Voters in the 26th State Assembly District heard boasts, promises and accusations last week, as they got their first side-by-side look at the two candidates seeking their support at the polls this November 3.
The Opening Salvo
Incumbent Devon Mathis (R-Visalia) and challenger Drew Phelps turned what was intended to be an online meet-the-candidates forum hosted by the Sun-Gazette, and sponsored by the Women’s Council of Realtors, the Tulare County Association of Realtors and the Visalia Chamber of Commerce, into a minor debate even as they introduced themselves.
Phelps, 26, is project manager and policy analyst for a local homebuilder, and holds a master’s degree in American politics.
“Simply put, I’m running because we deserve better from our folks in Sacramento,” he said. “Most importantly we deserve solutions that are tailored to the needs of our communities in Tulare, Inyo and Kern counties, rather than looking at Statewide one-size-fits-all solutions.”
After discussing his work for a pair of state-level Republican legislators, and his work in the private and nonprofit sectors, Phelps described his efforts with Tulare Citizens for Hospital Accountability to save the local healthcare district, as well as attacking Mathis’ alleged lack of action in that case.
“I saw firsthand how harmful my opponent’s leadership has been while we were saving Tulare hospital from a corrupt management company whose leaders have since been charged with eighty felonies,” Phelps said.
He claims Mathis has not “delivered anything” to his district in his six-year incumbency.
Mathis Fires Back
With shots already fired, the assemblyman was allowed time to provide his own description of his participation in the events surrounding the replacement of the hospital’s management team.
“What he (Phelps) fails to mention is the fact that we did support the audit,” Mathis said. “When the hospital shut down, he was actually against Adventist (the current management company) taking over, and he doesn’t mention the fact I got the meetings with our director in Sacramento to streamline the opening of the hospital and making sure everything was set.”
Mathis accepted $12,000 in donations from individuals tied to the former management company through the 2018 election cycle.
That out of the way, Mathis got back to the business of introducing himself, reminding the audience of his military service, which includes two tours in Iraq where he was twice wounded.
“What a lot of you don’t know is that in between appointments and other things, I worked construction. I had a table saw injury. I was on workman’s comp,” he said. “I’ve been on welfare. I know what that struggle is like. I lived it, and not too many politicians can say that.”
State vs Local
Both candidates were in accord when asked if the state has taken too much control of the pandemic response out of the hands of local elected officials.
Mathis called the pandemic response a good time to reevaluate where decisions in similar emergency situations are made.
“I think it’s a wake-up call for everyone to realize how much power is within our county supervisors and even within our city councils,” he said. “A lot of these decisions are made at the county level with our county health officer. I think the state code needs to be looked at a little bit to make sure our supervisors have the final say, because they are the ones that have to answer to the public.”
While Phelps essentially agreed, he placed more faith in non-local expertise, while still expressing that more local control is both feasible as well as a better approach.
“The local governments should have a lot of leeway when it comes to evaluating what’s happening on the ground within their communities,” he said. “Things like schools, and in some cases, also small businesses, when those folks are … opening up in the proper ways with the proper protocol in place, that’s something that I think could be in some instances decided on a county or local level.”
A State Afire
With much of California currently in flames, the topic of caring for the state’s–and specifically Tulare County’s–forests managed to make its way into the discussion. Under discussion was why the state sees more fires than in the past and what should be done about it.
“We would be ignorant if we didn’t say that climate change played a factor, that there are issues when it comes to hotter, drier summers and warmer winters that don’t kill the bark beetles that have infested so many trees,” Phelps said. “But at the same time we also have to look at better forest management practices and cleaning up undergrowth, thinning out the dead trees and looking at ways that we can really address the issue on both sides.”
Mathis, however, says the problem does not lie with the changes the state’s environment has experienced over the last two decades, but rather that approach to how the state’s forests are cared for.
“The biggest factor is poor management,” he said.
Mathis pointed to his own involvement in the Tree Mortality Task Force as the source of his experience, and claimed the state’s Democratic leadership failed to act.
“The current governor hasn’t taken up any of the recommendations,” he said. “It’s very sad to see.”
However, according to the state’s Little Hoover Commission, 53% of California’s forests are managed by federal authorities.
As they gave their parting remarks, Mathis took the opportunity to paint himself as a champion of the people as he described an assembly member’s job.
“It’s making sure that you have a voice against the state bureaucracies. We do a lot of that. We’re pushing against the EDD to get an audit there. We have tons of claims. We’re helping families, we’re helping with DMV. We are here to help you,” he said. “That is the job. It isn’t laws and legislation and all this other mess that people like to make it. The main job is to be there for you and your family and make decisions that affect it.”
Phelps, on the other hand, used the time to point out what he says are his opponent’s many shortcomings.
“He’s (Mathis) been collecting the six-figure salary that we the taxpayers pay him, and we’re also currently paying for two open lawsuits against former staffers. What he’s gotten for the money that has been spent on the district, it has been absolutely nothing. We have seen no return on that taxpayer money, and so when he brags about all the bills that he writes and didn’t pass it kind of sounds to me like he’s looking for a participation trophy.”