- The Washington Times - Monday, September 18, 2000

McFARLAND, Calif. Ben Garza just wants a face in Congress that looks a little more like his own.
After a brief meeting in the cramped town office conference room in August, the veteran town councilman quickly agreed to turn his back on longtime incumbent Rep. Cal Dooley and endorse political novice Rich Rodriguez, a former TV anchorman.
"I felt like [Mr. Rodriguez] was very representative of me, not just because I am a registered Republican, but because of his background," said Mr. Garza, the first elected Hispanic leader in the district to endorse the Republican challenger. "He seems to have a little better grip on Hispanics in the area. He's had the same life experiences."
Mr. Rodriguez, 45, grew up in a small, rural town just east of Fresno, grandson of Mexican immigrants. He says he is inspired by the example of his father, the son of immigrants, who served in World War II and fed his family by working as a machinist and tending a small plot of fruit trees in the foothills east of Fresno.
"You couldn't do it today, but those 13 acres put five kids through college," Mr. Rodriguez said.
Mr. Rodriguez went on to a career as a reporter and anchorman for Fresno TV station KFSN, where he spent 16 years stopping only for a three-year stint on TV in Los Angeles.
"I was on top of the world as a broadcaster, but I saw the opportunity to run against a person who I don't believe has done the job he needs to be doing in representing not only a district, but an area where there are a high percentage of Hispanics," said Mr. Rodriguez over lunch at a fast-food restaurant in rural Delano. "And we all want a voice I believe I can be that voice, who's willing to go in and spend that time."
His campaign is, so far, well funded he had raised more than $300,000 by the end of the first half of the year. It has also attracted high-profile attention, including the endorsement of the California Farm Bureau, which represents about 9,000 farmers in the rural 20th District.
He has had support from the national party and received visits from party leaders including House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas and Virginia's Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. He expects a campaign visit from Sen. John McCain later this month.
Thanks to his long TV career, Mr. Rodriguez has unusually good name recognition for a challenger. The Fresno TV market reaches 80 percent of the voters in the sprawling district, which runs 100 miles along California's fertile Central Valley.
He hopes that high public profile, combined with his Hispanic farming background, will boost him to an upset victory in this unusual district, which is at least 55 percent Hispanic.
"People come up to me and say: 'You know what? I'm going to vote for you because I've been waiting for someone to take the chance,' " Mr. Rodriguez said. "They'll be wide open about it they'd like to have a representative who mirrors the community."
But Mr. Rodriguez faces a considerable problem. The incumbent Democrat, Rep. Cal Dooley, also has deep roots in the San Joaquin Valley. He has also established close ties with Hispanic leaders all up and down the district, which runs along Route 99 from southern Fresno to northern Bakersfield.
"I am a fourth-generation farmer. I still own a farm in the Central Valley," Mr. Dooley says. "There are maybe half a dozen members of Congress that are farmers, and I bring an inherent understanding and I think a tremendous expertise on [agricultural] issues to Congress."
Mr. Dooley has carefully cultivated Hispanic leaders. Shortly after his own upset victory in 1990 over a longtime Republican incumbent, Mr. Dooley established a program to bring promising Hispanics to Washington to see how government operates. As a result, Mr. Dooley has become a mentor to many local Hispanic leaders and elected officials.
Mr. Dooley can also claim a measure of credit on issues important to farmers. He led the fight to persuade his reluctant fellow Democrats to vote for normal trade relations with China, a move that will mean lower import fees for the San Joaquin Valley's agricultural products headed to China.
He voted for a Republican bill to do away with estate taxes, which tend to hit hard at owners of small businesses and farms, and later joined Republicans in an unsuccessful effort to override the president's veto of the bill. He is also a founder and co-chairman of the New Democrat Coalition, a 3-year-old group that pushes Democrats to back fiscally conservative budgets and open trade, issues that have traditionally been considered Republican territory.
And he has an advantage that no challenger can hope to match: seniority in Washington. He is the fourth-ranking Democrat on the Agriculture Committee, which means he is in line for a prime subcommittee chairmanship if Democrats retake control of the House.
"I just have a tremendous understanding of the challenges the Valley faces," he said. "I think I have a set of skills that allows me to be very effective in representing the Valley and getting things done."
A quick stroll down the streets of the district shows that Mr. Rodriguez faces a tough fight to knock off such an entrenched incumbent. Chatting with residents of the district, it becomes clear that they know Cal Dooley's name and seem generally well-disposed toward him.
"He's local, he seems to be informed," said Sharon Borcky, a homemaker from McFarland who says she had consistently supported Mr. Dooley in past elections. "What people like about him is he seems to get out with the people."
But the news is not unrelentingly good for Mr. Dooley. Many people on the streets seem to have paid little attention to the election so far and seem open to a possible challenger.
"Usually around voting time, I start looking into those things," said Leland Toves of Hanford, a pool salesman who said he will give Mr. Rodriguez a chance to make his case.
John Brennan, a deputy district attorney in Hanford, said he would definitely consider a challenger after hearing that Mr. Dooley supports construction of a large and controversial dairy in the area.
Even Mrs. Borcky, despite her solid past support for Mr. Dooley, said her mind is not made up.
"I like to look at both sides and look at the person," she said. "I'm not looking at the political party."
The effect of Mr. Rodriguez's Hispanic heritage, meanwhile, is also not clear. Mr. Dooley has the endorsement of most Hispanic elected officials and organizations. Many Hispanic leaders say Mr. Rodriguez is not sincere in his desire to serve the public.
"I've never seen him in the Hispanic community, I've never seen him in the black community, in the Hmong community," said Al Alarcon, a Fresno Realtor and the former president of the local Chamber of Commerce, echoing a common complaint about Mr. Rodriguez. "I've never seen him going out here really getting down to the issues in the trenches… . He hasn't paid his dues."
But Mr. Rodriguez says voters will realize his duties as a reporter made it difficult to be politically active. The Hispanic leadership, which is closely tied to the Democratic Party, he said, is not necessarily representative of the Hispanic electorate.
"If you look at this district, there are Hispanics on the Dooley bandwagon, because Cal is one of those guys who throws little crumbs," he said. "And the surprising thing, the thing that makes me feel good, is that a lot of people have finally figured it out don't throw us a bone, do something for our city."
Ben Garza says many of his constituents in McFarland, most of whom are Hispanic farm workers, are Democrats merely out of habit, particularly the recent immigrants who were scared off by the tough anti-illegal-immigrant policies of former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson.
Yet, he said, Hispanics tend to be conservative on issues such as education and abortion.
The Garza family "is all Republican … they think they're Democrats, but they're Republicans," he jokes.
Mr. Rodriguez picked up a potentially important boost last month when the California Farm Bureau endorsed his candidacy and a local farm group near Fresno followed.
Mr. Dooley, himself a former board of directors member for a local farm bureau, dismisses the state bureau's endorsement of his challenger. He said he has solid support from local farm leaders.
The problem, he said, is a disagreement he has with the Farm Bureau over a bill to bring in temporary agricultural workers from Mexico. While he doesn't disagree with the notion of importing guest workers, he does disagree with the details of the bureau-backed bill, which he says condemns workers to "a form of servitude." He also worries about bringing in guest workers to his district, where unemployment is 30 percent or more.
Mr. Rodriguez, however, sees the Farm Bureau endorsement as a possible turning point in his upstart campaign. He said he has received a burst of publicity and support in the wake of the endorsement.
"That's big stuff here it's opened a lot of eyes," Mr. Rodriguez said. "They know we're serious."

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