By Tara Siler
Bob Benedetti is a political science professor at Stockton’s University of the Pacific. “My lord!” he exclaims as he looks over before-and-after versions of the congressional district map that covers San Joaquin County.
“The first thing I think that hits you is that the current one is compact and the one we had been using is not,” he says.
That’s an understatement. The lines of the old 11th District are an abstract mess. The new 9th District is far tidier–covering the Delta, with Stockton and agriculture at its center.
“San Joaquin County is one of the top agricultural counties in the United States, probably in the world,” Benedetti says. “But politically the valley has tended to be conservative, whether it registers Democrat or Republican.”
Voter registration numbers would seem to favor the incumbent, Democrat Jerry McNerney. But the GOP candidates are trying to swing some conservative-leaning Democrats their way.
At Stockton’s Cinco de Mayo festival, Ricky Gill works the mostly Latino crowd. An Indian-American, Gill is a recent law school graduate. The day of the festival is also the day he turns 25-that’s the minimum age the Constitution sets to serve in the House of Representatives.
“Hey Ricky!” someone in the crowd calls.
“Where do you live?” Gill asks.
“Stockton” is the answer, and Gill launches into his pitch: “I live in Stockton. We’ll we have a whole new congressional district here and my opponent is from the Bay Area and I think we need a local voice here, we need someone who’s from here and knows the valley.”
But Gill’s pitch isn’t swaying voter Frank Hernandez, who says simply, “I’m Democrat all the way.”
Gill has won over at least one Democrat, though. Suzanna Espinoza is handing out Gill’s campaign material to anyone who will take it. Espinoza is a young mom and likes Gill’s avid support of charter schools.
“And I see that him being a local person and representing us here locally,” she says. “Living here locally makes all the difference.”
Those local roots are a huge part of Gill’s campaign. So is the fact that McNerney just moved to Stockton from Pleasanton–which is no longer part of this new district. But McNerney dismisses Gill’s claim that he doesn’t understand the valley.
“I’ve represented the area for five and a half years and I’ve spent a lot of time in the area and I have strong relationships that we’ve worked on,” McNerney says. “One of the mayors even said he saw me more than his own wife.”
And McNerney says he has the experience needed for this job. He’s had a long career in renewable energy development. And at age 60, McNerney says he also has life experience, something he says his young challenger is lacking.
“People want someone that they can relate to,” he says. “To the struggles they’ve been through, or you know, having mortgages and so on. These are struggles that I’ve been through and I empathize and relate to.
And the struggles here are daunting. The mortgage crisis slammed the district, and Stockton’s unemployment rate is nearly 17 percent. McNerney says he wants to lure energy companies to the district and improve infrastructure to create more jobs. And he says he’s trying to make sure this year’s federal farm bill addresses the needs of California’s growers.
But Gill says his family’s 1,000 acres of wine grapes and cherries make him better suited to represent this farming district.
“We need to defend our biggest industry,” Gill says. “And that’s my background in small business and agriculture. It’s where I learned the value of a dollar, so we’ve got to protect agriculture. I’ll be a friend and not a foe.”
It would seem Gill has a lot of friends. He’s already raised a stunning amount of campaign cash–more even than the incumbent. Many of the donations flow from the region’s growing Indian-American community, where his parents are prominent physicians. He’s also gained early endorsements from high profile national Republicans–something the other GOP candidate can’t claim.
“Yeah, I was honestly disappointed and surprised by that,” says John McDonald, a conservative technology executive. His campaign has brought in just $85,000 while Gill has raised well over $1 million. McDonald said he jumped into the race because he doesn’t think Gill is qualified.
“And I looked around at a lot of people with great resumes in our district and they were just simply not willing to make the run based on the money of my opponent,” he says.
The National Republican Party isn’t taking an official position on the primary. But Gill is already a so-called Young Gun, one of an elite group the GOP is grooming for Congress. Daniel Scarpinato of the National Republican Congressional Committee says the party has high hopes for District Nine.
“Certainly, when you look at the races in California this is one that Republicans believe can go from blue to red,” he says.
Given he’s the only Democrat running, Rep. McNerney is assured a primary win. His real test will come in the general election. He says he’s taking nothing for granted, adding that he’s not new to tough races. His last one was a nailbiter. And the district might be in for another one this November, too.