Monday, October 11, 2010

A snapshot from outer sprawl-land, part one

On Saturday I added myself to a voter canvass of union members in the San Joaquin Valley community of Tracy. We spread out through the neighborhoods to identify who'd be on board with state Democratic candidates, Jerry Brown for Governor and Barbara Boxer for Senate. We were also identifying supporters of incumbent CA-11 Democratic Congressman Jerry McNerney.

Yes, that bucolic looking cul-de-sac complete with SUVs and boats in driveways is what middle class housing looks like in this corner of the United States. There's a lot going on beneath the quiet surface.

Northern San Joaquin Valley towns are one of the areas hit hardest by the Great Recession. The housing bubble here was wild. Because house prices in the core San Francisco Bay Area shot up to stratospheric heights, families seeking more space and suburban environments traded long commutes and longer hours working multiple jobs to buy in mushrooming developments here. But that's no longer viable. According to a Los Angeles Times report,

Now, building has all but stopped. Home prices in San Joaquin County have fallen 63 perecent since the peak median price of $451,500 in November 2005, according to MDA DataQuick. .. In San Joaquin County, ... 1 in 104 [had received a foreclosure filing]-- nearly double the California average....

Much of the economy consisted of home building and the associated real estate, insurance and financial activity. All that is dead these days. Unemployment in San Joaquin Country was 16.6 percent in August and that masks local variations that show a rate higher than 25 percent in some areas.

I last worked on an election in Tracy in 2006 when Democrat Jerry McNerney knocked off long time sleazebag Republican Congressman Richard Pombo, a local rancher. By highlighting the incumbent's ethical lapses and building a progressive, environmentally-focussed coalition, McNerney scored an upset that was underpinned by the changing demographics of the district as newcomers flooded into previously agricultural areas. To understand the magnitude of McNerney's victory, you have to know that this is the only California Congressional district that has changed party since the current boundaries went into effect in 2002. Democrats and Republicans agreed then to an incumbent protection map that ensured little change in who held office. Who lived in McNerney's district had changed and so we were able to swing that one to the Dems.

But the area still has deeply Republican areas and a loud Tea Bagger variant. This time around, McNerney is very much at risk. According to Nate Silver, the Republican challenger has a 55 percent of taking the seat. Recent polls show that more than 70 percent of CA-11 voters think the country is on the wrong track, a tough hill for any incumbent. McNerney has been doing the right things, such as bringing federal foreclosure assistance funds into the county, but this will be a tough race.

I'd like to keep Jerry McNerney in office. That's why I wanted to canvass in Tracy. What were voters thinking? Some observations on that in the next post.

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