The 21st Congressional District encompasses all of Kings County, a small portion of Tulare County and parts of Fresno and Kern counties as well. While candidates David Valadao, the incumbent, who is a Republican from Hanford, and Emilio Huerta, the challenger, who is a Democrat from Bakersfield, are members of opposing parties, they have mutual goals in mind for the district.
Neither man aspired to hold political office until he saw a need and felt he had to step up to the plate. Both Valadao and Huerta have stated that the primary issues facing their district, and the rest of the Central Valley, are that of water quality and quantity, immigration and migrant farm workers.
With a family history rich in civil rights, farm worker rights, health care and advocacy, it would have been difficult for 59-year-old Emilio Huerta to not have followed suit. He is the fourth of 11 children on his mother’s side of his family, and he has had four additional half-siblings on his father’s side. While born in Stockton, Huerta mostly grew up in Kern County.
Huerta spent much time on the road with his mother, Dolores Huerta, a union organizer, following farm workers around the state. It was she, who along with Cesar Chavez, formed the National Farm Workers Association and lead to the formation of United Farm Workers (UFW). He also traveled with his mother to the East Coast for farm worker boycotts in the ‘60s.
His parents divorced, and Huerta spent summers as a teen working alongside his father, Ventura Huerta, a registered nurse with a master’s degree in public health, employed by California Health & Human Services. The Huertas were responsible for creating some of the first family health centers, meeting the needs of farm workers in the late ‘60s.
“So, my father was organizing health care for farm workers, and my mother was helping with farm worker rights,” Huerta said.
Huerta dropped out of high school at 16, having left to work as a printer for UFW. He then entered a UFW labor negotiations and relations training program, and was sent to the fields to represent farm workers. He worked at that for a couple of years until the agricultural relations board was pretty much gutted under the leadership of Governor George Deukmejian, he said.
“The union’s organizing efforts were frustrated and, so, I decided to go to college,” he said.
Huerta earned his bachelor’s degree in political science in three years at Cal State, Bakersfield, and went on to complete law school.
“We had grown up very poor. My mother took a vow of poverty–in choosing a life of labor organizer, she felt that we should not be better off than the people we were trying to organize,” he said. “And, I think, as a family, we all agreed with that philosophy.”
But, as an adult, Huerta wanted a better life.
“When I was a labor negotiator, I was dealing with attorneys,” he said. “In my early 20’s I was doing grievance procedures and was helping structure the strategy of those legal proceedings. I was working with union attorneys, and was opposing attorneys for employers in the agricultural community. It didn’t seem like it was very hard, it was work that I was doing.
“I knew that I wanted to be in a career where I would be servicing others. The legal career seemed to be an ideal choice given that I could continue to do, in essence, the work that I was already doing in servicing farm workers.
“I wanted to have a family. I wanted to have the same thing everyone else had–to be able to pay my bills, and be able to buy a washer and dryer, and that sort of thing. I only have one daughter, but I wanted to send her on to college, and she later decided to go to law school, and I was able to support her in that.”
While being active in the Democratic Party and serving on the Kern County Democratic Central Committee, Huerta never saw himself running for office.
“I’ve supported other candidates since I was a teenager,” he said. “I walked precincts and raised money for other candidates.
“When Connie [Perez] dropped out – we felt that there was a void for a viable candidate–we felt we needed to be able to support someone.
“David Valadao and the Republican Party really don’t represent the interests of working families here in the Central Valley–particularly immigrant communities. We felt that someone needed to step up and at least be able to voice the concerns and the issues confronting us here in the Valley–the bad air, the bad water, the drought conditions, the use of excessive pesticides.”
Huerta was asked to help go out and look for a candidate, “but at some point my mother, my sisters said, ‘We all think it should be you,’” he said.
“I pretty much responded and said, ‘No,’ it’s a lot of work and I’m not sure that that was something I was prepared to take on.”
The more he thought about it, the more it started to set in.
“I sat down with my daughter and said, ‘OK, this is what we’ve been asked to do. This is the impact I think it is going to have on us.’ My daughter had just passed the bar in California – she was already licensed in Washington State, and we had already set out a plan to bring her into my law practice. This meant a whole change in plan in terms of what we had originally decided to do for 2016, and moving forward.
“She encouraged me, and of course, my mother encouraged me. This was before Donald Trump came out and called Mexican-American immigrants criminals and rapists, and, of course, we are highly offended by that. My brother’s a doctor, I’m a lawyer, a couple siblings are nurses, and my mother was a teacher. My father had a career in public health. We just felt that somebody needed to step up to the Republican Party.”
What Needs to be Done
“We [Huerta, his family and friends] just felt that it was time that we take this Valley back,” he said. “It was time that we made a change, and had somebody in Washington who really reflected the values of those hard working families in the Valley, and somebody who is willing to stand up and really take on the issues that are confronting people’s everyday lives.”
Huerta said he feels that not enough is being done to support immigration reform, to clean up the Valley’s bad air quality, or to help those who don’t have clean water.
“It’s not a question of drought and water for jobs. It is a question of health and safety in water for their children and water to survive,” he said. “And, if nobody is talking about those issues, than something is clearly wrong. We just felt that something had to be done. We viewed my decision to run for congress as an extension of the work that I was already doing–fighting and representing people at wage-an-hour hearings, fighting against discrimination, sexual harassment, pregnancy discrimination, race discrimination, fighting to help people keep their homes.”
Huerta served as board chair of Kern County Legal Aid for many years. He was board chair of Self-Help Federal Credit Union in California up until the beginning of this year. And, he feels that the needs of those working in the Valley are not being met.
“There is not even a bank in Mendota,” he said. “So, when farm workers, who don’t have bank accounts, get paid at the end of the week, they have to go cash their checks at a liquor store. They charge them a dollar, two dollars, maybe a percentage–so people have to pay to cash their own pay checks, and we’re talking about the poorest people in the country.
“Our Valley, the area of the 21st Congressional District, we have the largest concentration of farm workers than anywhere else in the country. So, we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people, who are deprived of the same benefits that you and I have, in terms of having access to a financial institution to take care of their financial needs. It’s all kind of community growth – there isn’t even a bank in that town that is willing to support home loans, willing to support loans for small businesses. And towns aren’t going to grow that way.
“Mr. Valadao has been in office for four years now and asking to be elected for another term. Now, if I was in office, and I knew there was a community like Mendota that didn’t have a bank, or Huron that doesn’t have a high school, those are going to be priority items for me. Or, those without clean, safe drinking water in our communities–those are going to be priorities–let’s figure out why these people don’t have water. Maybe it’s not even in my district, but they are in the Valley,” he said.
“Take Avenal–there’s a dump as you drive into town. They can build a prison, but they can’t move the dump? That was the first thing when I went to Avenal, people said, there is a dump and in the summertime, the whole town smells bad. It’s on the entryway to town.
“Go to Arvin, and talk about the contaminated water. Go to southern Tulare County, and talk about the lack of water. And, these are conditions that have existed for 20-30 years. They’re not new.
“Now, there is someone to make it an issue, somebody to holler and scream and yell, and say, we can’t allow our neighbors, our brothers, our sisters to live in these conditions. And I have no doubt that the only reason this happens is because they’re farm workers–because people feel they’re only farm workers–they don’t vote, they’re voiceless, they’re not high tax payers and so, why do we need to be concerned about them?
“We pay farmers, farm subsidies, we subsidize their farm insurance–the federal government just bought how many millions of dollars in cheese? Isn’t that a subsidy? and, that’s fine–I understand the need to support industry and industries which provide jobs, but let’s not forget about the other issues that are confronting and affecting people’s lives on a daily basis.”
Running for Office
Huerta has closed his law practice in order to devote all of time to his campaign.
“It had to be 100% commitment or nothing,” he said.
“The Valley is going to double in population – what industries are going to be brought to the Valley?”
“What kind of energy sources are going to be here–clean energy, wind energy, solar? We can’t continue to have the worst air in the country. We can’t continue to have children exposed to pesticides where they go to school. My daughter may be grown up, but that doesn’t mean I am not concerned for other families.
“We were raised on campaigns. We were raised doing the heavy lifting and hard work. We knew that we would have to be committed to winning this campaign, and so, I wanted to make sure that I would have the support that I need going forward. That’s why my mother’s here, that’s why my daughter’s here – most of the people you saw in the other room are volunteers. Every day our campaign continues to grow and grow.”
Huerta said he is exceptionally qualified in the area or reaching across the aisle and working with others.
“First of all my training as a negotiator–you need to listen, and you need to figure out the middle areas that people would agree and then build from there,” he said. “And, I’ve also served as a mediator in many cases and so, I think that the background in terms of my labor negotiations, and as an attorney in negotiating settlements and figuring out how to get people back to work [are a good fit].”
Huerta serves as a local high school mock trial coach. In his law practice, he has represented nonprofit organizations, pro bono. He also served as a Court Appointed Special Advocate in Kern County. He encourages others to get involved in local offices and elections, including water boards and school boards.
“It’s not enough to complain,” he said. “People shouldn’t be afraid to get out of their comfort zone – with what affects their community and families. Parents should get involved.
“People need to register. People need to vote.”