluid,” supporting greater border security but recognizing that agriculture depends on farmworkers, many of whom lack legal immigration status.
“Our economy in this Valley would crash if we took a hard line on the people who are working here,” he said.
“We have far too many people living in the shadows here in the Central Valley,” he said. “It’s not fair. We rely on them.”
In May, Duarte was one of only two Republicans to vote against HR-2, a sweeping border security and immigration bill that would increase penalties for immigration violations, restart border wall construction, and boost the number of Border Patrol agents. A fellow Valley Republican, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, called it “the strongest border security bill to come through Congress in more than 100 years.”
The bill, however, is expected to die in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Bipartisan Approach Needed on Immigration: Duarte
Duarte told the Atwater crowd that only a bipartisan approach will address immigration. In July, he joined colleagues from both parties to reintroduce the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, along with Valley representatives Jim Costa (D-Fresno) and David Valadao (R-Hanford). The bill would update the H-2A agricultural guest worker program and was negotiated with input from farmers, labor organizations, and farmworker advocates, according to supporters.
Rather than rally behind doomed bills that Duarte said are designed only for “partisan messaging,” he wants to find a solution that helps undocumented residents such as the “Dreamers” — people who were children when they arrived in the United States.
Forcing undocumented residents to stay hidden, he said, hurts families and communities. He pointed to the sudden closure of Madera Hospital in January as an example of the result of Valley medical centers struggling to cover the costs of treating undocumented residents and other patients who lack medical insurance or whose care is not reimbursed by the state.
Duarte’s willingness to vote against the GOP grain has earned him the lowest ranking from the conservative advocacy organization Heritage Action — 49% compared to 78% for McCarthy and 82% for Valadao.
“At times, I stand alone,” Duarte said. “I’ll stand against ‘the woke.’ I’ll stand against the ultra-conservatives.”
As questions from the crowd pushed at Duarte from both sides of the political spectrum, the congressman held his position.
- On Ukraine: Duarte pushed back on complaints that the U.S. is providing more support than European nations. The U.S. needs to stand against fascism, he said. “We cannot abandon our partners in freedom.”
- On the environment: Duarte criticized the “protest industry” that he said has used environmental concerns to tie up infrastructure projects and hurt working families.
- On education: A complaint that public schools were becoming “indoctrination centers,” led Duarte to say parents should be able to choose where their children attend school — a change he said would encourage competition and improve educational quality.
In a county that is majority Latino and where more than half of residents speak a language other than English at home, Duarte was asked why he hadn’t offered Spanish translation at the gathering or distributed Spanish-language fliers about it beforehand. “The people who are suffering are not here,” remarked Eli PaintedCrow, an author and Army veteran from Merced.
Duarte said a Spanish-speaking member of his team could not attend Tuesday’s town hall, but he promised to do better for future events and would even organize one in Spanish.
A testy moment came when a speaker pushed Duarte to commit to supporting former President Donald Trump in the 2024 election. Duarte promised to support whoever was the GOP nominee. But the man, who did not give his name, pressed for the congressman’s support of Trump in particular. Duarte refused to budge.
And, as he prepares for an election that is shaping up to be, again, a close contest, Duarte said he’s keeping his focus on the Valley’s interests, not political feuds.
“So, may God bless me,” he said. “And, bring it on.”
About the Author
Michelle Morgante is editor-in-chief of the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative, a nonprofit newsroom based in Merced.