With control of Congress teetering and elections just six weeks away, political junkies across the United States are watching close congressional races like the one pitting Republican Rep. Jeff Denham against Democratic challenger Josh Harder.
But are people here paying attention? Average people?
The Modesto Bee headed to Turlock, the city both candidates claim as their home base, to talk politics with folks at random. For good measure, we also chatted people up on sidewalks in Modesto and Oakdale.
Results, like current polls, were mixed; it wasn’t hard to find loyal supporters of both men. Although a good number were reluctant, plenty others didn’t mind sharing their views. Many responses suggest careful study of Harder and Denham and issues facing the nation as well as the 10th District, covering Stanislaus County and the south part of San Joaquin County.
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Themes emerged in these conversations.
Denham supporters said he has represented them effectively. Some noted his dedication to agricultural interests; others, his attempts to reform immigration policy. Still others were fed up with the way Democrats have been running California.
Many backing Harder were just as irritated with how Republicans have been running the country. Some said they think Harder will be more accessible than Denham, and more compassionate toward the poor and the working class. Several focused on Harder’s commitment to universal health care, especially coverage for people with pre-existing conditions.
Name recognition seems to be helping Denham, who began representing this area as a state senator in 2002. He moved up to the House in 2010 and is finishing his fourth two-year term.
“I think he’s fair and honest,” said Greg Crivelli, 51, a shop owner in downtown Turlock. “I feel like he’s a good guy and does the best he can for the valley.”
Glen Earl said Denham recently visited the Oakdale farmers market promoted by Earl, a kettle corn vendor. “He’s very personable,” Earl said.
Violeta Robledo, a 22-year-old sociology student at California State University, Stanislaus, in Turlock, has family members who immigrated and appreciates that Denham speaks Spanish.
“He’s been a good representative for a long time and a lot of people do have faith in him,” Robledo said. “I like that he’s trying to reach out to different groups in the community. So I have a good impression of (Denham), for the most part.”
Landon Whitney, 36, of Turlock said Denham “speaks for our main industry, which is agriculture. ... I think he represents the district. Frankly, I don’t see a reason to not vote for him.”
Laurie Sliger, 71, said she had no luck trying to contact Social Security when her monthly benefit check suddenly was halved, “till someone told me to ‘call Jeff Denham; he’ll help you out.’ ... So I called Jeff Denham, and that same day (his office) called Social Security and talked to a supervisor, and I got a phone call after that.
“He helped me out,” Sliger said. “I’m more inclined to vote for him.”
Michael Newman, 71, of Modesto also likes Denham’s approach to immigration, which breaks with most of his GOP colleagues in Congress. But looking at the “mess” Democrats have made of California, he said, is more important.
What about Harder? “I don’t know enough about him, but he’s from the party that’s ruined the state. It’s as simple as that,” Newman said.
Harder’s supporters are just as soured on Republicans in charge in Washington, D.C.
“Trump has got us in the wrong path,” said Chris Courtney, 54, of Oakdale. “If we get Democrats to control the House, we might make some changes for the better.”
Randy Huth, 68, a retired high school English teacher in Turlock, said, “I’m disappointed with Jeff Denham. I think he means well, but I think he’s hostage to the Republican establishment, which has lost its way. I don’t think he can separate himself from the tribe. I see him as a vote in the wrong direction.”
Heather Barzan of Oakdale said, “I think it’s time for Jeff Denham to go. There’s talk of draining the swamp, but we’re stuck in the same treacherous ineptitude in Washington; Trump is not the cause, just a symptom of a bigger problem. It’s time for some change, time for people to stand up for what we need here in the valley, someone to stand by what they say.”
Barzan, a 32-year-old mother of young children who also works in the medical field, said she constantly sees the need for health coverage and was dismayed at Denham’s vote for a bill that may have lead to 100,000 people in the 10th District eventually losing health benefits.
Ann Strahm said she was in a Denair town hall audience in spring 2017 when Denham said “he was not going to vote on dismantling ACA,” or the Affordable Care Act. A few days later, he reversed course when an amendment was proposed providing some money for five years for people with pre-existing conditions.
“If you’re going to tell me or your supposed constituents one thing but then you go and do something else, you don’t represent me,” said Strahm, 50, of Turlock. “I kind of believe health care is not a privilege; it’s a right, and people who try to take that right away, to me, don’t deserve my vote.”
“Josh Harder, all the way,” said Robin Fowler-Lourenco of Modesto, a retired school teacher who said she saw too many “students and families suffer” without adequate health benefits.
Christopher Ortega, 41, of Modesto said he’s impressed with Harder’s commitment to affordable health care. “It’s something average families want our politicians to fight for. It’s about time someone gets on our side, instead of corporate interests’ and the millionaires’,” he said.
“(Denham) has pretended to work for the farmer his whole career, and we saw he voted for tax cuts, but then he voted to take people’s health care away,” Ortega continued. “That doesn’t seem to be in line with the average worker.”
Giana Falacco, 21, attested that she’s written twice to Denham’s office about health care and taxes, and received responses both times. But it did no good, in her eyes; the replies were “very cut-and-paste, (as if) somebody had it all written out and they’re sending out a mass response,” she said.
“I just feel like Jeff Denham represents all the rich farm people,” said Falacco, who works for a church office in Turlock. “I don’t feel very represented at all.”
Denham and Harder will square off for the first time at 3:30 p.m. Thursday in a debate before Bee editors that people can watch live or replay later on the newspaper’s Facebook page. People also can watch it live in Oakdale in the auditorium at Magnolia Elementary School, 739 Magnolia St.; that venue is sponsored by the Oakdale, Riverbank and Escalon branch of the American Association of University Women.
If nothing else, “I see more people involved in politics now than ever before,” Ortega said. “That is the silver lining of Donald (Trump), in my opinion.”
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390