What brought Gov. Gavin Newsom and his 11 cabinet members to Stanislaus County for an unannounced visit on Friday afternoon? It wasn’t a photo-op; he tried to keep the trip secret from the press.
No, this was a sightseeing trip.
The governor wanted some of the most influential people in California to see Monterey Park Tract. This poor community of roughly 240 sits on the pancake-flat plain of western Stanislaus County, about eight miles from Modesto.
Monterey Park Tract is no one’s idea of a vacation spot, especially on a drizzling day when the wind was pushing the chill through layers of sweaters and jackets. Newsom was there to drive home a point to the people he brought with him.
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“The issue is safe drinking water,” said the governor, who was surprised to find three Bee journalists awaiting him outside the community center. “Not just safe drinking water, but affordable safe drinking water.”
The Tract’s problems date back to the 1980s, when two community wells were deemed unsafe, poisoned by nitrate seepage from fertilizer put on the surrounding fields and incursion of naturally occurring arsenic. But in the past two years, Ceres has extended a small-bore water line five miles to provide drinkable water.
Many in the community still don’t trust the water. They’ll wash with water from the tap, but drink bottled water – as they have for decades. And it didn’t help in October when Ceres informed residents that another fertilizer residue is present in the water – though levels are not considered dangerous.
Basically, Monterey Park Tract was helping Newsom make a point. Not to the public or press, but to the people on the bus.
“I brought every single person that matters (in driving his agenda) on this trip,” said Newsom. “I put them on this bus. They didn’t know where they were going or that they were coming here.”
When they arrived, Tyrone McKinney was among those greeting them. He believes Monterey Park Tract’s water problems are not yet solved, and was delighted to lunch with the governor in the community where he was raised.
“We’re just excited that the governor will come out here and actually care about our community,” said McKinney, a former standout athlete at Modesto High raised in the Tract.
Newsom’s budget – unveiled just the day before his visit – includes $193 million for ensuring clean drinking water. To cover that and ongoing costs, he included a tax on drinking water – similar to a tax proposed, and defeated, last year.
“You know what, I’m not interested in who is to blame; we have to fix this,” said the Governor. “And I have no interest in everybody making excuses and not doing it this year. If we fall short this year, that’s on us – and that’s a disgrace. So we’re going to have to figure it out.”
Figuring it out could mean a lot to roughly 360,000 Californians who, according to a report published by The Sacramento Bee in May, lack access to clean drinking water.
Among the examples The Bee cited was Shiloh Elementary School, a 20 minute drive from Monterey Park Tract. Shiloh students also get their water from dispensers. Newsom likely saw similar scenes at Grayson Charter School in Westley which he visited after leaving Monterey Park Tract.
He called those conditions “a disgrace in a state as wealthy and as resourceful as ours.” His passion is clear.
“I’m sick and tired of living in a state where so many people struggle with things like this; who are living in poverty,” said Newsom. “But that’s the state we’re living in and those disparities are pronounced.
“I don’t want to overpromise here, but we cannot continue to under-deliver for communities like this and thousands of others across the state.”
In his inaugural speech Monday, Newsom said: “We will not be divided between rural and urban or north and south or coastal and inland. We will strive for solidarity, and face our most threatening problems – together.”
Poetic words. But pretty speeches are usually soon forgotten because so little action arises from them. So it is was startling to learn – and not through the governor’s PR machine – that he was having lunch in the midst of one of our hidden pockets of rural poverty.
The governor of a state of 40 million cannot be expected to do the work of a county supervisor or school board member. But Newsom’s presence in Stanislaus County was significant. And making clean water one of his first priorities undoubtedly will help county supervisors and school board members across the state do their jobs better.
“I recognize that many in our rural communities believe that Sacramento doesn’t care about them – doesn’t even really see them,” Newsom said Monday. “I see you. I care about you. And I will represent you with pride.”
His presence in Monterey Park Tract turned his pretty, poetic speech into something real and tangible for those who met him.
As Newsom climbed back onto his bus, McKinney called out after him: “Thank you for really caring.”
Mike Dunbar is editor of The Bee’s Opinions pages. 209-578-2325