By Vicky Boyd

With the Nov. 6 general election just around the corner, the San Joaquin Farm Bureau has endorsed five additional candidates who join the four candidates and two measures on which the organization previously took positions.

The most recent group includes John Cox, Republican for governor; Mark Meuser, Republican for Secretary of State; Marla Livengood, Republican for U.S. Congress, District 9; Janet Rivera, incumbent, San Joaquin Delta Community College trustee for Area 3; and Charles Jennings, Delta College trustee for Area 4.

Endorsements reported in the last issue of SJFB News included U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham, 10th Congressional District Republican; State Assemblymen Jim Cooper, District 9, Democrat; State Assemblymen Heath Flora, District 12, Republican; and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Democrat. The committee also supported the Gas Tax Repeal and opposition to the County Cannabis Tax.

As it did in the past, the SJFB Endorsement Committee researched candidates' backgrounds and interviewed them about issues important to Farm Bureau members. Committee members then approved the candidates they passed along to the full Board of Directors. Only candidates who garnered at least a two-thirds majority vote from the board earned SJFB's endorsement.

Although the board doesn't typically get involved in Delta College Board of  Trustee races, it did this election cycle in light of recent concerns about the future of the junior college's agricultural education programs and school farm, SJFB Executive Director Bruce Blodgett said. The Endorsement Committee wanted to support leaders who shared the Farm Bureau's vision for ag education.

Kenny Watkins, a Linden producer and SJFB Endorsement Committee chairman, agreed. "The challenge is the Delta College school farm and the whole program is really in jeopardy. The ag department has only one and a half teachers. It's time for ag to take a stand and show the importance of the Delta College ag program.

"It's completely ridiculous that you can't get enough teachers and our local junior college doesn't have an ag department. We need candidates who will make the proper decisions for ag and get a viable program for ag like they had at one time."

Ken Vogel, SJFB second vice president, echoed Watkins concerns and said SJFB has to align itself with trustees who share its vision of a strong ag program.

"Compared to MJC, what a difference," he said. "That's why we were looking to back people from the board who are knowledgeable about the ag program and willing to put themselves out there to support improvements. They need to support adding faculty. They need to support making positive improvements."

John Cox for Governor

John Cox, a businessman and attorney, is a newcomer to the political arena with his run for governor his first foray onto the battlefield. A Republican from San Diego, he is running against Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who was first elected to the seat in 2010 and re-elected in 2014.

Newsom, a Democrat, began his political career in 1996 when then-San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown appointed him to serve on the city's Parking and Traffic Commission. The following year, Brown appointed Newsom to the board of supervisors.

Watkins and Blodgett said endorsing Cox was an easy decision.

"What Cox stands for is everything in our policy book," Watkins said. "What Newsom stands for is everything against our policy book and what we believe. It's pretty much a no-brainer to endorse Cox because he's a businessman.

"He truly understands what this state needs and the problems it has. And the biggest point is he's electable. There are enough people fed up in California with the way the state is being run to elect John Cox." 

Cox said he was gratified to receive SJFB's endorsement. "I've spent a lot of time in the San Joaquin Valley. The real problem is (farmers) have been hurt so badly by the policies of state government. They have difficulty getting water for their crops. There's also the difficulty of getting workers for a lot of the farms and businesses in the San Joaquin Valley, and a lot of it starts and ends with just mismanagement in state government."

Whether water policy or over-regulations, Watkins said the policies coming out of Sacramento have hamstrung one of the state's largest industries – agriculture.

He said Cox brings a common-sense approach to the office and has been willing to meet with and listen to SJFB members about issues important to them.

Should Newsom be elected, Blodgett said farmers' concerns, such as with recent Agricultural Labor Relations Board rulings on the Gerawan Farming elections, will likely continue or worsen.

"We can't even get the board to count the ballots to see if they're even valid about the unionization of the farm workers," Blodgett said. "I don't see where Gavin is going to change any of that. I don't see where he's going to be of help on anything."

He was referring to the protracted battle over results of a 2013 vote to determine whether to oust the United Farm Worker's union at the Fresno-based family fruit farming and packing operation.

The biggest issue facing San Joaquin Valley farmers is water, Cox said. 

"We've been basically in a manmade drought," he said. "This state has throughout history gone through drought and wet cycles, and reservoirs are obviously the thing you have to counter those drought cycles."

The last major reservoir in the state was built 30 years ago, yet the population has doubled. To counter increased diversions to Southern California, Cox said he'd like to see desalination and recycling expanded in that part of the state. And the twin tunnels won't be built under his watch, he said.

Farther North, Cox said he favored building additional reservoir storage.

As a businessman, Cox said he would eliminate waste from state government. He also favors repealing the state gas tax and chairs a committee leading Proposition 6, which would do just that. 

Maintaining and improving roads can still be accomplished without the additional gas tax funds by increasing efficiency, he said.

"We need this infrastructure, but we spend twice what Texas spends on each mile of road," Cox said. "State government took the easy way out and just raised the gas tax instead of making the tough decision of fixing the problem in CalTrans."

As part of his campaign to reduce waste, Cox said he also would halt construction of what he called the "crazy train to no-where." 

Mark Meuser for Secretary of State

Mark Meuser, a Republican and San Francisco attorney, is running against incumbent Alex Padilla for secretary of state. Padilla, a Democrat, was first elected to the office in 2014.

Meuser said he always is appreciative of groups, such as the SJFB, who share his concern for election integrity, so receiving the group's endorsement was important. 

Calling the secretary of state's office the "chief of elections," he said election fraud touches every single resident.

"Whether you're a Republican or a Democrat, whether you're a farmer or a farmworker, whether you're a politician or a taxpayer, the issue of elections really affects every voter," he said. 

California elections regularly rank in the bottom five states nationally in terms of integrity, Meuser said. In fact, a 2014 Pew Trust study found the state ranked second to last across 14 different categories, including mail ballots rejected, registration or absentee ballot problems, and voter registration rate.

An election attorney by trade, Meuser admits he continues to be a student of the field, reading up on the latest issues and court rulings. In 2016, he was asked to help with the presidential vote recount in Michigan and Wisconsin. 

One of the main issues in this year's secretary of state race is the accuracy of voter registration rolls. 

The non-profit Election Integrity Project California found that 11 California counties had more registered voters than residents of voting age. Los Angeles County was the worst offender – registered voters were 144 percent of the residents of voting age.

Meuser said currently, the secretary of state's office typically uses only three different databases to help clean voter databases. This leaves room for errors, such as when voters die but aren't removed from the lists.

Instead, Meuser said, the office should use all of the 11 databases available to ensure voter lists are as accurate as possible.

Even if a county does a poor job of maintaining up-to-date voter registration files, he said the secretary of state has access to those files and should step in to clean them up. 

"I understand what those problems are and will fight to restore integrity to the election system," he said.

Meuser ran unsuccessfully in 2012 for the state Senate from District 7, which includes Contra Costa County. But he said that experience plus his background in elections were the reasons he was recruited to run for secretary of state.

And it's Meuser's unique background that prompted the SJFB to endorse him for secretary of state, Blodgett said. "When you see the voter abuse happening in the state, this is a problem," he said. "Meuser is an election law attorney. He knows the law and he'll follow the law."

Ken Vogel, SJFB second vice president, noted that Meuser attended the SJFB Annual Meeting this year to meet with community members.

"He's the best for ag," Vogel said. "His competitor has a track record that has not been good."

Marla Livengood for Congress

Marla Livengood, a newcomer to political races, is a Republican running against incumbent Jerry McNerney in the 9th Congressional District. McNerney, a Democrat, was first elected to the House in 2006. 

The 9th District takes in Brentwood to the west, Galt to the north, Lathrop and French Camp to the south, and Lockeford to the east.

Livengood said she decided to run for office because agriculture continues to face a myriad of challenges, which do nothing to aid long-term business planning.

"Farmers have no certainty, whether it's labor, water or trade right now," she said. "I think we really need to provide them with some certainty."

One of those areas involves water. "I think we need to provide growers with more water and water they have more rights to," she said. "I think in California water has been mismanaged. The federal government also has a role in allowing us to store our water and allowing us to be smart about how that water is delivered to farmers."

Receiving the endorsement of her home-county Farm Bureau was extremely important, "because they are who you look to for ag policy locally, and I really feel blessed to have their endorsement," said Livengood, a Lodi resident.

She grew up on a family vegetable farm and pickle brinery near Collegeville. Her parents still live in the area, growing pickling cucumbers and walnuts.

An ag economics major at college, Livengood first became interested in politics during an ag policy internship with then-Rep. George Radanovich, who represented the 19th Congressional District. A subsequent internship with Rep. Richard Pombo turned into a full-time job, where Livengood learned all of the different political roles, finishing as legislative director.

She currently is on a leave of absence from the Watsonville-based California Strawberry Commission, where she is regulatory affairs manager.

Citing a need for change within the 9th Congressional District, Kenny Watkins said Livengood brings the background needed to represent the region.

"She understand how to get things done and what it takes to make things work in D.C.," he said.

Janet Rivera for Delta College Trustee, Area 3

Janet Rivera, who has served as a Delta College trustee for more than 23 years, is running against student Richard Vasquez and retired police sergeant Eddie Brown.

Rivera said she was more than excited to receive the SJFB endorsement, especially since her father, who passed away about six months ago, was a Farm Bureau member.

David Strecker, SJFB first vice president and a Delta College alum himself, said Rivera brings with her extensive knowledge and experience working in the ag industry. Part of that knowledge includes knowing what the college's ag department was like in its heyday and what needs to be done to restore it.

During the past several months, Rivera said she has met with numerous groups across parts of the five counties served by Delta College to seek input and ideas about how to improve offerings, particularly those within the ag program. 

"It's about what the needs are in our community, and I just don't think we've done that effectively, and it shows when you look at enrollment," she said.

Enrollment at the neighboring Los Rios Community College District and Modesto Junior College is stable or increasing slightly, while the number of students at Delta College is expected to decrease about 5 percent this year compared to last.

At one field day that consisted of about 700 high school students interested in technology, Rivera said she was heartened by the many attendees interested in the farming industry.

Rivera also heard from a former Delta College counselor who now works at Modesto Junior College.

"Based on the needs that students are asking for in classes, how could we make our programs as strong and healthy as they once were?" Rivera said. "She gave me some good ideas."

The ag program currently is advertising for two full-time professors, and Rivera said at least one member of the ag community should be on the interview committee.

In addition, she said she believed college leaders should continue community outreach to help bridge divisions and begin communication among the different parties.

"We need to connect with people who have their hands in the ag programs and make sure whoever the college president is doesn't forget we're part of the community," Rivera said.

College leaders also should take a bottom-up rather than a top-down approach to developing future programs, she said. "We should be asking the community, asking the stakeholders in the community, asking the staff and then the management," Rivera said. "Right now, the plan is not inclusive and what I see happening is it's coming from the top and then trickling down.

"The decision has already been made in the college system of shared governance. I don't believe shared governance is working here."

Charles Jennings for Delta College Trustee, Area 4

Charles Jennings, who taught music and then served as a dean at Delta College before retiring, is running against retired English professor Diane Orem.

A long-time Lodi resident, Jennings said it was a great honor to receive SJFB's endorsement.

"I can't tell you how much it means to have their confidence to successfully represent their views and positions," he said.

Living in the heart of the county's wine region, he said he was well aware of the importance of agriculture to the region's economy. When Jennings traveled outside of the United States, he frequently found ag products, including wine and cherries, from San Joaquin County.

"I think it's important that the college supports a vibrant ag program, partly because of the region we live in and the importance of the San Joaquin Valley in terms of its ag contributions to the world," Jennings said.

David Strecker noted both Jennings' teaching experience as well as his tenure as an administrator at Delta College. "It was nice to hear his thoughts on how everything works, and not just from being in a classroom," Strecker said.  Jennings has attended the college's various meetings where the ag industry impressed the need to rebuild the ag program and to replace a decaying barn at the school's Manteca campus.

One of the challenges is community college funding is based on enrollment, he said. Delta College's overall enrollment is declining, which in turn brings less funding from the state.

To help recruit more students, Jennings envisions local service centers in places like Lodi and Mountain House that would be manned and would serve as local information sources for would-be enrollees. Among the resources would be class schedules, course catalogs and enrollment forms.

"I don't think students should necessarily have to go to the 5151 Pacific Ave. campus," he said.

Jennings admitted it would take money to carry out these efforts, but the college needs to make those investments. He said he also believed college leaders need to do a better job getting out in the community and begin discussions with constituents. 

From there, the college should explore unique partnerships that could provide additional funding for different educational programs while benefiting the donor industries.

"One of the ways we could do that is meeting with groups of people like the farm community, the health services community, the engineering community, the arts community," he said. "We really need to get everybody involved in the college programs and what we have to offer. It's really an economic driver for our community. If more people could get involved in career programs and activities, they will help our revenue situation."

Anecdotally, Jennings said he's heard that San Joaquin County students who live in the north part of the county drive to Sacramento and those living in the south part of the county go to Modesto for community college courses. By offering a more desirable array of classes locally, Delta College could reverse that.

"I remember Delta College 30 years ago and thought it was just spectacular," he said, speaking from his role as a music professor at the college. "It was like something I had never seen before.

"We have to take care of those programs and maintain them and do what we can to let them flourish and grow." Ken Vogel said he's had the opportunity to see Jennings interact with people outside of agriculture.

"I know there are people at the college who want to see him around," Vogel said. "I'm hoping it's all positive."

Jeff Denham for Congress

Jeff Denham, a Turlock Republican, was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010. Representing the 10th District, which comprises southern San Joaquin County and Stanislaus County, Denham is running against political newcomer Josh Harder.

Also from Turlock, Democrat Harder is an adjunct instructor of business administration at Modesto Junior College and lists venture capitalist as his profession.

In receiving the SJFB endorsement, Denham said he would never take the support for granted.

"I'm focused on this area because that's where I've grown up," he said. "It our business. It's a way of life. Agriculture is the No. 1 industry in the state, and it deserves strong representation."

Blodgett said, "He's been a good voice for agriculture."

Ken Vogel, SJFB second vice president, agreed. "Jeff has always been responsive to the needs of agriculture and to water issues, especially," he said. 

Vogel also noted Denham understands the needs of specialty crop growers when it comes to labor and has worked to try to pass immigration reform.

During his tenure, Denham also has been accessible to Farm Bureau members, Watkins said.

"We support people who are willing to work with us and hear our views," he said. "He hasn't always voted down party lines, but he's truly done what he felt was the best thing for him and his district, and you can't fault him for that." 

The same can't be said for Denham's opponent, Harder, who's been unresponsive to Farm Bureau inquiries. SJFB hosted a Congressional District 10 debate Aug. 20 in Stockton and invited both candidates. Only Denham attended, and the event was changed to a town hall meeting.

"We're just having a hard time pinning Harder down," Watkins said.

Dianne Feinstein for Congress

Democrat Dianne Feinstein of San Francisco has served four full terms as U.S. senator, having first been elected during a special election in 1992. She is running against fellow Democrat Kevin de León, who received the second-most votes during the June primary. Under the format approved by voters in 2010, the top two vote recipients in the primary, regardless of party affiliation, advance to the November general election.

De León currently is a state senator representing the 24th District, which encompasses downtown Los Angeles and East Los Angeles.

Feinstein said she was honored to receive the SJFB endorsement. Among her top issues are the new agricultural tariffs that are affecting farmers. 

One of the senator's priorities is immigration reform, since California has about 500,000 undocumented farmworkers. That's why she said she partnered with other like-minded groups to introduce the "Agricultural Worker Program Act."  The legislation would allow farmworkers to earn a "blue card" shielding them from deportation and eventually a green card, which would put them on a pathway to citizenship.

Feinstein recently weighed in to the State Water Resources Control Board against the proposed flow criteria being promoted.

Although Farm Bureau hasn't agreed with Feinstein on all of the issues, SJFB Executive Director Bruce Blodgett said her office is willing to listen to agriculture and work with the industry on many bills.

"We haven't agreed any of the time with de León," Blodgett said. "He would be an absolute disaster for agriculture 100 percent of the time."

David Strecker, SJFB first vice president, had similar sentiments.

"We haven't always agreed with her decisions and the things that she's decided to push," Strecker said. "However, she does at least listen and talk to the ag community. Her opponent doesn't even want to talk."

Jim Cooper for Assembly

Jim Cooper, a Democrat who came to the Assembly in 2014 with 30 years of law-enforcement experience, represents southern Sacramento County and the Lodi area. Within his district is $2.7 billion worth of agriculture.

Cooper is running against Harry He, a 23-year-old Democrat who grew up in south Sacramento and received a bachelor's degree in economics from the University of California, Merced in 2016. He currently is employed as an IT manager, according to his campaign website.

Cooper, an Elk Grove resident, said he was honored and humbled by the Farm Bureau's endorsement.

"What I'm thankful for is the Farm Bureau," he said. "When I first came here, I knew nothing about ag. I was known as a cop, but my goal was to be the ag guy."

Cooper said he educated himself about the ag issues in his district by going on about 75 tours.

The leading issue in his district by far is the Twin Tunnels, but labor cost and availability, over-regulation and water also are hot topics, he said.

Probably the toughest bill he's faced during his tenure dealt with ag overtime, which he voted against.

"I got beat up by my caucus," Cooper said. "I felt ag overtime needed to be done right, and in its form it wasn't presented that way. I stand by my vote today."

SJFB Second Vice President Ken Vogel praised Cooper's willingness to learn about agriculture and how he understands the importance of the industry in the northern San Joaquin County portion of his district.

"He's a person who is open to listening and his staff is open to listening," Vogel said.

Heath Flora for Assembly

A small businessman and volunteer firefighter, Heath Flora is a political newcomer, having been elected to the Assembly in 2016. The Ripon Republican represents an area east of Highway 99 to the Sierra foothills and from Galt to south to Turlock. District 12 also includes Manteca and portions of Tracy. 

Flora is running against Democrat and Modesto attorney Robert Chase, who he also bested in the primary.

In receiving the Farm Bureau endorsement, Flora said, "It means a great deal to me as a guy who's grown up in California agriculture my entire life, and to get the support of Farm Bureau in my home county is incredibly important."

One of the big issues Flora sees is the regulatory burden placed on agriculture and businesses by the State Water Resources Control Board and the California Air Resources Board.

Many of the people writing regulations and legislation are completely ignorant of what goes into successfully running a business or farm. As a result, their rules and laws can be overbearing or totally unworkable, Flora said. "It's been a very challenging experience the last two years trying to educate them," he said.

In addition to sitting in on the Endorsement Committee candidate interviews and discussions, SJFB First Vice President David Strecker said he also has met with Flora a couple of other times on other issues.

"He understands what many do not in his area – what farmers need. He had some good ideas," Strecker said.

Either Flora or one of his staff frequently attend SJFB board meetings, and they've also been part of the annual Media/VIP Night. "He represents an ag area, so he and his staff are very interested in rural issues," SJFB Second Vice President Ken Vogel said.

SJFB says repeal gas tax (Proposition 6)

The SJFB Endorsement Committee supported Proposition 6, which would repeal the 12-cent-per-gallon gas excise tax and 20-cent-per-gallon diesel sales and excise tax increases signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2017. It also would repeal vehicle registration fee increases of $25 to $175, depending on vehicle value, that were part of the Senate Bill 1 transportation package.

In addition, the Republican-supported ballot measure would require all future gas tax increases to first be approved by voters.

"That was an easy one," Bruce Blodgett said. "The cost to our members and the cost to all of the people associated with ag with the diesel and gas taxes – it was a pretty simple discussion. We're already seeing what we thought was going to happen. The agency, in this case Caltrans, continues to grow its staff rather than building roads."

Kenny Watkins agreed, questioning whether previous fuel tax revenues were spent appropriately on road repair and construction or were diverted to other uses.

"We've had road and fuel taxes for years," he said. "When the state has a surplus of funds and they can't allocate them to maintain our infrastructure, it's a real shame."

Vote no on Cannabis Tax

The SJFB Endorsement Committee is opposing the county's cannabis tax ballot measure because it speeds up the process of allowing individual operations to grow, process and sell cannabis in agriculturally zoned portions of the county, Blodgett said.

"A vote against the tax is a vote against growing cannabis commercially in San Joaquin County," Kenny Watkins said. Already, county residents may legally have up to six cannabis plants in their possession for personal use. Watkins pointed to neighboring Calaveras County as an example of undesirable wide-scale cannabis operations before supervisors there voted in January to ban all commercial production. During the roughly two years Calaveras County allowed commercial cannabis production, more than 700 growers had registered. At the same time, illegal grows doubled.

Should San Joaquin County relax commercial cannabis production bans, Watkins said it also could place additional stress on the Sheriff's Department, which already is overburdened.

Even the Agriculture Commissioner's office could be affected, David Strecker said.

"There's not enough information that the (cannabis) tax will pay for that extra burden," he said.

Opposing the cannabis measure follows Farm Bureau policy, which is against new taxes. Watkins said the measure, should it pass, also would create "more government," which also counters Farm Bureau policy.

San Joaquin County supervisors voted 3-2 in early July to put the cannabis tax proposal on the November ballot. Supervisors Bob Elliott and Chuck Winn cast the dissenting votes.

The measure must pass by two-thirds because it is a tax. If the proposal passes in November, a licensing system for indoor cultivation, distribution, manufacturing, medical-use retail and laboratory testing would become effective July 2019.

The tax starts at 3.5 percent but could go as high as 8 percent. It is predicted to raise about $3 million annually, most of which initially would go toward enforcing the county's cannabis rules.

Although the ballot measure is only for unincorporated areas of San Joaquin County, all of the county, including city residents, vote on it, Ken Vogel said.