Soria says 16th District needs new perspective
By Mike Biddison
To whom much is given, much is required.
That’s the code Esmerelda Soria’s mother drilled into her as the girl grew up in Tulare County. Born in the City of Lindsay, a first generation U.S. citizen to her Mexican immigrant farmworker parents, Soria now sits on the Fresno City Council. For the past 6 months, though, she has been considering a much larger job — she wants to represent her district in Congress in Washington D.C.
Seizing the opportunities given her and relying on a work ethic instilled from childhood, Soria became the first of her family to successfully traverse the public school system, from grade school to grad school. After UC Berkeley she went on to study Law at UC Davis School of Law, graduating Class of 2011. She then entered the Harvard-Kennedy Leadership program, learning to become a more effective leader.
During and following law school, Soria worked with the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, ultimately returning to the valley, hoping to make a difference for the people who live here. Nearly six years ago she won a seat on the Fresno City Council, only the second Latina to do so, and in 2018 she served as president of that council.
Her council seat is the latest iteration of service to the community that began with public service work in Sacramento while attending Berkeley, then continuing with a stint as project director for the Foundation, where she focused on affordable housing and safe drinking water in valley communities.
She now believes she can bring stronger leadership and a new perspective to the job of representing the 16th Congressional District nationally by mounting a challenge to the Democratic incumbent in the upcoming March primary.
“Many of the major issues facing the valley have not been adequately addressed by the current leadership,” says Soria.
Major issues, such as housing and homelessness, health care, good paying jobs, affordable education, and the immigration system—all need a new perspective. She asserts that solutions to these problems cannot be achieved by applying the same old fixes.
Homelessness is a big problem in the country, but an even bigger one in California where one quarter of the nation’s homeless are located. Many of the more than 150 thousand homeless people in the state are located in the valley. Soria, who served on Governor Newsom’s Homeless Regional Council as representative of the entire Central Valley, has helped forge some forty suggestions for Newsom to consider in addressing what is now seen as a crisis in the state.
Affordable housing is a related issue. Soria says while housing in the valley is cheaper than along the coast, wages here are proportionately lower, aggravating the problem. In Merced County affordability is becoming even more pronounced, with the numbers of Bay Area people moving in and speculators buying up surpluses. Her track record on the Fresno City Council indicates she can get things done. She tackled the affordability of city housing partly by re-prioritizing money on hand and balancing budgets.
Soria maintains that the Jim Costa authored Costa-Hawkins bill, enacted in 1995 when Costa was a state senator, aggravated the problem. Costa-Hawkins hamstrung cities’ ability to mandate rent control on certain types of housing, and vacancy control under circumstances where people move, and landlords seek to increase rent for new tenants.
Health Care is of major concern in Merced County, where more than half the residents are on Medi-Cal, with the lowest ratio of doctors to residents of any county in the state. The problem of fewer doctors than needed has no easy solution. There has been talk of funding a medical school at UC Merced, and while Soria says she will continue to work on bringing that dream to fruition, it’s still many years away. Providing residency training for local students at nearby outside facilities, with incentives to stay and practice in the valley may help. But Soria says any solution needs to be a collaborative effort requiring effective leadership. Having aging parents without health coverage means she has been concerned about the problem from day one. She doubts her opponent has had to worry about these issues.
“The history of the valley is a history of poverty,” says Soria. Good paying jobs are scarce and she sees a remedy to that problem in diversification. Attracting new business is primary in developing those jobs. The recently announced Bitwise Industries expansion is a step in the right direction. Bitwise will open a technology hub and training center in Merced in 2021.
Another way to provide jobs is with improvements to the infrastructure. High-Speed Rail is one of those improvements, which will bring numerous good-paying jobs to the valley, in addition to the direct benefit of getting people quickly and cheaply to where the jobs or educational opportunities are. The impact of climate change can be turned into opportunities for people to be trained in high-tech solutions, such as solar, that lead to higher paying jobs.
While pushing for more economic diversification, Soria knows the backbone of this district is the agricultural economy. Being from a farmworker family, she knows agriculture and is concerned with major issues facing growers today. When in congress she will plow her efforts into ending the trade wars that negatively impact farmers. She cites a need to build a broad coalition between growers, farmworkers and environmentalists. All have the common need to maintain the quality of air, water and productivity of the land.
One of the district’s major concerns is continued water deliveries via the Friant-Kern Canal, which provides water to 18 thousand farms in the valley. Soria supports SB 559 that will fund repairs to the canal, which has lost nearly 60 percent of its carrying capacity. The bipartisan bill to provide $400 million for repairs, is facing an approval deadline in the state senate at the end of January.
Higher education and job training programs are key to the district’s economic improvement. “Access to higher education is improving in this area with the advent of UC Merced, but there is still an affordability problem,” says Soria. She jokingly tells her friends she is a walking mortgage, owing more than $150,000 in student loans, paying more than $1,000 a month on the debt. It’s one of the reasons she works two jobs. One is her council position, and the other is with Fresno City College, where she is a part-time instructor in Constitutional Law and Latino Politics.
The cost of higher education is prohibitive for most people in the valley, having shot up geometrically between Soria’s under-grad and graduate years. “Workable solutions have to be found so that everyone and their families can benefit. Solving these problems will provide economic advantages for the entire community,” says Soria.
She advocates expansion of the Pell Grant Program. Most of these federal grants only go to students from families with total incomes of up to $20,000 per year, even though families with incomes up to $50,000 should qualify.
Soria also says debt forgiveness programs need to be easier to get. They are designed for graduates who work ten years or more in certain areas of public service, but for those who qualify and apply, 99 percent don’t receive forgiveness. This is reportedly due to incompetence at the federal level, outright fraud on the part of the loan servicers, or a combination of both. Soria, who has worked in public service all of her adult life, feels Valley residents need someone working on their behalf, someone who intimately understands these issues.
Another area Soria is intimately acquainted with is Immigration. “The immigration system is broken,” she maintains. It is not serving the interests of the local ag business, who have much more difficulty now than in the past obtaining workers necessary for the continued operation of their businesses.
The system is not working for immigrants, who now can wait years for permission to enter the country to work or join family members. Soria tells of relatives who were temporary workers who want to go home, but the government has made crossing the border so difficult that if they were to leave, they will not be able to return to their seasonal work. “They want to go home,” she says, “but the only choice they have is to stay illegally.”
The broken system is also giving the U.S. a black eye internationally, with human rights violations of immigrants, such as the continuing family separation program, in which children are taken from their parents for indefinite periods. Lawsuits are commonplace, including the latest from the ACLU, now suing the federal government for directing asylum seeking refugees to countries other than the U.S., countries where it is alleged the refugees will be no safer than they were in the countries they are trying to leave.
Soria says she is proud of her Latino heritage, and her campaign has garnered endorsements from leaders with similar heritage from up and down the District. CA-16, encompassing Fresno, Madera and Merced Counties, is nearly 60 percent Latino. That population only comprises 40 percent of the district’s voters, though, according to the candidate, who is relying on ordinary people of all ethnicities to support her run for the congress. She says the working people of this district need a voice, and the people she meets are excited by how approachable she is.
Buoyed by the Democratic Party’s decision not to make an endorsement in this primary race, Soria believes her chances of winning are good. Citing a need to get corporations out of our elections, her campaign relies on small donations from individual supporters. She says she was the underdog when running for her seat on the city council, and won by going directly to the people. She is doing the same now, going door to door and staging a series of meet-and-greets in cities and smaller communities throughout the congressional district. Recently, while campaigning in Los Banos, she met Mr. and Mrs. Hernandez, farmworkers who recently became citizens and voters. They gave her $50, a lot of money for the couple, saying she reminded them of their daughter and gave them hope for the future.
Soria states that in the six months since starting her campaign, she has raised close to $300,000 from more than 800 individual donors, an average of $375 per donor.
Jim Costa, the incumbent, finances his campaign with support from large corporate donations. He has been described as a Blue-Dog Democrat, concerned with pinching pennies.
Soria says the emphasis should be on making wise investments to leverage the available money.
“This is our time,” says the Underdog to the Blue-Dog.