On April 29th,  Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke made several stops through the Central Valley on his way to Yosemite to discuss climate change policy. This makes him one of the first Democratic presidential candidates, along with former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro and Senator Kamala Harris, to step outside of LA and the Bay Area while campaigning or fundraising in California.

Though it can still be considered ‘early’ in the 2020 presidential race, it’s obvious that a significant disparity has developed in the attention that different California regions receive from presidential candidates. However, this news doesn’t quite translate to the events occurring in the Central Valley, as the region has occupied a growing presence in the statewide dialogue in areas such as the environment, water, infrastructure, and more.

Perhaps the most attention-grabbing example of this occurred in February of this year. Back then, Merced found itself at the center of national attention when Governor Newsom announced Merced as the new terminal point for a shortened version of the LA-SF High Speed Rail (HSR) in his State of the State address. The announcement was called for a revision of the original HSR plan promised by earlier California governors. Instead, the new plan is to have the HSR completed between Bakersfield and Merced as a first step. From there, additional steps will be taken to connect LA and Bay travellers through the use of both existing infrastructure and new HSR.

Yet, the announcement caused a nationwide furor. Critics understood the change to say that the rail would only exist from Bakersfield to Merced, and quickly jumped to deride the project for focusing solely on the Central Valley. President Trump, for example, took the opportunity to demand a return of federal funding given to the project. Newspapers throughout California also turned inwards, analyzing both history and current day to discover what the decision meant for the state. In the backlash, UC Merced and the HSR became a packaged deal of “failed” investments in Merced and the Central Valley.

Within the State of the State address itself, Gov. Newsom provided a preemptive response to this criticism, saying “that some critics will say this is a ‘train to nowhere.’ But that’s wrong and offensive. The people of the Central Valley endure the worst air pollution in America as well as some of the longest commutes. And they have suffered too many years of neglect from policymakers here in Sacramento. They deserve better.”

Months later, it is still necessary for state officials seeking additional funding for the project  to emphasize that while building the HSR is currently taking place primarily between Merced and Bakersfield,  the “full [LA to SF] line is still the ultimate goal”.

On the other hand, construction is moving along to complete the Central Valley portion of the rail. Bay Area officials are optimistic that the infrastructure project will reach their region and could potentially assist with the housing crisis. As an example of the Central Valley’s role in statewide discourse, the case study of the High Speed Rail demonstrates that the region does have a growing presence.

Besides transportation and public infrastructure, other critical issues, like poverty, pollution, and climate change, are garnering statewide attention towards the region. As one of the nation’s most productive agricultural areas, the Central Valley is on the forefront of being affected by climate change. In response, both growers and the University of California are creating new methods to manage resources in the region.

Additional environmental issues, including poor air and water usage, are important areas drawing public attention to the Central Valley. As the need for water has led to increasing environmental costs, Central Valley congressmen Josh Harder has developed new legislation to gain federal investment in new water infrastructure for the Valley. The economic issues like the rate of child poverty, which remains endemic at about 30% in Merced County, is receiving significant attention from the state. These all serve as examples where the region is playing an increased role in the statewide discussion of serious issues.

As critical issues affecting the state, poverty, water, pollution, and infrastructure are and will continue to be critical elements of the public discourse. The inclusion of the Central Valley in this discussion suggests that, even with some difficulties, a more equitable statewide dialogue is developing.


Photo Credit: Central Valley Tourism Association.

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