It’s going to be a busy election year in the Coachella Valley.
Residents of Rancho Mirage will kick things off with a municipal election on April 8, before the spotlight moves to the hotly contested big-name races. Incumbent U.S. Rep. Dr. Raul Ruiz, a Democrat, will be opposed by Republican State Assemblymember Brian Nestande in a fierce battle that could help determine which party controls the U.S. House of Representatives. And Gov. Jerry Brown will be seeking his second term as the 39th governor of California against an as-yet-undetermined Republican candidate.
Down the ballot a bit is the election for Riverside County District 4 supervisor, featuring Republican incumbent John Benoit, and Democrat V. Manuel Perez, who is currently serving as the state assemblymember for the 56th District (which includes the Salton Sea area and much of the northern and eastern parts of the Coachella Valley, including all or parts of Coachella, Indio, Cathedral City and Desert Hot Springs). However, both of the seat’s announced contenders insisted that their race is just as important—if not more important—than the bigger-name contests.
“This seat is very important. In my opinion, it is one of the most important seats in government, if not the most important,” said Perez, who, like Dr. Ruiz, is a graduate of Harvard University and is considered a rising star in Democratic circles. “Many people don’t understand that. For all the policies that I’ll decide at my level, or Congressman Raul Ruiz will decide at his level, county government is where the rubber meets the road.”
Benoit, on this point, agreed with Perez.
“I enjoyed being a senator, and (serving in) the State Senate was an honor and a privilege,” said Benoit. “But nothing I did in the Senate even comes close to the impacts I have, sometimes every week, in the decisions I make here as a member of the Board of Supervisors—real impacts on real projects that are going to have real significance.”
The office of county supervisor is considered a nonpartisan position, although the office can be attained only by enduring a political campaign and an election process. Benoit addressed this contrariety.
“Because this is a nonpartisan office, and most of what we deal with is nonpartisan issues, I would think the biggest distinction between myself and my opponent is that I have 42 years of public-service experience,” he said. “That all helps a lot when you’re managing an office as part of a board responsible for 58 departments and 18,000 employees.”
As for the “nonpartisan” nature of the office he’s seeking, Perez mused: “It’s supposed to be. You know, I’ve been approached by many different entities and different allies on both sides of the aisle—Republicans and Democrats—to run for this seat. I feel that’s because of my work in Sacramento and because of my strong ties within the networks of the leadership there. I’ve worked in a bipartisan way, where (most) of the (policies) I’ve passed have been bipartisan, so I’ll definitely bring independent thinking to the county Board of Supervisors. I feel I’m the person who can bridge through and build up the Coachella Valley.”
What initiatives will be the focus of their respective campaigns? Benoit cited work he’s been doing in Mecca and the East Valley.
“We have the (66th Avenue) overcross and the Comfort Station, which is a legacy issue that we’re working on with the Galilee Center,” he said.
The Mecca Comfort Station would provide “restroom, shower, laundry, and adequate parking facilities to migrant farm workers in Mecca and the surrounding communities,” according to a county document. The Galilee Center assists the underprivileged in the East Valley.
He also pledged to work on the economy of the district.
“Every where you look, there are initiatives for growth and, in particular, solar projects and a vast array of potential renewable projects involved with the Salton Sea moving forward,” Benoit said.
Perez also said he’d focus on the economy.
“Ultimately, jobs and the economy are the No. 1 issue, because we still see a major gap between the rich and the poor,” he said. “In Riverside County, the largest number of poor exist here compared to every county in California, except Imperial County. I’ve got to make sure I deal with regulation, incentives and credits to lure in business.”
Both candidates are acutely aware of the see-saw voter-registration struggle going on in the Coachella Valley. Democrats have been whittling away at the Republican advantage in the county in recent years, although Republicans seemingly stopped that trend in 2013; as of Dec. 31, 2013, Republicans had a 5.14 percent voter-registration edge, according to the California Secretary of State.
“I’m pleased to see that the Republican registration numbers have come back some,” said Benoit. “But frankly, I’m not worried about that. I’m spending as much time or more talking to Democrats, talking to folks in the western part of the valley where I’m not as well-known—and when I talk to them, it has nothing to do with Republican or Democrat. I talk about all of my experience during four years in this supervisor’s office, and that I’m the right choice to continue what I’m doing.”
However, Perez pointed out that District 4 bucks the county trend; according to those same Dec. 31 figures from the Secretary of State, there were 3,600 more registered Democrats than Republicans in District 4.
“We have a 4 percent advantage in District 4,” Perez said. “… Earlier, we laughed about how this is supposed to be a nonpartisan race. Ultimately, we’re going to win this not because of those numbers, but because we’re going to out-work them. The numbers, be what they may be, do exist. But this campaign is going to be won on the ground.”
How do the candidates view their position in the race at this point? As of the end of 2013, Benoit had about $57,000 more in the bank, but Pérez was closing that gap.
“We know we’re way ahead in endorsements … and we certainly have an advantage in fundraising,” said Benoit. “Also, we’ve seen some polling numbers that indicate we’re in very good shape. But we’re putting all that behind us and running like we’re losing, to win.”
Perez also said he expects a close, challenging race.
“Ultimately, people are going to have to make a decision between two individuals who are going to work hard to win this election,” Perez said. “For some voters, this decision may be a tough one. They may have to break loyalties. So, yes, it’s going to be a campaign that, in my hope, causes people to reflect and dig deep inside—not only into their pocketbooks, but into their hearts and minds. They know that I actually care, and they’ll come out and vote for me.”
Below: V. Manuel Perez: “I’ve worked in a bipartisan way, where (most) of the (policies) I’ve passed have been bipartisan, so I’ll definitely bring independent thinking to the county Board of Supervisors. I feel I’m the person who can bridge through and build up the Coachella Valley.” Photo by Kevin Fitzgerald.