Ag Today April 16, 2018

News Analysis: Why big-city politician Villaraigosa is spending so much time in farm country

By Dan Morain | April 16, 2018 | ELECTION 2018, POLITICS, CAL Matters

Antonio Villaraigosa is not the sort of politician who would scuff his well-shined shoes with the dust from San Joaquin Valley farms, or so you might think.

And yet the natty former Los Angeles mayor and Assembly speaker is going beyond traditional Democratic sources of money in Hollywood, San Francisco and the Silicon Valley to the Central Valley as he fights for his political life in the race for governor.

The one-time union organizer and Southern California ACLU board member has tapped farmers, many of them Republicans, for more than $640,000, nearly 10 percent of the money he has raised since the start of 2017, a CALmatters analysis of his campaign contributions shows.

This unlikely pairing of the big-city Democrat and farmers suggests that Villaraigosa sees central California as a path to one of the top two slots in the June primary election so he can compete in the November run-off—presumably against the front-runner, Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Villaraigosa will be in Modesto later this month for a fundraiser hosted by almond growers, one of dozens of trips he has made as a candidate to the Other California. It’s paying off. Political action committees representing pistachio growers, berry farmers and dairy operators have given him $20,000 or more each.

J.G. Boswell Co., one the state’s largest farmland owners, has given him $50,000. Fresno almond farmer Donald Peracchi chipped in $25,000. Peracchi is president of the Westlands Water District, which supplies water to farms in Fresno and Kings counties, and no issue is more important to farmers than water.

Sarah Woolf said Villaraigosa spent “two full days” with her Fresno-based farming operation last year, “learning about water and agriculture,” and has returned multiple times since.

“He wasn’t coming with answers. He was coming to listen,” said Woolf, a Republican. Woolf Farming donated $15,000 to his campaign.

Villaraigosa supports the proposed Temperance Flat reservoir east of Fresno and Sites Reservoir north of Sacramento, projects embraced by farmers. He opposes the Delta tunnel project, intended to deliver water from the Sacramento River to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California, as too divisive. And he calls for a “grand bargain” to end water wars. Governors including Jerry Brown have tried that.

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