“When he was asked about hate, the elephant in the room was the president,” said Modesto resident Ken Schroeder after Congressman Jeff Denham’s appearance at the Red Event Center in downtown Modesto on Tuesday. The event was sponsored by the Latino Community Roundtable.
And even though the president’s name rarely came up during Denham’s question-and- answer session, Donald Trump’s policies hovered like a dark shadow over the entire program. In addition to being asked about hate crimes, Denham was also queried about his position on Trump’s threat to shut down the government and the president’s imposition of tariffs on exports.
Denham tried to thread the needle on tariffs, first saying he’s against them but then claiming, “some unfair things are starting to get worked out,” as a result of Trump’s insistence on revising trade agreements.
“I don’t think we should ever resort to threats,” said Denham about the president’s threat to shut down government unless congress can achieve immigration reform, “We can do better.” Denham may have been hoping people have forgotten his 2013 vote to continue the government shutdown, despite harm to many of his constituents.
Denham said the two biggest issues in his district are water and immigration. He showed the most passion about immigration, saying the issue is “personal” for him in part because his wife is a Latina. “I’ll stand up to anyone in either party for immigration reform,” he said, but then blamed Democrats and the Obama administration for failure to deliver a “clean” act for DREAMers.
He said he wanted to assure children separated from their parents were reunited, but didn’t say how it would be accomplished when the government loses track of both children and parents.
Denham said that we need more water storage and, “We need it now.” He said that the state’s demands for increased flows along our rivers threatened the entire valley economy, “Just so we can send 40% of our water out to the ocean.”
But Congressman Denham was clearly not eager to deal with questions seemingly related to government inaction in the face of growing problems with homelessness, opioid use, and hate crimes.
Denham said that our response to homelessness should be to become, “more involved in the community and with non-profits.” He said that congress had, “passed more than 50 bills on opioids.” To people familiar with the Red Event Center’s 8th Street location, the comments seemed acutely ironic, as the area is known for large concentrations of homeless people and frequent drug deals, despite many years of volunteer work by people, non-profits, church groups and charitable organizations like the Salvation Army.
And while many people believe Donald Trump has encouraged hate crimes and white supremacists with equivalencies like his, “Some very fine people on both sides,” in regard to the demonstrators at Charlottesville, Denham said the problem with hate,
“Starts with us. The first obligation is us as parents. The message we send our kids is the message they take home. We’ve got to have a serious look within.”
Denham also said that racist hate is, “more prevalent in the media than it has been in the past.” Whether he was taking a cue from Trump’s “fake news” campaign or simply offering an objective observation was hard to tell, but many in the audience felt that the congressman simply wished to deflect questions about the extremism which the Trump administration has made central to the Republican Party’s platform.
Another problem that could haunt Jeff Denham as the campaign for congress progresses toward the November 6 election is a new sophistication among district voters. Tuesday’s crowd seemed about equally divided among Republicans and Democrats, and the Democrats in particular were very well informed on Jeff Denham’s long record in congress, including his support for the president’s tax cuts for the rich and attempts to gut the Affordable Care Act.
Most of all though, it is increasingly clear that Jeff Denham faces the same quandary as other Republicans throughout the nation: How does he escape Donald Trump’s dark shadow without alienating Trump’s rabid supporters? It’s a difficult proposition, especially for a congressman who has thus far supported the president’s policies almost 98% of the time. It’s the elephant in the room.
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.