Still elated after Garrad Marsh’s decisive victory in the Modesto Mayor’s race, Fred Herman is looking forward to another big win for Valley citizens. Remember Richard Pombo? People thought he couldn’t lose, but he did. Now, once invulnerable Jeff Denham faces serious competition from a former astronaut with deep Valley roots—Jose Hernandez (pictured left). Here’s Fred on Hernandez’s recent visit to Modesto.
To cynics who suggest that all politicians are motivated only by greed, ego and a thirst for power, two words. To progressives still elated by Modesto’s recent mayoral race and skeptical that good guys can win two in a row, the same two words: Jose Hernandez.
An ex-campesino turned inventor turned astronaut turned Tenth Congressional District (Modesto) candidate, Hernandez drew three times the usual turnout for a Central Valley Democratic Club dinner on Monday night. In a brief prepared speech, he stressed support for education, immigration reform and women’s rights. But 70 Denny’s diners—largest turnout in the CVDC’s eight-year history—refused for an hour to let him go. A native of French Camp north of Modesto, Hernandez knowledgeably and articulately answered questions ranging from creating an agency to ease foreclosure burdens to making the county a high tech rival to Silicon Valley.
He repeatedly referred to his NASA service, how 90-minute earth orbits—a sunrise or sunset every 45 minutes—turned him into a “tree-hugging” environmentalist who understands that our fragile planet requires care. He would end tax breaks for the wealthiest and start working to create San Joaquin Valley jobs: “The American dream is at risk in these tough times; middle class families cannot wait until the (fall) election for Congress to act.”
One octogenarian Democrat, recalling Modesto’s pride in being represented by Tony Coelho, said Hernandez is a “saga anchored in our own valley, an incredible American tale worthy of a movie script.” Hernandez didn’t learn English until age 12. Growing up working in strawberries and cucumbers alongside his parents, he was told that with hard work and a good education he could make it anywhere. So he attended college (University of the Pacific) and grad school (UC Santa Barbara), helped at the Lawrence Livermore lab to develop a mammogram technology to detect breast cancer, and dreamed of becoming an astronaut.
On his 12th application to NASA he was selected, at age 41 in 2009, for a 14-day mission aboard the shuttle discovery to the international space station. One CVDC officer noted that Hernandez’ work for NASA in congress, learning how Washington works, would help him immeasurably in any debate with the Republican incumbent, Jeff Denham.
“Direct, enthusiastic, believable,” said another CVDC senior of Hernandez, “and he’s NOT Denham.”
A Salinas resident who moved to the valley, Denham started political life here as a moderate but veered right (like fighting extended unemployment benefits) when elected to congress. As a state senator, Denham campaigned on a pledge to improve school funding—then voted against the budget to fund schools, against bonds to rebuild classrooms and even against funds to update school lab equipment.
A self-styled fiscal watchdog, says the California Majority Report, Denham three times secretly raised his own pay, increasing his take-home total by 20 percent but voted against helping homeowners in his district avoid foreclosure. When Denham refused to vote for a state budget, a recall vote – seventh in California since 1911, followed. Denham survived.
Hernandez is one of 19 U.S. congressional candidates endorsed by the Committee for a Liveable Future, a coalition to push rebuilding and renewing America in thoughtful, sustaining ways. What spoke loudest to one diner was his noting that Democrats need 25 seats to control congress, and that, “the road to those 25 passes through Modesto. I understand we must start fighting for middle class families and protect vital programs like Upward Bound (which enabled his own college career), Social Security and Medicare. Congress must start focusing on creating good jobs (to) prove the American dream still exists.”