There was a time when the only way to get more than twenty local Democrats together was to offer free food, and even then it was hard to tell how many were Democrats and how many had wandered in from the streets. Those days are over. Friday night, Democrats filled Modesto’s 444 seat Foster Family Theater (in the Gallo Center for the Arts) to overflowing for the most recent debate among candidates for Jeff Denham’s CA-10 congressional seat.
Instead of a few tired faces wearing expressions of woe and defeat, this crowd was upbeat and optimistic. Many described the movement as a groundswell, and the mix of people indicated a vigor not seen in the party since the days of Tony Coelho.
Instead of a thin slate of wannabes dominated by one strong figure, every candidate at Friday night’s debate showed the potential to retire Jeff Denham and make a historic impact on local politics. In fact, many were likely thinking that master of ceremonies Jessica Self, who was poised, assured, and commanding, could send Denham packing all by herself.
Self is the .president of the of the Central Valley Democratic Club, and she represents a new generation of local Democrats who are passionate, professional, and prepared to forge a Democratic coalition that could become a political force for decades. Today, the largest problem Democrats have to surmount is how to winnow down such a strong field without fomenting division among the throngs of passionate supporters for every candidate.
The six people who debated Friday night represent a Democratic resurgence in a region too long dominated by retrograde Republicans. Self emphasized repeatedly that every candidate is worthy of support. It’s only when you get down to the nitty-gritty of campaign realities that some separation appears to be growing among strong contenders and true favorites.
Legendary Democratic icon Jesse Unruh famously said, “Money is the mother’s milk of politics,” and no one is going to beat Denham’s deep pockets without plenty of money. Modesto High graduate Josh Harder, a Turlock resident, and local entrepreneur TJ Cox are the clear leaders in the money race; Harder has raised nearly a million dollars already.
Some will argue that Harder’s money shouldn’t count because much of it has come from outside the district, but that’s like arguing we should take on Jeff Denham’s wealthy benefactors with both hands tied and our feet in leg irons. The simple fact is that in Denham’s district, the wealthiest people are overwhelmingly Republican, the middle class leans slightly Democratic, and the poor working people are historically unregistered and unlikely to vote. With the playing field strongly tilted in favor of candidates with money, no one should be denigrating any local Democrat’s ability to raise lots of cash.
Cox will also have plenty of cash, and Sue Zwahlen made a strong argument in favor of asking for votes instead of money. Zwahlen is favored by Modesto’s establishment Democrats and will likely be able to draw contributions based on her long history of community service.
The real question is whether establishment support can translate to getting out the vote in an off-year election. Establishment Democrats have traditionally been unable to inspire the district’s minorities and young people enough to create a winning wave of voters in off-years.
Former Riverbank Mayor Virginia Madueno has name recognition and, like Zwahlen, a long and strong local record of community service. She will likely have enough money to compete at least until late January, when delegates from the Democratic Party are expected to endorse one of the six from Friday’s debate.
Up and coming young lion Mateo Bedolla admitted Friday night he won’t have much money, and it’s probably time for him to step aside and keep preparing to be a future leader. He’s got all the tools, but is simply too new to the game to go all the way against this strong slate of candidates, let alone against Jeff Denham.
That leaves Dottie Nygard, who said during the debate that she is different because, “I’m real.” And while there’s no question that Nygard’s authenticity and passion have energized her supporters, she’s going to struggle for funding compared to other candidates, and has yet to build the kind of organization it will take to compete against Jeff Denham’s well-tested political machine. She also struggles at times with clear messaging on issues other than health care, where she’s a strong supporter of Medicare for all.
With the coveted party endorsement perhaps only short weeks away, candidates and district voters should be thinking hard about how to unify the party behind the one candidate who can most effectively generate a blue wave of support at the polls. Josh Harder summed things up clearly when he said this election is about the hard work of registering voters and getting out the vote.
He might have added it’s also about local Democrats forgetting their few differences and standing together on broad common ground. Republicans have dominated local politics because they are better funded and because they march in lockstep. They win because they’ve been willing to unify even behind candidates as odious as Donald Trump and as morally vacuous as Jeff Denham.
Democrats today have an embarrassment of riches; they will likely never again muster a slate of contenders as virtuous and capable as they have now, but they still must win.
Every candidate Friday night emphasized that this election isn’t just about politics, it’s literally a life and death issue when health care, affordable housing, and living wages are matters of political debate. Let’s hope every candidate is already thinking about who among them will be best able to generate the blue wave that carries Jeff Denham out of office and the Democratic Party into a new era of progress for Valley citizens. Once that candidate is chosen, every resource, every vote, and every conscientious voter will be needed to carry the day.
About The Author
Eric Caine formerly taught in the Humanities Department at Merced College. He was an original Community Columnist at the Modesto Bee, and wrote for The Bee for over twelve years.