In California's rural Central Valley, a candidate's identity means everything in politics. Just take the race between first-term Republican Rep. David Valadao and Democrat Amanda Renteria for the state's 21st Congressional District seat, which is attracting some unusual attention this fall.
In a midterm election year where immigration remains a thorny subject, both Valadao and Renteria talk openly about the need for Congress to pass the stalled comprehensive reform bill.
At a debate in Bakersfield this week, Valadao pointed out that he was one of only three Republicans to sign on to the House immigration overhaul bill — H.R. 15 — backed by Democrats.
"I've gotten beat up from my own side for it, [but] I think it's very important to get it done," Valadao said. "My parents are immigrants; I learned so much about why it's important to have real opportunities and I think that's what made this country great."
Valadao, 37, is a dairy farmer of Portuguese descent but speaks Spanish regularly — the two candidates are also debating in Spanish.
On the campaign trail, Amanda Renteria, 39, talks often about her parents, who were migrant farmworkers in the Central Valley. She was the first in her high school to go to Stanford, and she later became the first Latina chief of staff in Congress (for Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow).
"They know where I come from; they know my dad was from Zacatecas, Mexico, and himself came with no papers at the beginning," Renteria says. "I think anyone that hears me talk about immigration reform knows my deep passion for it, and this isn't just about election time."
At times, both candidates seem to be trying to one-up the other on whose ties are stronger to the Central Valley and farming. The newly redrawn district is more than 70 percent Hispanic, and this being farm country, the contest highlights how the politics of immigration aren't as simple as they may seem.
Many farmers and big agricultural companies here that tend to lean Republican are in a full-court press lobbying Congress to pass the stalled immigration bill. It's one of the reasons Valadao is seen as a clear front-runner even in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans.
California State University, Bakersfield political scientist Stanley Clark says Valadao is likely "ethnic enough" for many voters here, in particular Hispanic men who may typically lean Democrat. Most Hispanic families in this rural valley work in farming, he says. And with the drought, fields are being fallowed and jobs are being cut. Clark says voters are looking for someone who seems like one of them.
"The clearer your association is with [agriculture], the more you are advantaged with them by comparison to somebody whose association with agriculture is more remote and vague," Clark says.
Renteria is quick to deflect criticism from the Valadao campaign that she's a carpetbagger who just moved back to the Valley a year ago with the express purpose of running for this new seat.
"When it comes to the Latino community here, they've really gotten to know me over this election," she says. "No one wonders whether or not I'm going to keep my promises."
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