Election Endorsements

Endorsement: With a Valley-can attitude, send Rep. Jeff Denham back to Congress

Congressman Jeff Denham and challenger Michael Eggman meet with The Modesto Bee’s Editorial Board on Wednesday.
Congressman Jeff Denham and challenger Michael Eggman meet with The Modesto Bee’s Editorial Board on Wednesday. The Modesto Bee

The term “Valley-crat” has been used to describe politicians who pay more allegiance to our Valley than to party affiliation. Lots have claimed the term; a few have actually deserved it. We’d like to offer a new word: Valley-can.

And we’d like to hope that Jeff Denham will someday embody that term. We’re recommending the two-term representative be returned to Congress this November. Perhaps that’s not a surprise; The Bee has endorsed Denham every time he has stood for state or national office. But each time we’ve endorsed him we’ve expressed reservations, and will again.

Our greatest reservation is about the Congress of the United States. Under current leadership, this Congress is incapable of doing virtually anything productive. You’ve got to go back 60 years – to the original “Do Nothing Congress” – to find one more ineffectual. The nonpartisan Pew Research Center shows rampant dissatisfaction among Democrats, Republicans and independents. A CNN poll put the number at 83 percent.

We believe the problem starts on the local level. In most states, political parties draw up congressional districts. That has created a march of ideologues into our Capitol. They consider themselves “purists,” meaning they reject compromise as weak – even though good governance is based on reasonable compromise.

It was in this milieu that Denham arrived in Washington in 2010.

A large man, standing 6-foot-3 (taller in cowboy boots when campaigning), Denham looks like a linebacker. Big as he is, though, he often drifts on the political winds. When first elected, his district was centered in the conservative mountain communities, so he aligned himself with tea party extremists – calling them his heroes. When Californians voted for nonpartisan redistricting, Denham found his new constituents in the valley more moderate, valuing pragmatism and accomplishment over pure politics.

We like to think Denham is more comfortable in a less-partisan environment.

His stand on immigration is the best example. Denham has been a voice of reason. Last year he had a town-hall meeting during which he sounded all the right notes. He was also one of only six Republicans to vote against a punitive amendment to deny funding for the DREAM Act. And then he went further, writing the ENLIST Act to give those who serve in our military a clear path to citizenship. It’s an example of what Congress should do for those willing to give their lives to be Americans. Though written by a Republican, the bill has languished in committee for 15 months – speaking volumes about this Congress.

We’ve seen less leadership in other areas. Denham chairs the transportation subcommittee on railways. We believe federal regulations provide far too little protection against trains carrying volatile Bakken crude through cities such as Riverbank, Modesto and Turlock. A new state law requires the railroads to notify local safety officials when trains are passing through, but not if there are fewer than 35 tankers in the train – a freight-train-size loophole. Federal regulations also put the speed limit at 40 mph, which most experts say is too fast. Denham needs to pay more attention to this issue, even if his largest contributor, Berkshire Hathaway, does own BNSF Railway.

Our region has not recovered from the 2008 recession. We’re still considered the “Appalachia of the West” with more than 20 percent of our residents living in poverty. Our congressman must speak forcefully for change; then he must forge the partnerships to make that change happen.

And then there’s water. There are secret negotiations in both the House and Senate to craft a federal response to another year of drought. Denham won’t even admit the talks are secret. We have two federal reservoirs – New Melones and San Luis – and we’re concerned that those with rights to water in those reservoirs could be deprived. We must be assured that south valley districts such as Westlands are not going to take water that belongs here.

The Bee conducted an editorial board meeting with Denham and challenger Michael Eggman. Both described the importance of water, but neither had concrete answers about protecting our rights.

Raised in Turlock, Eggman knows the importance of water. But we’re not sure he knows the politics of how to keep it. He has never held elected office, and the House is a lofty place to start. Like Denham’s, Eggman’s family doesn’t live in the district. Neither man truly deserves to be called “local.”

We wish this was a closer contest. Denham has been an acceptable congressman, but we worry he cleaves to the party line too frequently – as he did when he voted against the appropriations bill that reopened the government after the Republicans’ disastrous shutdown. A challenger with stronger backing and a better grasp of the issues might not cause us to change our mind about endorsing Denham, but it could push him to become more of a Valley-can rather than merely a Republican from the Valley.