A nearly packed house of Visalia-area voters got an extended introduction to all but one of the five men seeking the 22nd Congressional District seat during a candidates forum held in the run-up to the March 3 primary election.
On hand were Democratic candidates Bobby Bilatout, Phil Arballo and Dary Rezvani. Also appearing was independent candidate Eric Garcia. Noticeably absent was the incumbent, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare), who has not attended a public forum in
Held January 30 at the College of the Sequoias, the event was sponsored by more than a dozen business, political and advocacy groups, as well as the Visalia Times-Delta.
After introductory statements, the candidates answered a series of prepared questions before taking questions from audience members, beginning with a discussion of each candidate’s legislative priorities.
Arballo, a Fresno-based small businessman working in financial services, put healthcare in the top spot. He also mentioned environmental protection, citing water and air quality in the Valley; and, he said, protection of immigrant labor rights was also a leading concern.
Bliatout, who is CEO of a federally-qualified healthcare clinic in Fresno, echoed Arballo’s list, placing an emphasis on his experience as a healthcare provider, while Garcia, a former Marine who holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology, also cited water quality as his top priority.
Only Rezvani, also a Fresno-based small businessman who operates an automotive repair shop, broke ranks, naming the climate crisis as his top priority.
“Frankly, if we don’t address it, all other issues don’t matter,” he said. “We need to be carbon neutral by 2030 or the children in this room won’t have a planet to live on.”
Next on the agenda was a discussion of combating the 22nd District’s high poverty rate.
After calling for an increase in the minimum wage, Bliatout described the need for increased instruction aimed at creating skilled workers.
“We need to make sure we have the educational institutions to draw employment opportunities here,” he said.
Garcia repeated that sentiment, adding that increased federal education spending would also free local funds to address other needs, while Rezvani said increased union membership and the breaking of large trusts to address systemic economic problems would increase the number of small businesses nationwide.
Pointing at the Valley’s decaying infrastructure, Arballo called for public works projects to increase employment.
“Rebuilding things like the Friant-Kern Canal and (local) water systems, that provides good infrastructure jobs,” he said.
A discussion of immigration law turned quickly to the issue of farm labor, with Garcia, who has worked in the fields, calling those doing that difficult job a valuable resource deserving of respect.
“It’s not that easy. Not many people are willing to do that,” he said. “We need to protect them.”
Rezvani called for a “rotating door system” that would allow immigrants the ability to come and go from their home countries.
“We need to see people as human beings,” he said.
Arballo said those workers should have “a clear path to citizenship,” citing the dependence of the agricultural industry on migrant labor and the chaos caused by the attitude of the Trump administration regarding immigration.
“Ag jobs depend on immigrants,” Arballo said. “They’re still short of labor because of this administration.”
Bliatout, who is the son of immigrants, called for increased funding for courts that deal with immigrants, citing the 10- to 15-year wait to clear cases in some instances. He also said a solution must be found unless American schools are willing to train ag laborers.
“If we’re not providing the education here, we have to let those people come in,” he said.
Fixing the Infrastructure
On the topic of upgrading America’s fading infrastructure, all of the candidates seemed to find ties to other major problems facing the Central Valley.
For Rezvani, the main infrastructure issue facing the 22nd District is contaminated local water systems. But, he also called for better public transport, specifically intercity trains, as a way to address the area’s poverty by providing access to work opportunities.
“Frankly, many can’t afford to drive,” he said.
Arballo turned the discussion to the issue of bringing more federal dollars to an area the rest of the nation depends on for much of its food, while Bliatout said he would like to seek federal funding for local renewable energy projects. Federal incentive programs are already in place, he said, but our current representatives haven’t done enough to direct funds here.
“It is there,” Bliatout said. “We just have to have representatives who are willing to fight for it.”
Garcia also championed green energy projects, as well as calling for projects that would increase the water supply to California, such as desalination plants, linking the idea of bolstering the area’s infrastructure to addressing the climate crisis.
“We have the technology to see it (climate change) coming,” he said. “We need to act now.”
Air and Water Quality
On the topic of reducing pollution in the 22nd District, the issue was again linked to the other issues facing Valley residents.
“That (a cleaner environment) comes with the investment in the infrastructure,” Arballo said. “This is not about jobs versus the environment.”
Bliatout said the first step in fixing the Valley’s pollution problem is knowing its scope.
“My office will have an open-door policy,” he said.
Garcia called for research aimed at producing safer insecticides and other ag chemicals, as well as tax incentives for clean vehicles, while Rezvani said much of the problem of ag pollution could be addressed by removing the “corporate use-and-leave strategy.”
“We need to save the family farms,” he said.
Healthcare Access and Foreign Policy
On the topic of universal healthcare, three of the four candidates–Bliatout, Garcia and Rezvani–expressed their support for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for all proposal, with Arballo taking a similar line in calling for “expanded access to Medicare.”
“The healthier we are, more people showing up for work, the better off we are,” Bliatout said.
All four were united in their call for using the government’s buying power to lower the cost of prescription drugs, and all supported protections for those with pre-existing conditions.
On the topic of foreign policy, however, the candidates each had their own focus. Rezvani, whose father was an Iranian immigrant, cited the Middle East as our top priority. Arballo cited trade and tariffs as his primary concern, as well as foreign interference in US elections. Bliatout called for limiting the use of American military force, urging diplomacy instead, while Garcia said American politicians should work to make the United States a “beacon of hope” again.
“The thing we’re trying to fight, we’re becoming,” he said.