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Without Feinstein and McCarthy, California farmers have lost their political mojo


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“It’s clearly going to be a vacuum for a while,” said Cannon Michael, a melon and tomato farmer. Michael also chairs the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, which supplies water to 1.2 million acres of irrigated farmland in the Valley.

It’s also a harbinger of California’s waning influence in Congress — and an early warning to other California industries that benefited from Feinstein’s and McCarthy’s seniority and perhaps took for granted the state’s ability to score federal dollars.

The state’s massive agricultural industry is feeling the pinch first. The loss of congressional leadership is putting the industry at risk of losing funding and access to water. The risk is amplified as negotiations over access to the Colorado River heat up and intensifying drought and wet years test the state’s aging, oversubscribed water delivery system.

California ag’s stump speech, self-important but undeniable, has always come down to: We “feed America and the world beyond,” as California Farm Bureau president Jamie Johansson put it. The $55 billion agriculture industry drives the economy in the Central Valley and stocks grocery aisles across the country, from almonds to avocados.

For decades, farmers relied on Feinstein to help secure scarce water supplies.

“We all had a well-worn path to Sen. Feinstein’s office,” said former Rep. Dennis Cardoza, a Central Valley Democrat who now represents agricultural lobbying clients. Her staff were taking meetings with farmers up until the night before her death in September.

Despite hailing from opposing parties, Feinstein and McCarthy worked together closely to pass the WIIN Act in 2016, which encouraged increases in water exports to farmers from the state’s main water delivery hub in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Their joint efforts required a filibuster override.

The bill was Feinstein’s last big victory on water. Her absence was long anticipated as her declining health led to increasing absences from Capitol Hill. But McCarthy’s toppling leaves California’s agricultural interests with no obvious fallback.

“The two things coupled together is a massive erosion,” Michael said.

No serious candidate vying to replace Feinstein has made a bid to represent agriculture in the same way she did. The three Democratic frontrunners, Reps. Katie Porter, Adam Schiff and Barbara Lee, are all from urban areas and lack strong ties either to agriculture or the Central Valley.

Industry insiders say they’ve seen Sen. Alex Padilla, now the state’s senior senator, taking on a more active role on water, including as a recent appointee to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. But they’re still waiting to see what he might deliver.

In retrospect, over-reliance on Feinstein was a mistake and led to weaker relationships with other potential allies, Michael said. The industry will now need both senators, he said: “It’s going to be a vastly different senatorial kind of positioning.”

Lawmakers also just don’t have the same appetite as Feinstein for traditional agricultural asks such as more water storage and big delivery projects. In an era when climate change has made the previously unthinkable strategy of leaving a million acres of irrigated farmland empty practically unavoidable, the benefits from massive, expensive infrastructure are less clear.

“You can have strong political muscles, but if you’re making an argument that has no long-term economic legs to it and social legs, then it’s going to tail off,” said Jay Lund, vice director of watershed sciences at the University of California, Davis. “The fundamentals of most big infrastructure has just tailed off.”

At the state level, a new class of political leaders is coming together around things like groundwater recharge, conservation and wastewater reuse — technocrats like Allison Febbo, the new general manager of the state’s largest agricultural water district, Westlands Water District, as well as lawmakers like Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas (D-Hollister), Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica) and Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan (D-Orinda).

And at the federal level, Padilla has leaned into drinking water quality and affordability and helping farmworkers in periods of extreme heat or flooding. He’s proposed giving farmers money to voluntarily repurpose their irrigated land to reduce water demand.

Padilla’s also carved out a presence in negotiations to reduce use of water from the Colorado River. He was the voice for California in regular meetings with Western senators led by Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.), said a Padilla aide whom POLITICO agreed not to name to discuss behind-the-scenes negotiations. Feinstein wasn’t always there. California ag has ended up with mostly wins from the talks so far.

“Absolutely,” Padilla responded, through a spokesperson, when asked if he was a friend of ag.

But there’s uncertainty with the new political landscape. California lost Feinstein’s spot on the all-important Senate Appropriations Committee, from where she helped funnel money to the state’s water infrastructure. Sen. Krysten Sinema from Arizona took her place.

“It is a concern to everybody who’s in the state,” Cardoza said. “Transitions are always like this. They’re difficult.”

Cardoza has endorsed Schiff in the 2024 race. He gave Schiff the same advice he has given Padilla: spend time in the Valley. (The other two frontrunners in the race have not called him for advice, Cardoza said.)

Schiff has visited the Valley several times, including a tour of Michael’s farm. That earned him donations including $3,300 from Stewart Resnick, the president and CEO of The Wonderful Company who has spent heavily on national Democratic races.

Lee and Porter haven’t done the same amount of engagement, but campaign spokespeople for both said they wanted to court ag. Porter went on a tour with Western Growers Association in July. Lee has swung through cities like Stockton and Modesto.

The industry is getting ready to fine-tune its message for the next generation of California politicians, which they acknowledge will most likely lean increasingly more to the left even as many food-producing regions trend conservative.

“We live in an era where I’m not sure that a person like Senator Feinstein could be elected,” said Tom Birmingham, Westlands Water District’s former general manager.

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