It was standing room only at the Tulare County Board of Supervisors candidates’ forum on Wednesday night.
About 70 people were in attendance at the Exeter Veterans Memorial Building to listen to incumbent Larry Micari and his challenger Joe Soria discuss the issues facing District 1, which includes Exeter, Farmersville, Lindsay, Poplar, Strathmore, Woodville and a part of North Visalia.
The forum was presented by the Tulare County League of Women Voters along with partners Tulare County League of Mexican American Women, the Association of American University Women, the Tulare County chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, The Visalia Times-Delta, and The Valley Voice.
District 2 is also up for election and candidate Benny Corona, who is challenging incumbent Pete Vander Poel, was in attendance and introduced himself to the crowd.
Corona was not able to participate in the forum as Vander Poel declined LWV’s invitation to attend. According to LWV rules, both candidates have to participate so as to avoid any appearance of preferential treatment.
Vander Poel’s reason for not participating, however, was his belief that three of the five partner organizations endorsed his opponent, Corona.
Neither the LWV nor its partners in the forum have endorsed any candidates in the two races.
Micari pointed out to the Voice that the co-founder of LULAC, Euler Torres, owns a venue in Tulare that hosts Democrat events and candidates. He also said that LULAC has shown a bias against Republicans and that was one of the reasons Vander Poel did not participate.
When asked why he didn’t decline to participate, Micari said, “I’ll talk the issues with anybody. I’m not scared to talk to my constituents.”
During the course of the evening, Soria and Micari answered 21 question posed by the LWV panel and audience.
Micari kicked off the forum with his opening statement “I’m currently the Chairman of the Board of Supervisors. I’ve been in public service since 1984.”
“I learned about our community, I learned their needs, and I learned how to take care of them and customer service being a priority to make sure that we as elected officials respond. During my last campaign, I said I would bring representation back to District 1. I have done that. I have answered thousands of phone calls, literally,” he said.
Micari listed off some of the county’s accomplishments over his tenure, “We have purchased 12 new fire engines and are building two new fire stations and have spent $13 .8 million countywide in water and wastewater treatment. We’ve invested over $5 million in our homeless programs working with the cities.”
“Governor Newsom just today praised Tulare County as being the only one in 37 counties who’s actually taking steps to combat homelessness.”
Soria introduced himself as a first -generation United States citizen.
“I grew up working in the fields of Tulare County, picking oranges, lemons, olives, and grapes. grapes. My mother and father instilled the values of hard work and dedication to really push hard,” he told the crowd.
Soria got his BA at UC Berkeley in Environmental Economics and then obtained a teaching degree at the University of Southern California.
“When I came back, I decided to serve my community. I worked as a librarian, as a computer lab aid, as a substitute, as a teacher. I serve my community as a coach, I’m a Rotarian and I love love to help the youth in any way possible. My goal is to really bring a voice to the unincorporated communities and other people that have had a hard time engaging with the current leadership.”
“Currently I’m a truck driver, I’m a blue collar worker,” Soria said, adding that blue collar workers don’t have a voice on the Board of Supervisors.
The first question asked what Tulare County’s budget was and if it was balanced.
Soria responded that Tulare County’s budget is balanced and is just under two billion dollars.
He added that the county has more money in the reserves than usual and believes “there’s opportunity for reinvestment.”
“I really do believe that it’s time that that we use more of our reserves. We have sixty seven something million dollars in the reserve, when in reality we only need about 40 million, and our communities need the reinvestment,” he said.
He continued, “Everything that we invest in now is going to help us. The cost of labor goes up, the cost of material goes up, so whatever we spend now is going to help us save in the long run. I would like to see more investment in communities that are unincorporated.”
Micari concurred the budget was $1.9 billion but that only $220 million is discretionary. Of that $220 million, about 70% goes to public safety.
Micari said that the county had to dip into the reserves during last year’s flooding and that the funds have always been low.
“We can try to build it up to keep us solid and keep us functioning as a government. If we spend it all, when it comes, we can’t function. And there’s just no more money. We’re getting more and more unfunded mandates from the state,” said Micari.
When asked by the audience about how much they have received in contributions — and if a majority of those contributions have come from Tulare County — both shared their statistics with the public.
Micari responded, “I’ve raised a little over $130,000, and with exception to one or two donors, everything’s been local.”
Soria said that he believed he has raised around $60,000, but that he leaves the finances to his wife.
“Most of them have been from small donations. I have hundreds of individual donations and I’m very proud of that. I do have some donations from family members outside of Tulare County. They believe in me,” he said.
Another question asked the candidates how they could guarantee equal, nonpartisan representation “with a Hispanic majority in District 1.”
Micari rejected the premise of the question entirely.
“I’m sorry, it’s almost laughable that people try to use race just to cause division,” Micari said. “I represent everybody. Race means nothing to me when it comes to representation. They are our neighbors and they live here. I don’t want to get into it more than that because I just think it’s absurd when you start throwing in race.”
“It’s not a race thing, it’s a culture thing,” he said. “And I can guarantee that I’m not going to have partisan bias. And to be honest with you, I feel very blessed. I speak Spanish. It effects your ability to go out and really understand the different communities that are in your area.”
He continued, “I grew up in Lindsey. I’ve worked in all the cities that I hope to represent and each one is very unique. Each one has its own unique makeup and I’ve been part of those communities one way or another whether it’s coaching sports, whether it’s playing sports, whether it’s as an employee, whether I’ve delivered there when I’m a truck driver. And a lot of the folks that unfortunately suffer in these disadvantaged communities… they don’t speak English.”
The next question asked, “A few years ago there were reports that Tulare County employees health care costs took too much out of their paychecks and that they qualified for food stamps. Today, how are the county’s lower-income employees faring?”
“I’m very fortunate to be endorsed by SEIU 2015,” responded Soria. “Unfortunately, the increases that have been granted by the Board are not keeping up with inflation. Prices go up a lot faster than the paychecks, especially the ones that are in-home care service providers. And they’re the ones that are taking care of our mothers and fathers and grandfathers and all the folks that need a little bit of extra care and love.”
“I spoke to hundreds of union members and they don’t feel that they have what is needed to just have a good quality of life here in Tulare County and it’s time that we value the people that take care of us,” he added.
Micari acknowledged that the county had needed to make improvements in the past, and said that it had come a long way.
“Since July 2020 we provided a 17% across the board salary increase for our county employees,” he said. “We’ve actually redesigned the lower co-pays and deductibles for our health insurance for our staff. We’ve implemented a 24/7 text-based application for telemedicine for primary care that is free to all our employees, and we’ve increased county contributions to all employees, plus spouse, plus family.”
When inflation hit, he said, “we gave an 8 % increase to our county employees mid-contract. We didn’t even have to. We didn’t make them wait. Is there room for improvement? Absolutely. There’s always room for improvement. But we’ve come a long way from where we were.”
One of the last questions from the panel asked, “Last year, the Fresno City Council voted to fly the LGBT Pride flag year round. Do you support flying the LGBT Pride flag outside the Tulare County Board of Supervisors building?”
“I believe that all disenfranchised communities deserve representation and inclusion,” Soria said, adding that if it were up to him, he said, he would go above and beyond simply flying a flag and instead ensuring that there were strong liaisons between the supervisors and LGBTQ community.
Micari said that The Source LGBT+ Center is in District 1, and he appreciates the organization’s contribution to the county and considers its founder a friend.
But Micari said he would not support flying any flag at the supervisors building unless it’s the United States flag or the flag of the State of CAlifornia.
“Because anytime you fly something other than that, it’s just going to bother somebody. And we’re coming into a government building to take care of business,” he said.
The last question of the evening asked each candidate why they ran, what their vision for the county was — and what they would like their legacy to be.
“As a blue-collar worker, I really want to make sure that we promote more economic opportunities through the trades,” said Soria. “I was very blessed to get a good education from some of the best universities in the world. But then I also got my commercial truck driver’s license, and that’s really what changed my life.”
Soria said that he wanted to support the trades, “there’s dozens of trades and I’m endorsed by dozens of unions and they have dozens of apprenticeship programs.”
“We have about 20 % of our county that lives at or below the poverty line. If we have 450,000 people, that’s about 100 ,000 people that live below the poverty line. If we can get them skilled, if we can get them trained, if we can get them educated, provide more economic opportunities, hire them, give them better jobs that have fully funded health care, and have a retirement benefit, then we can get them to reinvest in a home. And when someone owns their home, they take pride in their community. They become civically engaged.”
Micari said, “Well, I mean, the big vision is that when I leave, I want to leave it a better place than when I joined the board.”
“I believe in Tulare County and I really appreciate you all being here tonight.”