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From deep in the Valley: Perea and the ‘New Dems’

A highway sign in California points to the heart of the Valley. (Photo: Filip Bjorkman)

It should come as no surprise that a representative from the Central Valley’s largest city heads California’s New Democratic lawmakers.

“Our official name is the New Democrats, but everyone refers to us as the ‘mods’ and that’s fine too,” says Assemblyman Henry T. Perea, a Fresno native. “When I took over chairing the mods, our reputation for a long time — since our founding — had really been a group of Democrats that kills bills. I wanted to change that reputation.”

“[The water bond] wasn’t really a partisan fight. Water politics are based on needs of regions, as opposed to needs of parties,” says Perea, who is pro-labor and pro-farmer.

This year, water politics ruled the Legislature and forced a distinct line between the interests of coastal and inland Democrats, especially on environmental issues.

Water bond revisions caused divisions in regional priorities and, despite the opposition of Central Valley lawmakers, groundwater regulations passed in the final hours of the legislative session.

But this struggle, Perea says, gave Central Valley Democrats the opportunity to convey to colleagues from other areas of the state why regional priorities – like investing in water storage projects, clean drinking water and water recycling – are important to the Valley. There is support in the valley for these issues from Republicans, too.

“[The water bond] wasn’t really a partisan fight. Water politics are based on needs of regions, as opposed to needs of parties,” says Perea, who is pro-labor and pro-farmer.

Assemblyman Henry Perea, D-Fresno. (Photo: Official web site.)

Assemblyman Henry Perea, D-Fresno. (Photo: Official web site.)

California, the most populous and third-largest state in the country, is an incredibly diverse society. Resources needed in the Central Valley are unique, distinct from what’s needed in coastal metropolitan areas, like San Diego or San Francisco.

And with Perea at the helm, inland Democrats were vocal in staking out their turf in the year’s prominent battles.

Perea’s roots in Fresno politics
Henry T. Perea shares more with his father than just a name. “I come from a political family,” he says.

His father Henry R. Perea, a moderate Democrat serving as a Fresno County Supervisor, was also the first Latino elected to the county Board Of Education. Before her death, his mother was involved in law enforcement-union politics.

But Perea attributes an internship in Washington, D.C. with former Congressman Cal Dooley of Hanford, who served from 1991-2004, as influencing his career ambitions and possibly political views.

The assemblyman’s grandmother was a teamster when she worked in the canneries.

With that family background, it makes sense Perea started his political career early.

He was elected to the Fresno City Council in 2002 at age 25, and in 2010 Perea became California’s youngest legislator at age 33.

But Perea attributes an internship in Washington, D.C. with former Congressman Cal Dooley of Hanford, who served from 1991-2004, as influencing his career ambitions and possibly political views.

“In fact, it was the first time I had ever been out of Fresno,” Perea said in a 2011 interview with the California Channel’s Capitol Views program. “It was a real eye opener for me to see how things run. And so that internship for me is really, I think, the spark that really led me into my path in politics and government.”

Forging moderate paths as a means to navigate national politics was emblematic of Dooley, who in 1997 founded Congress’ New Democrat Coalition.

The Valley perspective
In California’s Central Valley, moderate political views bleed between party lines.

This is part of the political world: Many Republicans come toward the center on policy issues in order to cut deals. Democrats that represent heavily agricultural regions, like the Valley, must do exactly the same thing.

Perea said hitting the $2.7 billion target was “a very big victory” for Valley lawmakers because that “magic number” allows projects eligible for bond money to actually be built.

And although California voters statewide are solidly Democratic, a 2012 report from the Public Policy Institute of California found that Fresno County is the most centrist ideologically, conservative on most social issues and moderate to liberal on fiscal issues.

Throughout this year’s critical negotiations on the multibillion-dollar water bond on the November ballot, New Democratic state legislators from the region sided with Republicans on the issue of financing storage projects.

The coalition was steadfast in their call for $3 billion for projects, like the Temperance Flat Dam in Fresno County.

“Because everyone was taking a hair cut, we knew we weren’t going to get that. So we needed to stay as close as possible,” Perea said.

In the end, the group managed to sway even Gov. Jerry Brown – who by his own description is “tight with a buck” — to bump up his allocation for water storage by $700,000.

In Fresno, unemployment is higher than both the national and state average, hovering at around 11 percent.

Perea said hitting the $2.7 billion target was “a very big victory” for Valley lawmakers because that “magic number” allows projects eligible for bond money to actually be built.

The five to eight years between breaking ground and actually completing these projects, Perea says, is a long time for work in a region of California that’s heavily plagued by unemployment.

In Fresno, unemployment is higher than both the national and state average, hovering at around 11 percent, and the median family income is just slightly more than half that of the rest California.

Investing in Valley infrastructure projects may remedy the stagnation.

“That’s a lot of work for folks in the Central Valley who desperately need it,” Perea said. “But then once the project is completed, then you’re going to have storage and you’re going to have water stored for long-term economic viability for the Central Valley.”

Experts, and even the Brown administration, say the policy will drive up consumer gas prices by as much as 76 cents, according to an Air Resources Board estimate.

Perea also supports the controversial high-speed rail project, which sets its initial tracks down in Fresno. Not only would the rail bring construction jobs to his constituents, Perea believes it would also allow them to connect to the rest of the state both physically and economically.

“You can go to work in L.A. and then come home to your family, where there is a more affordable lifestyle in the Central Valley,” he said. “I see the high-speed rail as a huge win for us, absolutely.”

Legislative losses for New Democrats
Though they had their successes this session, the New Democrats also lost battles.

Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg last month quashed a last minute so-called “gut-and-amend” bill by Perea that would have delayed until 2018 the expansion of cap and trade to include transportation fuels.

Experts, and even the Brown administration, say the policy will drive up consumer gas prices by as much as 76 cents, according to an Air Resources Board estimate.

That cost is sure to hit hard the residents of the Central Valley, where people tend to travel primarily by car due to a lack of public transportation options and the reliance on alternative energy vehicles is at a statewide low.

“I was disappointed because I saw it as an opportunity for Democrats to really show that we’re still progressive on the environment, but we care about working people,” Perea said.

In a letter to Perea, Steinberg said, “Bringing non-stationary fuels under the cap is not an unforeseen issue that demands legislation which sidesteps the democratic process.”

Revenue from the cap and trade, under an agreement made by Gov. Brown and Democratic lawmakers in June, will be used to finance mass transit projects, like the high-speed rail, “with a $200 million focus on disadvantaged communities,” Steinberg wrote.

But what really disappointed Perea about Steinberg’s decision was it meant legislators at a minimum couldn’t have a strong public debate on the immediate effects of the expansion.

“I wasn’t expecting the vote to go our way,” he said, “but at least we could’ve had a strong public debate.”

Over the fall break, Perea is asking the Senate leader to hold hearing on the issue.

Perea’s last two years
Perea may not hold an official leadership role in the Assembly, but his management of the New Democrats’ priorities and bold policy objectives have made him a lawmaker to watch.

“I wanted our caucus, our group, to be about something,” Perea said. “I wanted us to push in the affirmative for bills and for legislation, for ideas that we felt would make us more economically competitive. And I felt like we’ve done that in the last few years.”

As he enters his final two years serving in the State Assembly, the young lawmaker says he hasn’t thought about what office he’ll pursue next.

His focus, for now, is on the longevity of California’s New Democrats.

“Going into my last two years, I want to continue to keep moderate Democrats relevant by being proactive on issues by making sure our progressive colleagues see us as allies,” he says, “see us as Democrats who want to get to the same place, but might have a different approach to getting there.”


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