When we heard Fresno City Councilwoman Esmeralda Soria was running for Assembly in the Valley’s District 27, we wanted to know more about her. We were even more intrigued when we looked at her impressive list of endorsements, including those from State Controller Betty Yee, State Senate Member Anna Caballero, and former Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante.
With a population of over 500,000 residents, Fresno is the largest city in the Valley and the fifth largest city in California. It’s often overlooked and always underestimated, but it is a bellwether for critical Valley issues, ranging from water and climate through homelessness and poverty.
Esmeralda was born in Visalia and grew up in Lindsay. As child and teenager, she worked in the fields with her farmworker parents. She currently resides in Fresno, where she’s completing her 8th year on the Fresno City Council. Like many of the Valley’s rising class of professional women, she has impressive educational credentials, including a Bachelor’s Degree from UC Berkeley, a Juris Doctorate from UC Davis and completion of the Executive Leadership Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
We asked Esmeralda to comment on several issues critical to Valley Citizens. We were pleased when she took time from her hectic campaign and council schedule for an email interview. Here are her responses. They’ve been lightly edited for concision and continuity.
VC: What are the three most important issues for District 27?
ES: My three top policy priorities in the State Assembly will be: (1) working to solve our homelessness and housing affordability crisis (2) protecting our water supplies, and (3) addressing the growing cost of living and inflation. We must ensure that Valley families don’t get left behind during this economic recovery.
VC: What are your views on water in the Valley?
ES: Across the state, but especially here in the Valley, years of persistent drought and water shortages are extremely important issues. Water is the lifeblood of our economy and we must take aggressive action to protect our water supplies for agriculture, invest in storage and sustainability measures, and also get some real results on the issue of access to safe drinking water. There are thousands of families across the Valley that still do not have access to safe drinking water. That is wrong and unacceptable. In the State Assembly, I’ll take real action on drinking water access and fight hard to ensure local farmers have access to the water they need to keep our economy going.
VC: How important is climate change to the Valley?
ES: Climate change is one of the most urgent and real threats we face. It has an impact on every aspect of our lives and economy, impacts like massive wildfires, drought, extreme heat, and more than we are already experiencing. To tackle climate change we need to take a holistic, thoughtful, and equitable approach. Equitable is key. We cannot only focus on solutions that are unaffordable and out of reach for working people. Mandates that force working people to make expensive upgrades to their homes are unfair and unrealistic. Instead, we need to focus on large-scale solutions — investing in public transit, upgrading our electrical grid, and providing incentives or financial support for weatherization. To address climate change we must do it together and do it in a way that is good for the environment, good for working people, and good for our economy. Those things are not mutually exclusive.
VC: It’s become harder and harder for Valley citizens to afford escalating rents and rising costs of living. What can we do about poverty and economic inequality throughout the state?
ES: Economic inequality and the rapidly growing divide between the rich and poor deeply concern me. I believe that if you work hard and play by the rules, you should be able to live a prosperous life full of opportunity. I see people all around me bridled with debt, medical costs, and high living expenses. Yet, even as wages increase, working people cannot get ahead because rent, gas, and the cost of living continue to skyrocket. While raising wages is important, we need more policies that focus on helping people build wealth and get ahead. That means more pathways and support for homeownership, drastically cutting college debt, and getting the costs of housing under control by building more middle class and affordable workforce housing.
VC: Despite a strong economic recovery over the last year, more Valley citizens have become homeless. What are some of the things we can do to reduce homelessness in the Valley?
ES: Homelessness is a major crisis in cities across our region, which has been perpetuated by the pandemic. Through my years of serving on the Fresno City Council, I am proud to have championed housing issues, including homeless shelters, affordable housing, tiny homes and first time homeownership opportunities.
I led efforts to build hundreds of new affordable housing units and created an affordable housing trust fund as the local sustainable source of housing dollars that can help leverage state and federal funding. Governor Gavin Newsom saw the value of advocacy work and appointed me to the California Task Force on Homelessness, where I used my position to represent a region of the state that is often neglected.
While on the Task Force, I helped develop regional solutions and was an advocate for additional financial resources to support community plans that address the issue locally. As a result, the Valley has received millions of Homekey dollars that have been used to convert hotels into temporary low barrier shelters with wrap-around services and navigation centers, one stop shops for individuals. This has allowed us to provide shelter to thousands of previously unsheltered, as well as helped transition some to permanent affordable housing. We have made some progress but need to continue to work hard to address the mental health issues related to being unhoused, including drug addiction, through innovative programming and adequate mental health facilities available in our region.
VC: Please sum up reasons you’re running for office, including issues and topics you wish to emphasize.
ES: I am running because we have not seen enough change in the lives of working class people in the Valley. It is simply unacceptable that to this day we have families in the district that struggle to access basic needs like clean drinking water, food and affordable housing. Poverty and unemployment persist at some of the highest levels in the country, and we continue to struggle with access to healthcare, good schools, and good paying jobs.
I understand the people of this District because I grew up with them. I personally grew up with families and know many who are one paycheck away or one medical emergency away from falling into homelessness. If these families are playing by the rules and working hard, this should not be the case in the world’s strongest economy.
As a council member in the 5th largest city in California, I know that if you are not at the table, then you are on the menu. I have seen this personally each year as we passed a new $1.2 billion budget for the city of Fresno. I know the power of leadership and I know how important it is to have people in leadership positions who actually reflect the district.
I dedicated my life to public service at a young age when I saw how hard my parents and other parents who were farm workers had to work to provide for their families. Now, I have worked in politics for the last sixteen years, including serving the past seven years on the Fresno City Council. I was the first woman to represent my district and I was the first Latina to ever serve as Fresno Council President. I am not afraid to blaze my own trail in pursuit of serving our community.
As an Assemblymember, I plan on working on legislation that benefits working class families, creates jobs, and supports our agricultural economy in the Central Valley.
VC: Many thanks, Esmeralda, for taking on the challenge of better representation for the San Joaquin Valley.
As we’ve seen most recently with Ketanji Brown Jackson, the challenge for women has always been to do more and do it better. Esmeralda Soria is clearly up for that challenge.