By Sasha Khokha
One test of California’s new top-two primary system will come in Stanislaus County’s 10th Congressional District. That primary comes down to a fight between the son of a disgraced Congressman and a farmworker-turned-astronaut.
You’ve got to admit, Jose Hernandez has a pretty compelling story: a migrant farmworker who starts out picking tomatoes and cucumbers, and ends up soaring into outer space as an astronaut.
And Hernandez is eager to zip up his royal blue flight suit and share that story. In a crowded gymnasium at a Modesto elementary school, he plays a DVD of his mission to the international space station.
And Hernandez tells them he made it to space because of advice from his Dad:
“He said, ‘The same effort you put in picking cucumbers out in the fields, that same work ethic, you put it in your books and getting good grades, and guess what, you’re going to be able to reach your dream.'”
But today, families here face double-digit unemployment, and some of the highest foreclosure rates in the country.
“I was talking to those parents, and they were losing faith that their kids could achieve that American dream, and that scared me,” said Hernandez.
The picture is even more bleak for Latinos here. You can see that driving through some of Modesto’s poorest neighborhoods. Mike Garcia is with the American GI Forum — a veteran’s group that advocates for Latino civil rights.
“Now you see right here, no streetlights, no sidewalks, no sewer,” said Garcia.
This county has never had a Latino supervisor, much less a Congressman. Garcia hopes Hernandez will remember his roots and address the poverty here: “We haven’t had really a voice, and I was hoping that the Hernandez campaign would be the one to create a seminal moment, really,” said Garcia. “We are going to become a political force in this area.”
But Hernandez can’t rely solely on the Latino vote to win. Even though Latinos make up more than forty percent of the population here, many of them can’t vote – or don’t.
Hernandez does have the backing of the national Democratic party, which has identified this as a key race that could help determine the balance of power in Congress. The newly redrawn district has a slight Democratic edge.
But driving around, it feels like every intersection is plastered with giant signs for Hernandez’s Republican challenger, incumbent Congressman Jeff Denham. He’s raised nearly three times as much money as Hernandez, much of it from agricultural groups.
At a diner in Turlock, voters like Jeff Zaya say Denham will push hard for farmers to get more water allocated for their crops: “The water problem is his problem, and our problem. Everything that really concerns us, he’s right up there where he should be,” said Zaya.
And Denham seems confident he’ll get past the primary. He’s not making many campaign appearances these days. His campaign office didn’t even respond to repeated requests for interviews about this race.
The real question is who will emerge from the primary as Denham’s lone challenger in November. It could be someone who isn’t from a major party, but who’s got something big going for him — name recognition.
Chad Condit is the son of former Democratic Congressman Gary Condit, whose national image was tarnished after his affair with intern Chandra Levy. She was later found murdered by an attacker in a D.C. park.
But here in his home district, the elder Condit is still revered for his independent spirit and his loyalty to his constituents. And his son is playing up his local roots.
“I’m truly the underdog candidate, and people, they think I’m pretty gutsy for running after what my family went through,” said Condit. “And second of all, they know my message of independence is right, that we’re too caught up in partisanship in Washington, DC.”
Condit’s campaign is operating on a shoestring budget, with his kids, grandfather and father walking precincts for him. But Condit thinks the new top-two primary system may give independents like him a real shot.
And Professor Nathan Monroe, who teaches political science at UC Merced, agrees.
“I think this could be one of the most interesting Congressional primaries in the history of the region,” said Monroe. He says this race could have national implications, especially if Condit wins:
“It gives a nice little test case of whether or not there’s a real meaningful middle of the political spectrum that’s going to rebel against the increasing extremity of the two major parties,” said Monroe.
But first, voters have to decide what this district needs most: a Latino hero, a conservative who backs farmers, or an independent with a well-known name.