Politics

Thursday, May 03 2012 05:00 AM

Congressional candidates spar over rail, other issues

BY ANTONIE BOESSENKOOL Californian staff writer aboessenkool@bakersfield.com

Candidates for the 21st Congressional District met with Californian reporters and editorial writers Wednesday to outline their views on everything from the state's high-speed rail plans to jobs and immigration.

The newly-drawn district roughly resembles the current 20th district, represented by Democrat Jim Costa, and includes parts of Kern, Fresno and Tulare counties and all of Kings County. (Costa is now running for election in the newly-drawn 16th Congressional district, which includes Merced County and part of Madera County.)

David Valadao, a dairy farmer serving his first term in the state Assembly, is the lone Republican in the race. The other candidates are Fresno City Councilman Blong Xiong and John Hernandez, CEO of the Central California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Though the seat has been held by a Democrat for the last 20 years, Valadao said, "I work across party lines all the time. As a Republican in Sacramento, if you don't, you can't possibly ever get a bill signed."

"As far as in the district, I don't really believe the whole Republican, Democrat thing," he said. "I think the people in the district actually believe in a representative government."

Valadao is a Hanford native. His family's farms are in Kings and western Tulare Counties.

Before serving on the Fresno City Council, Xiong was community organizer with a nonprofit organization that helps immigrants transition into the community.

Hernandez previously worked in insurance and financial services.

Jobs and water are two issues he'd address in Congress, Valadao said.

Some lawmakers in Congress haven't understood the realities of farming and small ownership, he said.

"They've never run a business ... They've never seen how these government programs helped or hurt them," he said. "My issue is to make sure we get some people in office who've been on both sides of the issue and understand it well enough to represent the community."

Xiong agreed jobs are an important reason he's running. "I've advocated for funding from the state, (federal government) to make sure that it comes down to our hardworking people in the Valley." Job preparation, workforce development, access to health care and education are areas he'd like to address in Congress.

Hernandez said jobs are his first concern.

"I think we can do better," he said. "These are people who really need options," like jobs, opportunities and education, he said.

"I will commit that in my first 10 years, we will make some significant progress on helping bring down the unemployment rate," he said. Hernandez said the district has a "one-dimensional economy," where agriculture is the "big horse," but investments in infrastructure and transportation, including a high-speed rail line, are needed as well.

Valadao said he doesn't support the state's high-speed rail plans. "I like the dream (of high-speed rail)," he said. But flaws have existed from the beginning -- in the deadlines set, ridership numbers projected and funding, he said.

Xiong said he does support high-speed rail in the state, but that there are "challenges."

"The first commission, when they saw the initial support, they took it as a mandate to go out there and do what they thought was the right thing," he said. "They really made it difficult for those of us who support it." But, he said, "to neglect and not take this opportunity to lead the nation in terms of the high-speed rail -- it would be a big blow for us."

On immigration, Valadao said enforcing the border with Mexico is a priority, but immigrants already in the United States must be better managed, such as by issuing them green cards and driver's licenses. But citizenship shouldn't be a direct reward for illegally crossing the border, he said.

Xiong said comprehensive immigration reform "has to happen," but Arizona's recent law is not the way to go. Arizona's 2010 law requires police to question people about their immigration status if they have a "reasonable suspicion" they're in the country illegally.

"That's not the America that I want to see," he said.

Hernandez said the agriculture industry depends on laborers who cross the border, yet, the high unemployment in the state means "we've got a real problem here, so we've got to find a comprehensive way to address this," such as a path to citizenship.

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