Steny Hoyer said he came to the San Joaquin Valley this week to get a firsthand look at one of the hardest hit areas in the nation.
But -- at least during the hour-plus I spent with him Tuesday at an editorial board meeting -- the visit by the House of Representatives' second- in-command seemed more like a campaign whistle-stop for Dennis Cardoza.
I suppose that's understandable. After all, Hoyer and Cardoza are fellow Democrats. And, after all, Americans' dissatisfaction with the Democratic-run Congress and White House is growing. And, after all, his visit came a day after Ceres rancher Michael Berryhill announced he would challenge Cardoza in next year's midterm election.
After unseating incumbent and fellow Democrat Gary Condit and then going on to win election to the House of Representatives, Cardoza has had an easy go in his three re-election campaigns. But Berryhill, a member of a longtime and well-known Republican political family in Stanislaus County, could give him a run for his money next year.
Cardoza shrugs that off, at least for the time being, insisting that nothing, including a re-election campaign, is going to shift his focus on the addressing the needs of his district.
Still, it doesn't hurt when heavy hitters from Washington, D.C., come to town and sing your praises. And that's exactly what Hoyer did. No sooner did he step into the room than he offered a ringing endorsement.
"Dennis Cardoza is the greatest congressman in the history of the world," he announced, quickly repeating it and adding for good measure, "That's my story and, as you can see, I'm sticking to it."
Through the course of our meeting, he repeatedly described Cardoza as a much-needed voice of reason, consensus builder and bipartisan advocate on Capitol Hill.
"Unfortunately, in Congress as in the rest of the country, we're becoming more and more polarized," Hoyer told us. "The real issue in America is that we are compartmentalizing ourselves -- not by force but by choice."
That has shown up most recently in the heated -- and often nasty -- town hall meetings on health care reform. Cardoza has been criticized for not holding town hall meetings, but Hoyer defended the local congressman's decision to instead host telephone sessions, which he described as "much more effective."
"People are afraid, and they're angry," Hoyer said, adding that it's understandable, given the economic crisis, the drop in value of retirement and investment funds, the housing crisis and rising unemployment. "They have a lot of anger at anyone in power. In the midst of this comes health care reform. It has become the focus for their anger and fear."
For his part, Cardoza said he hadn't been asked by one person to hold a town hall meeting. And, though he didn't say so, don't look for him to hold one anytime soon.
"We will not achieve a consensus that's good for the American people when we're yelling at each other," he said.
After hearing about the region's woes and visiting the valley, I asked Hoyer what solutions he saw.
"I don't have the solutions," he responded. "But Dennis does. ... My job is (to work with Cardoza and Fresno-area Democratic Rep. Jim Costa) to see what we can get done."
With that, the ball was back in Cardoza's court. What he does with it in terms of not just identifying solutions but getting Hoyer and the Democratic-controlled Congress and White House to provide the resources to implement them will determine how he fares when election time rolls around next year.
Vasché can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2356.