Central Valley Voters Speak Their Minds at Focus Groups

Editor’s note: This story is part of an intermittent series. The Public Policy Institute of California is conducting small focus groups across the state to discuss the role of government, and KQED was invited to listen in. First names only were used to encourage candid conversation.

By Alice Daniel

I’m sitting behind a two-way mirror in an air conditioned office in Fresno as ten voters enter a meeting room and sit around an oblong table.

Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California, introduces himself. He’ll lead this focus group and one directly following it. Initially, people look uncertain — as if they’re not sure what to expect. Yet once these people — Democrats, Republicans and Independents — begin talking, the pain and anger they are feeling over the economic and political landscape soon spills out.

Luz, a single mother of a teenager and a one-year-old, said she just got laid off after 11 years as a supervisor for a produce refrigeration company. She’s scared she won’t have the money to raise her children.

“Probably go homeless,” she says. “Too sad. And I can’t relocate right now because of my family. And it just makes me mad also.”

Daniel, a Democrat, is voting for Mitt Romney because he thinks the country needs a change. He works at Lowes but is about to lose his house to foreclosure and he’s wondering whether he’ll have to move out of state.

“I have four children,” he says. “I have a very good job. I’m about ready to lose my house. You know what I mean? I’ve done everything I can to plan and to make arrangements and to provide.”

Personal stories like these quickly weave their way into the bigger issues affecting the Valley. Dick, a retired dairy farmer and Republican complained farmers don’t get a real say in politics. He’s worried farms are losing their workforce and said it’s unjust for immigrants who aren’t U.S. citizens to get public scholarship money for college, a point disputed by Oscar, a full time student and a Democrat.

“They want everybody to get educated here so there’s nobody working the field to pick the fruit,” Dick says.

But Oscar, a full time student and a Democrat challenged him.

“You contradict yourself,” Oscar says. “You don’t want him to get an education but you want him picking your fields.”

“You don’t need to be educated to dig ditches,” Dick insists.

“But that’s the problem,” Oscar counters. “Who here educated wants to dig that ditch?”

Still, there were plenty of areas of agreement. The majority of people in both focus groups favored an easier path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and almost everyone agreed farmworkers — citizens or not — provide back-breaking labor that no one else is willing to do. Anita, a single mother who works in a family business, grew up picking grapes.

“Not to put anybody down,” she says, “but you don’t see black people, you don’t see white people picking the crops. You just see Mexicans out there.”

And what about the Valley itself — what is its role in California? Many agreed with Suzie, a teacher and a Republican.

“You’ve got San Francisco, you’ve got LA that make a lot of decisions that affect us,” she says. “And the water is one of the number one issues here. We’ve got all the farming and food — but yet that water goes down there. So it almost feels like we are a separate state within the state.”

Lauren, a student at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo and a Republican, said lawmakers from LA and San Francisco just don’t understand farm policy. “When they vote on agricultural issues, they don’t even understand what they’re voting on and they’re just voting. I come from an ag background. My family farms in the Valley, and we don’t have a lot of say and we have a pretty big farm.”

Chriselda, a Democrat, said the effect of bad decisions is devastating.

“I see a lot of empty fields now,” she says. Others mention Firebaugh and Mendota. “I’ve been out there. It’s empty. It’s just empty, and it’s sad to see that.”

November’s ballot measures also triggered lively discussion. Some people thought Proposition 30, Governor Brown’s tax initiative to fund education, was too complicated. Proposition 34 would repeal the death penalty and replace it with life in prison without parole. There was strong support for ending the death penalty across the political spectrum, but for very different reasons. Some Republicans like Jason, an auto refinishing technician, thought the death penalty was a waste of money because the appeal process takes too long.

“We don’t use it. Save the money,” he says, “waste it somewhere else.”

Democrats saw it as a moral issue — it’s wrong for the state to take another person’s life.

Moderator Mark Baldassare said the focus groups offer insights into what voters are thinking, not just how they pencil in the ballot.

Listen to Daniel’s story:


More stories from the Public Policy Institute of California focus groups:

From Silicon Valley: Eroding Trust in Government Among Young Voters