CVIndependent

Thu12122019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

On May 9, 2017, Gov. Jerry Brown appointed former state assemblymember V. Manuel Perez to serve the remainder of the term of the late John Benoit, the Riverside County District 4 supervisor.

On June 5, Perez will attempt to hold on to the seat, but he’s facing a formidable challenge from Palm Desert City Councilmember Jan Harnik. While June 5 is considered the primary election, these two experienced Coachella Valley politicos will get no primary testing ground—because in their two-person race, one of them will almost certainly get a majority of the vote, avoiding a general-election contest and getting elected to a new four-year term.

“I think it’s important that people realize the magnitude of what this (campaign) means for the 4th District and for the county of Riverside as a whole,” Perez said during a recent phone interview. “This is the first time in years that we will see an (almost) new Board of Supervisors, and (it could be) a very diverse group, which I think is important to recognize.

“I am running because I’ve always felt a deep sense of responsibility to public service, and that dates back to me growing up as a kid on the east side of the Coachella Valley. But I’m also running because I believe that we need to have a voice that unites both sides of the valley. I believe I can do that.”

Perez is a Democrat, while Harnik is a Republican—but the supervisors’ seat is considered nonpartisan.

“I’m fortunate that I’ve always worked in nonpartisan positions,” Harnik said during a recent phone interview. “So my job has always been to do what’s best and to approach issues with logic and common sense—and, in fact, what is attractive to me in the supervisor position is exactly that. It’s nonpartisan, but, yes, I will carry my values. Yes, I am fiscally conservative, and I don’t believe in spending more than you have. But I don’t have to listen to somebody at the party and at a higher level telling me what is best.”

We asked each candidate about the most pressing issues they’d like to address.

“We have to make sure that we provide public safety in an effective manner,” Harnik said. “That’s the high-quality public safety that, I think, people deserve—but I think we have to get the budget in order before we can do much. The budget is $5.5 billion, and the revenue for that budget is $5.22 billion. Running in the red is unsustainable, and doing things like voting to spend $40 million on an outside consulting firm (KPMG, in this case) to find efficiencies and see how the county can spend their money better is a bad idea. Bringing in outside agencies to do those kinds of things are simply done now when people don’t want to make the tough decisions. … I will not shy away from tough decisions.”

Perez identified a host of critical concerns held by various segments of the county’s voters.

“I think the top issues to deal with are homelessness and behavioral-health efforts; continuing to support our veterans; and obviously, our economy and jobs are a major concern, as well as quality-of-life issues such as the Salton Sea, air pollution and asthma rates, infrastructure including sidewalks, and safe routes to schools,” Perez said.

Perez touted his governing experience and skills.

“What I think sets me apart from my opponent is not only do I have the education—having attended local schools, being a (University of California at Riverside) graduate, and then going off to Harvard University and coming back home—but I also have experience in policymaking, (on the) local city council, school board, and especially at the state level,” Perez said. “I learned how to connect the dots. I’m able to pick up the phone and call the speaker (of the California State Assembly) on a specific issue, and I’m able to text (Assemblymember) Eduardo Garcia or (U.S. Representative) Dr. Raul Ruiz and ask them how are we going to deliver a message to pass the Desert Healthcare District expansion so that we can get it in front of the voters. I think my opponent can’t compare to that—not that I’m better than her, but I’ve been very fortunate to hold these positions in my career.”

Both candidates have amassed considerable campaign chests. As of Dec. 31, Perez reported roughly $552,000 in donations, while Harnik showed close to $400,000, which included a $20,000 posthumous donation made by the John Benoit campaign fund. When we spoke with Perez in April, he updated his fundraising total to roughly $730,000.

“We knew early on that this was going to be a very expensive campaign,” Perez said.

We asked both candidates whether it was appropriate that they were receiving funds from donors who list their addresses as being not just outside of Riverside County—but completely out of state. The year-end reports showed nearly 3 percent of Perez’s contributions came from out of state, as did 5.4 percent of Harnik’s.

“I did notice that she had quite a lot of contributions from throughout the U.S., and it’s perfectly legal, so OK,” Perez said. “If I had access to all those individuals, I would probably be doing the same thing. I will say, though, that Riverside County is a bit antiquated when it comes to the rules around fundraising.”

Harnik said the large number of donors she has is evidence of her appeal.

“I hope you noticed how many donations I have; I have far more donors, because these are real people donating to me,” she said. “Now, the issue with the geography: Keep in mind that a lot of these people will say, ‘Well, I don’t vote here, so why would I donate to your campaign?’ Quite often, my answer is, ‘Because you own a home here, and you bought here because you like the quality of life here. You may not vote here. You may vote somewhere else because you’re only here three, four or five months a year, but you want to maintain the quality of life, and you want to protect your investment.’”

We asked the candidates if they had a specific message they wanted to share with voters.

“Never in close to eight years on the City Council have I missed a City Council meeting,” Harnik said. “That’s a great example of my work ethic. I work hard, and I come to every meeting prepared. I believe in this region, and I do believe there are some things that we really have to look at differently than we have. I can do that. I have the energy. I have the work ethic, and I’ll show up.”

Perez said: “I’m very honored to be in this role, and I don’t take it for granted. I know that people really loved former Supervisor John Benoit. I know I have to continue some of his legacy, and I have to create my own. I get that. It may not seem either sexy or specific, but I’m proud of the fact that we’ve been able to pass and carry policy, and keep staff as well as hire new staff to keep the momentum going (while) learning the nuances of the infrastructure at the Riverside County level. It’s a lot of work.”

Published in Politics

In 2000, Riverside County agreed to a settle a dispute with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development which was triggered after 24 Coachella Valley families filed complaints. According to HUD archives, the complaints stated “that Riverside County had targeted Hispanic-owned and -occupied mobile home parks for selective and discriminatory enforcement of its health and safety code and regulations.”

"The enforcement agreement is a major victory for a largely disenfranchised population, compensating victims of housing discrimination and resulting in a multi-million-dollar cooperative effort to build housing and provide needed services to farmworkers throughout the area for years to come," said Ilene Jacobs, then the director of litigation for California Rural Legal Assistance, which represented the farmworkers in the case. (The statement came from a HUD news release.)

Today—a decade and a half later—the county is still working on upholding its end of the settlement.

In December, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors, by a vote of 4-0, approved an agreement with the Galilee Center—an organization that works to fill the needs of the underprivileged and disadvantaged—to construct and operate a facility in downtown Mecca that will provide permanent shower, restroom and laundry services for migrant farmworkers in the eastern Coachella Valley.

Such a facility was one of numerous mandated remedies to be undertaken by Riverside County as part of that 2000 HUD settlement.

“We call it Plaza Esperanza,” Galilee Center president and founder Gloria Gomez said recently. “It’s for the farmworkers, but anybody will able to use it, especially the people who are in the streets. … ‘Esperanza’ means ‘hope’ in English, because the people have been waiting so many years for these showers and laundry facilities.”

Riverside County District 4 Supervisor John Benoit said he has worked for years to find the right strategy to bring this facility to fruition.

“For some years, we have had a horrible facility that offered some of these comfort services, but it was quite a way outside of downtown Mecca,” Benoit said. “Then a few years ago, some people I know who have been involved in great nonprofit human health and services experiences in the valley decided to open up the Galilee Center in Mecca. … So I went to them and said, ‘This potentially could be a great cooperative effort where instead of spending the money to build a completely new facility and figure out how to manage it, we could work together.’

“I’m very pleased that notion has come to fruition and is nearly operational. They’re going to offer a lot of amenities that we could never have offered at just a simple shower and cleanliness facility. Certainly, it will be an asset to the community.”

Gomez elaborated on the Galilee Center’s plans.

“We’re going to have 12 showers for men and 12 showers for women,” she said. “The shower and laundry areas are being paid for by the Riverside County funds. We’re fundraising to build a large family community room where we’ll have televisions for the people and computer stations to help them search for jobs on the Internet. Also, we want to have classes to help give instruction to people who don’t know how to write their names.”

A December press release from Benoit’s office mentioned that $1.2 million in funds were designated for the comfort-station construction. Gomez said that won’t quite cover all costs.

“We’re bringing in extensions for the gas, water and sewer lines from Second Street,” Gomez said. “That’s pretty far away, so it’s expensive to bring those utilities to our site.”

The Riverside County Board of Supervisors has also agreed to provide $75,000 per year in operational funding for the new facility, which is slated to open May 18. Will that prove sufficient?

“We will be open November through March and again May through July,” said Gomez. “And during those months, our daily hours will be Monday through Friday from 1 to 7 p.m., while Saturdays and Sundays will be from noon to 6 p.m.

“During the other months, we will have the community room open and available. This first year of operations, we will find out exactly what the costs will be—especially during the hottest summer months, since the facility is going to be air-conditioned.”

Benoit praised all the work the Galilee Center has done and continues to do. “I think it’s great when you see the government able to work with these walking saints like Gloria Gomez and (Galilee Center CFO and co-founder) Claudia Castorena, because they’re trying to do the right thing for their community.”

Even after the HUD settlement and other initiatives over the past 15 years, the quality of life for our valley’s migrant-worker community needs improvement.

“There is an ongoing need for food. Right now, every Thursday, we have between 300 and 500 families who come to get food staples for the week,” Gomez said. “An even bigger need is health issues. Mental health is a big issue on this side of the valley. Our people need rental assistance and utility assistance. Some of the farmworkers work hard their entire lives to put food on our tables, but now they’re retired and receive no government assistance, because they’ve been undocumented. We encounter so many different problems and situations with this population. We can only do so much.”

If you’d like to contribute to the success of Plaza Esperanza—the Galilee Center is in special need of shampoo, soaps and towels (white towels are preferred because they’re easier to wash), as well as toothbrushes, toothpaste and small bottles of mouthwash—call the Galilee Center at 760-396-9100, or visit galileecenter.org.

Published in Local Issues

While a storm-water master plan exists for some undeveloped areas of Coachella Valley, residents will continue to suffer from the consequences of inadequate storm-water infrastructure for years to come, due to a lack of funding

Portions of the east valley learned this lesson the hard way on Monday, Sept. 8, when storms—including the remnants of Hurricane Norbert—flooded portions of Mecca, Thermal and other communities.

In many of the unincorporated communities, storm-water systems have yet to be installed, said Mark Johnson, director of engineering for the Coachella Valley Water District.

Mecca and North Shore, for example, are both subject to flooding, even though the master plan for the areas identifies what is needed to provide necessary flood protection. Needed flood control systems would be designed and constructed in the future in accordance with master planning for the area, Johnson said.

“I think the (residents of) unincorporated areas are aware of the fact that they don’t have regional storm-water protection, and hopefully, their homes are built above the 100-year storm levels,” Johnson said. “Until regional flood protection comes for these unincorporated areas, they’re really subject their local environment.”

Mecca and North Shore do receive some flood protection from the East Side Detention Dike. However, the dike is not recognized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency as a flood-control facility to provide regional flood protection, according to Johnson. The district plans to get the dike certified in the future, he added.

The Coachella Valley Water District has five master-plans projects: North Cathedral City, Thousand Palms, North Indio, Mecca/North Shore and the Oasis area. However, the district doesn’t have the funding to complete the plans; the total cost is estimated to be more than $1 billion, Johnson said.

Therefore, except for a few select projects, the current infrastructure is expected to remain relatively unchanged, and future projects will need to be funded through the water district and/or developer projects, Johnson said.

Johnson said reviews are done to ensure homes constructed in unincorporated areas are located above flooding areas, he said.

Some of the issues with flooding and water buildup are due to homes being built without a permit, and the fact that some were built before permits were required, according to Riverside County Supervisor John Benoit.

“There was no requirement or planning or retention basin put in place on those properties,” Benoit said. “You can’t put people out on the streets, but you can’t force them to improve it now. It’s unfortunate in some cases, but there’s not a lot the county can do, particularly where housing has been developed without proper engineering.”

Margarita Gamez, a Thermal resident, said she sees issues arise whenever there is heavy rain or flooding. She said kids are sometimes unable to make it to school because of the water, and no one comes to drain the puddles.

“They need to make larger and deeper channels,” said Gamez, who has lived in Thermal for 20 years. “It rains very little here, but when it rains in Indio, all the water comes here.”

Gamez said she has voiced her concerns to Pueblo Unido Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization that works to provide better housing, infrastructure and economic-development opportunities in the eastern Coachella Valley.

Organization members have recommended that the county install adequate storm systems in order to prevent flooding, said Sergio Carranza, executive director of the organization.

“A very good efficient storm-water system can be implemented even if you don’t have the infrastructure you have in a city,” Carranza said. “It’s becoming very alarming. Those are remote areas, and very few people pay attention to them.”

Carranza said the county needs to find a way to develop storm-water systems, especially along Pierce Street, where Gamez lives, which he believes is one of the most flood-prone areas. The area from Avenue 66 going south all the way to Avenue 81 is particularly prone to flooding, he said.

Samuel Castro, a Thermal resident of nearly 33 years, also lives along Pierce and said when there are storms, cars are unable to pass because of the flooding. He said if there were an emergency, an ambulance wouldn’t be able to reach residents.

“There are a lot of families here,” Castro said. “When storms hit, it gets really ugly, and the streets flood. I would like to see them fix the channels here.”

Published in Local Issues

V. Manuel Perez was uncharacteristically feisty and aggressive when the Independent recently spoke to him about the final push in his campaign for the Riverside County District 4 Board of Supervisors seat, against incumbent Supervisor John Benoit.

“Benoit claims credit for efforts that are not even his, because I think he lacks substance,” said Perez, who is currently a member of the state Assembly. “He lacks vision, and he’s part of an effort that’s business as usual—and that’s getting old.”

Perez cites a bill that he sponsored as an example. “We passed legislation (AB 1318) for the Sentinel power plant,” built by Competitive Power Ventures in Desert Hot Springs and operational since May 2013, Perez said. “My opponent continues to claim that it was him who went to the east side of the valley and paved the road to the east side. Well, guess what? Where did he get that money from? That money came from the $53 million in mitigation funds that came from the build-out of that plant. We, at the state level, and I authored that legislation, and made sure that the money was in there.”

Benoit—a former member of the state Assembly and Senate—took exception to Perez’s statements.

“Well, first of all, the bill was Perez-Benoit, and I was the co-author, and I worked very, very hard with him, and, in fact, we could debate who carried more of the weight, but it was not just Mr. Perez in the Legislature passing that. There were a lot of people who weighed in,” Benoit said.

Benoit was a state senator when the original bill was introduced in the Assembly by Perez. A version of the bill listed on the Legislature’s website does cite Benoit as a co-author.

“The money was available, but it would not have happened without the county, at my request, putting together a single proposal for 31 parks that totaled over $4 million,” Benoit said. “So he can whine about not getting enough credit. I give credit to him at appropriate locations and times, and certainly everyone knows that he was the author of the bill.”

Perez also criticized Benoit for delaying the funding of renewable-energy projects in Riverside County. He spoke with pride about his Assembly initiatives and said they enabled the “fast-tracking, signing and permitting of renewable energy projects throughout rural California, and specifically in this (Riverside County) area, and that there was $7 million attached to that as well. … Imperial County applied for those monies a year ago and received $700,000, while Riverside County did not apply, because they were in the middle of a battle with the solar industry, because of John Benoit’s lack of understanding and stubbornness.

“He wanted to impose a property tax that was exorbitant that ultimately made the solar industry move to other areas, and we lost projects as a result of that. But finally, Riverside County did apply this year, because I reintroduced legislation, and they did receive $700,000 for the building of more renewables.”

Not surprisingly, Benoit had a different perspective. “That’s absolute nonsense,” Benoit said. “His bill contained so many flaws and required so much accounting in terms of matching funds and so forth that not only Riverside, but other counties, passed on the first go-around. He realized that, came back and drafted new regulations that fixed the problems in the first bill.

“The bill in its original form would have cost more than we would receive in benefits. So he fixed it, and now he’s claiming for political reasons that it was our lack of diligence the first year—but what about the other counties and all the other staff that looked at it and came to the same conclusion?”

As for property-tax initiative referred to by Perez: “My opponent has tried to make it sound like the only reason at all that any solar project in the last five years has been changed or didn’t move forward is this fee,” Benoit said. “Changing transmission rates for solar power, changes in the technology and the lack of available financing has caused many projects to change directions or go away. The fee had nothing to do with it.”

With the election in the winner-take-all primary just days away, how do the candidates assess their chances for victory?

“My team feels good about where we are and our position,” Perez said. “Our polling looks good. But ultimately, it’s about who gets out that vote, and that 15 to 20 percent who are undecided. Independents don’t care whether one is a Democrat or a Republican. What they care about is the one who produces.”

Benoit said that many people don’t realize the primary, since there are only two candidates, will determine the winner. “We’re working very hard right up to the end, but I’m confident based on polling that we’re going to prevail very strongly. I have had people say, ‘What do you think about your chances in November?’ And I say, ‘Wait a minute: You do understand that with only two of us, it’s going to be one of us in June?’

“But that will work itself out, because there are only two choices, and the one who gets the most votes will be the winner, because one of us will have more than 50 percent. Even my advanced math tells me that.”

Published in Politics

Unless you’re one of those people targeted to receive vitriolic mailers from candidates blasting other candidates, you may not even know there’s a primary election taking place in California on Tuesday, June 3.

Even if you do know about the election: Are you one of those who doesn’t think it really matters—and might blow off voting?

Midterm elections are notorious for low turnouts, largely because the hype isn’t as great. They’re the elections in which nasty low blows and last-minute revelations dominate, yet they are often the elections which affect us most: city council members, judges, county supervisors, sheriffs and school board members are chosen. These are the offices closest to our everyday lives, and yet only the most ardent citizens follow these elections.

In the Coachella Valley, we have a couple of really interesting races, especially in light of the new open primary that means all candidates are in the same race, and the top two finishers, regardless of party affiliation, go into a final runoff election in November. California voters approved this by ballot initiative in 2010, another midterm lower-turnout election, apparently hoping it would end political gridlock. So much for that notion. If you don’t like this system, you should have voted against it.

As I recall, Republicans pushed for this open primary, because they felt they were getting completely shut out of California politics in this largely Democratic state. Its supporters claimed to want all parties to have an equal chance. That’s why you’ll see Democrats, Republicans, Peace and Freedom, and Green party candidates all running on this ballot, as well as some candidates who don’t identify with any party.

One of the offices up this election is Riverside County supervisor. We have the chance to fill this one seat with what would be the only non-Republican on that panel—and the first Hispanic, V. Manuel Perez. He was recently appointed as majority floor leader of the California Assembly, but he is termed out and cannot run again for that seat. Perez is running against present County Supervisor John Benoit. These are the people who decide how county funds are spent, and oversee programs that cater to populations and nonprofit efforts at the local level. How often have you heard complaints that the supervisors don’t take enough interest in our end of the county? This is a chance to impact who sits in that seat.

In the newly designated State Senate District 28—formed through redistricting and covering the desert communities, southwest Riverside County and Corona—the open primary is taking center stage. Drawn to be a Republican district (fair or not, that’s the way these things get done), the 28th has an active campaign that’s not always pleasant to watch, especially because it’s an “open” seat, meaning there is no incumbent with a presumed advantage up for re-election.

Four Republicans are running alongside two Democrats. Philip Drucker, a local attorney and educator, is a first-time candidate; he’s a lifelong Democrat, though he’s not well-known in local Democratic politics. The other is Anna Nevenic, who has run for various offices in the past, and is considered by local Democrats as something of a political gadfly.

On the Republican side, four candidates are vying for votes. Bill Carns is a business owner who is seen as having little chance to pull many votes. The other three Republican candidates are all political veterans who are running very hard campaigns.

Bonnie Garcia previously served in Sacramento, and was known for a while as the woman who wouldn’t “kick (Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger) out of my bed”; she has responded strongly to attacks on her integrity and family issues by her opponents.

Jeff Stone is a county supervisor who touts that he knows firsthand as a medical professional (owner of a compounding pharmacy) that Obamacare is a disaster. Of course, the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) is already law, is not on the ballot, and is not administered by county supervisors.

The Riverside County Young Republicans and Coachella Valley Young Republicans endorsed Garcia. The Southwest Young Republicans of Riverside County are going with Stone.

Also on the ballot for this Senate seat is Republican Glenn Miller, City Councilmember and former mayor of Indio. Miller describes himself as a fiscal conservative with progressive views on “social issues,” saying he supports abortion rights and gay marriage. He has recently been endorsed by no less than Equality California, a gay-marriage activist organization, and by some local Democrats (although these endorsements do not yet appear on his website).

These endorsements have caused no end of dissent among local Democrats, who ask: Why endorse a primary vote for a Republican, when there is a credible Democrat on the ballot? Wouldn’t that mean there is less likelihood that the Democrat might be one of the top two vote-getters? Or are they willing to bet on a friendly Republican, assuming any Democratic candidate will lose in the final election, anyway?

Some Republicans ask whether they can support a candidate who has gotten support from Democrats, especially pro-gay-marriage activists. Doesn’t that mean he’s a RINO—a Republican in Name Only? Are they saying not to vote for Miller because he might actually get elected? Is ideology more important than winning?

Since the district is presumed to be majority Republican, and since it’s not a bad bet that the primary will result in two Republicans being the highest vote-getters, why shouldn’t the Democrats hedge their bets and support the moderate Republican who could be a friendly ear in the State Senate? Remember the Rush Limbaugh “Vote for Hillary” campaign to hurt the Obama campaign, assuming Hillary could be beaten by John McCain?

I thought this kind of crap was what the open primary system was supposed to eliminate. What happened to caring about why they’re running, and how they plan to address issues and policies that matter to us?

Are you willing to let these decisions be made by political hacks playing games, or will you fulfill your responsibility as an American citizen, do some homework (the links are all here) and show up to vote for the best candidate?

The primary election is Tuesday, June 3. You don’t have to vote for everything on the ballot for your vote to count. But if you don’t vote, you don’t get to complain about the results.

Full disclosure: I have interviewed Philip Drucker and Glenn Miller on my radio show. I have not publicly endorsed anyone. Podcasts are available at www.KNewsRadio.com.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

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.

Published in Politics

Residents of Thermal scored a major victory in their 16-year fight for clean air when Riverside County was awarded the funding to pave the roads of 31 trailer parks in the unincorporated communities of Eastern Coachella Valley.

The $4.1 million project is scheduled to begin as early as next summer, and should be completed within two years.

“When cars pass by, they lift a lot of dust, and it affects everyone that lives here,” said Margarita Gamez, a resident who has been active in the grassroots effort since 1997.

In 2008, Pueblo Unido, a community-development corporation, joined the fight for improved environmental conditions in the region’s trailer parks, which are typically situated in areas that lack potable water, sewer systems and basic infrastructure.

Trailer-park residents were the backbone of the organizing effort, and the idea to push for paved roads came from them, said Sergio Carranza, executive director and founder of Pueblo Unido.

“I’m just facilitating the project,” he added

Carranza said that dust and fine-particulate pollution from the unpaved roads are linked to the prevalence of asthma and respiratory problems among the many families who live in the trailer parks. The paved roads will also improve accessibility for residents and alleviate another major problem in these communities: flooding caused by heavy rains.

A Long-Awaited Opportunity

Pueblo Unido saw hope for funding when the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) began accepting proposals for environmentally friendly projects, funded by AB 1318 emission-mitigation fees from the Sentinel Energy Project. Meetings were held in number of Riverside County locations to gather community input—but many in the eastern Coachella Valley felt left out of the conversation.

“There were only public hearings being made in the western Coachella Valley,” said Carranza. “We (Pueblo Unido) made sure that the eastern Coachella Valley was taken care of, too.”

Pueblo Unido received backing for their roads proposal from Assemblyman V. Manuel Perez, who introduced AB 1318 in 2009, and Riverside County Supervisor John Benoit, who co-authored the bill when he was a state senator. As a result, county officials and held meetings in the eastern Coachella Valley.

“We had a lot of public hearings all over the valley on how this money should be spent. One of the witnesses was a young boy from the eastern Coachella Valley. He had to walk to school every day of his life. He felt that the air quality affected him greatly. (His story) impacted me and other members that are working on this project,” said Benoit, who is a member of the SCAQMD governing board.

SCAQMD, the manager of the mitigation-fee funds, entered into a contract with Riverside County to pave approximately 8.3 miles of unpaved roads within 31 mobile home parks containing 483 mobile-home units.

According to Darin Schemmer, communications director for Benoit, “The actual construction may begin as early as summer 2014. The remaining steps the Riverside County Transportation Department needs to take include completing the design and CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) environmental document, (and) preparing, advertising, bidding and awarding a construction contract.”

The county, in turn, has contracted with Pueblo Unido to continue to be the liaison to the community that came together to make their needs heard.

“I advocated strongly that AQMD must provide technical assistance to grantees, and ultimately, we convinced them to do so. Another thing we did was encourage smaller, community-based grantees, to the extent possible, to partner with agencies that had the resources and capacity to present a strong application,” said Perez. “Such was the case of Pueblo Unido in partnering with Riverside County for the successful paving project.”

"Trail" Would Connect East, West Valley

More than $17 million of the $53 million mitigation fee fund total was awarded to CV Link, a proposed 52-mile multipurpose trail from Palm Springs to Mecca. Tourism leaders aggressively pushed for these funds on the grounds that the entire Coachella Valley would benefit.

Not everyone in the eastern Coachella Valley believes that would be the case.

“The road from Palm Springs to Mecca doesn’t benefit us. It only benefits wealthier communities,” said Gamez, who believes the trail is being geared toward tourists.

Perez, however, said he sees the environmental benefits of both the trail project and the paving project at the trailer parks.

“One of the things we have emphasized from the beginning is the need for an equitable distribution of grant-funding, so that many worthwhile projects and grantees would be able to use their ingenuity and community know-how to address local air quality concerns,” he said.

With the paving project now in place, Carranza said Pueblo Unido would continue listening to and organizing residents of these rural communities, in their quest for a better living environment. Future projects include a water-purification system and the opening of a learning center.

Alejandra Alarcon is a reporter for Coachella Unincorporated, a youth media startup in the east Coachella Valley, funded by the Building Healthy Communities Initiative of the California Endowment and operated by New America Media in San Francisco. Brenda Rincon is Coachella Unincorporated’s professional adviser. The purpose is to report on issues in the community that can bring about change. “Coachella Unincorporated” refers to the region youth journalists cover, but also to the unincorporated communities of the Eastern Valley with the idea to “incorporate” the East Valley into the mainstream Coachella Valley mindset. For more information, visit coachellaunincorporated.org.

Published in Local Issues

Government workers! Political appointees!

Those people—and we love to trash them.

Elected officials, whether at the local, county or state level, need professional staff to help them represent us, the people who elected them. Political staff are literally public-service employees: They represent an elected official by serving the public.

Recent studies indicate that public-employee salaries, with benefits included, may lag a bit behind the salaries of private-sector workers. The average annual salary for a political staff job is $59,000, near the mean that defines “middle class.”

When economic times are tough, and politicians want to score points, we hear lots of calls for “those people” to lose their jobs—implying that we don’t need them.

But who are “those people,” and what exactly do they do?

Pat Cooper, born in Blythe and currently living in Indio, did not grow up in a political household. She became issue-oriented when she joined the National Organization for Women in the Coachella Valley in the early 1990s.

“Issues invoke a passion,” says Pat. “I was very invested in the issue of women’s rights, and that started me on a road to activism. I remember when we defended the abortion clinic in Palm Desert, to ensure women could enter the clinic without harassment. That was standing up for an issue I believed in.”

Pat moved on to electoral politics, working on the campaign of Julie Bornstein, then running for re-election to the California Assembly.

“Activism is issue-driven. Policy is community-driven. The only way to (make sure) your issues will get addressed is via the political process. I wanted to help get someone elected who would champion the things I felt were important and could enact them into policy.”

Pat eventually landed on the staff of State Sen. Denise Ducheny, who represented the eastern portion of the Coachella Valley, part of San Diego County, and all of Imperial County.

“My job was to outreach with the professional communities—farm owners, businesses, chambers of commerce, developers, Salton Sea principals, manufacturers,” she says. “I was their liaison to the senator’s office and gathered the kinds of information that would influence her policy-making at the state level.

“One of the most valuable things I learned was how to craft policy for the best outcome for the community and to compromise across the political spectrum. I also had to learn how to effectively interface with other officials' staff people. There are rules about all that, and it’s important to learn those protocols so that things can get done without stepping on anyone’s toes.”

After Sen. Ducheny was termed out of office, Pat returned to school to fulfill her dream of teaching. However, another call came that changed her mind.

Pat, a lifelong Democrat, was asked by Supervisor John Benoit, a Republican, to join his staff. Benoit was appointed to represent the 4th District after the death of Roy Wilson, a Republican with strong ties across party lines, and was then elected to a full term in 2010. Benoit assured Pat that his goal was to emulate the same nonpartisan approach to the job that Wilson had.

“I told Supervisor Benoit that there were some things on which I would draw the line, and he assured me that those few bottom-line issues would not present a problem. Although many of my political friends have been aghast that I would take a job working for a Republican, I have found Benoit good to his word.

“I’m proud that I’m doing a nonpartisan job to help formulate policies that are intended to benefit all constituents.”

Claudia Galvez, of La Quinta, was also in Sen. Ducheny’s office, and worked alongside Pat.

“I was born in Mexcali and lived my early life in Mexico, although my mom was born in Indio. Because I speak fluent Spanish, I was able to do effective outreach for Senator Ducheny directly into the community—with farmworkers, social service agencies, veterans, and on health and education issues.

“My mother was an inspiration when it came to being a strong woman. She had been left with nothing when my dad died when I was 5, and she had six children to raise. My mom always worked full-time. I thought women who stayed home must be lazy!

“Eventually we moved to Indio. I remember when there were 10 of us in a studio apartment—brothers, sisters, everyone struggling to find our place in the community. My dad had been a news reporter in Mexico—he was the political person in our house. My interest in becoming active began in school in Mexico, when we successfully demonstrated to get a principal reinstated who had been fired.”

Prior to her work with Sen. Ducheny, Claudia spent years organizing farmworker women. She was co-founder of Mujeres Mexicanas in the Coachella Valley. That social/political group later became Lideres Campesinas, a statewide organization created by farmworker women for farmworker women.

“We raised consciousness on issues like exposure to pesticides, pregnancy, sexual harassment and domestic violence. We advocated for basic human rights, like drinkable water, and portable bathrooms with running water and toilet paper. Before that, women had to walk miles from the fields to use a bathroom. It was wrong and unacceptable.

“Politics is the profession of getting things done by government for the benefit of the people, and these women wanted to elect people who would represent them and their issues. I wanted them to be empowered.”

Claudia is currently director of public affairs for Clinicas de Salud del Pueblo.

Both Pat and Claudia show disdain for politicians who, in their words, forget who put them there. It’s not just about the issues; it’s about making a difference for the people who will be affected.

Neither Pat nor Claudia has any apparent interest in running for political office themselves. But when it comes to understanding how to gather information and help frame policies that represent benefit to all constituents, they have the experience and street smarts to get things done.

Remember them the next time you decry public service employees. We need more like them.

Anita Rufus is also known as "The Lovable Liberal," and her radio show airs every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

Over the last decade in the Coachella Valley (and Riverside County overall), there has been a seismic political shift that is not related to the proximity of the San Andreas Fault.

In 2004, as the presidential election drew near, the Republican Party in Riverside County held a voter-registration advantage of 12.5 percentage points over the Democratic Party.

Four years later, that Republican advantage had dwindled to slightly more than 5 percentage points. And in 2012, as the race between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney neared its climax, the Democratic Party had narrowed the gap to just 4.5 percentage points.

According to data released on May 20 by the California Secretary of State, that differential is now just 4.1 percentage points.

It’s no surprise that many political insiders in Riverside County attribute the Democrats’ surprising wins at the polls last November—Obama actually beat Romney by almost 11,000 votes in the county, and Dr. Raul Ruiz edged out incumbent Rep. Mary Bono Mack to get elected to Congress—to the party’s effective voter-enlistment drive over the last decade.

“When we opened our headquarters five years ago (in Cathedral City), we realized that one of the most important activities we could pursue was voter registration,” explained Elle Kurpiewski, the manager of the aforementioned headquarters and a former president of the Democrats of the Desert. “Our facility plays host to 11 different Democratic clubs and organizations in the region; we sponsor a booth at the weekly Thursday night Palm Springs Village Fest; and in 2008, we had 27 semi-permanent voter-registration sites established.”

Other factors have impacted the registered-voter landscape, too. One was the California online voter registration legislation that took effect in 2012 and is credited with enabling some 800,000 new voters statewide to join the electoral rolls prior to the 2012 general election. This new registration method proved particularly effective in attracting eligible voters among the young and minority groups, favoring Democrats statewide by a 2-to-1 margin over Republicans. (There are no specific numbers for Riverside County available yet.)

“Our only concern was whether online registration would actually work: Would voters be able to navigate the system successfully to get registered?” Kurpiewski said. “What we want is that people take advantage of their constitutional right to vote. If it works and helps stop registration fraud, then we’re in favor of it.”

Another major factor is the rapid growth of the Latino population statewide. According to the California Department of Finance, by early 2014, Latinos will outnumber white people by early 2014. Along with the Latino segment’s rapid growth comes these political realities: While only 44 percent of eligible Latino voters in the state had registered, more than 60 percent of them identified themselves as Democrats; meanwhile, only about 15 percent said they were Republicans, according to the Public Policy Institute of California in an analysis released earlier this year.

Therein lies both an opportunity and a challenge for the two major political parties.

“I always say that the Republican Party in Riverside County has three ongoing and equally important goals: voter registration, fundraising and get-out-the-vote efforts,” said Randon Lane, chairman of the Republican Party of Riverside County. “I will speak to any organization, representing any constituency, about the Republican Party message and values. Right now, it’s important for us to get outside the box to attract both new voters to register as Republicans, and convert those who may not completely understand our message and are registered now with other major parties.”

Kurpiewski said local Democrats have made specific efforts to reach Latino communities in Coachella, Indio and Mecca. “But our focus is not just the Latino community; we care about everyone. In all ethnic communities, we enlist participants who are members of that community and have skills and expertise unique to their community. They know their neighbors and can identify the areas where our voter registration outreach will succeed. Our whole thing is working together with the communities that make up Coachella Valley, and that has made us successful in turning this valley blue.”

All eyes are now on the 2014 Riverside County Board of Supervisors race between challenger V. Manuel Perez, a Democrat, and Republican incumbent John Benoit. Just how much of the voter-registration focus in Riverside County will be on recruiting Latino citizens?

“There are a lot of shared voter concerns that we speak to as a party in our outreach efforts, whether at meetings, via social media or direct mail,” said Lane, “but particular voter segments have their specific issues that we want to address. The Republican Party wants to speak to the Latino community’s concerns, just as we need to address concerns in the black, Asian, white or any ethnic constituency where voters will consider supporting the Republican Party.”

Kurpiewski said local Democrats are in the process of starting a major voter-registration drive this month. “I’d rather not share details, because we don’t want to give opposing parties a preview of our strategy, but we are very confident that this effort will enable us to accomplish everything we can to help V. Manuel Perez to get elected, and also to keep U.S. Congressman Raul Ruiz in office,” she said.

Published in Politics

Duroville is synonymous with abject poverty, disgusting messes, noxious fumes, electrical fires, feral dogs and sewage ponds. In the backyard of the glitzy Coachella Valley, our fellow humans were allowed to live in conditions like those in the slums of what we call Third World countries.

The park was due to be shut down in 2003 for health and safety violations. And in 2007. And again in 2009. On tribal land near Thermal, Duroville belongs to a man named Harvey Duro Sr., a member of the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians.

At one time, almost 4,000 people lived there. The majority of residents are migrant farm workers, picking vegetables and fruit in the nearby agricultural fields. Most of them moved into a new government-subsidized housing development called Mountain View Estates, just a few miles away, at various stages during 2012. There, they can turn on the tap and see clear water, rather than the brown liquid that would leak out in Duroville.

They have air conditioning. The toilets don’t back up. Wires aren’t hanging out in the open, and raw sewage isn’t forming puddles on the streets.

Yet there are still families living at Duroville, hoping to be re-housed. They may be moved by May 2013.

After the majority of families had left, so, too, did the regular services that residents had been paying for. For weeks, the trash was not picked up.

That is where Rudy Gutierrez, a South Coast Air Quality Management District liaison officer for the east Coachella Valley, came in. Together with the Economic Development Agency (EDA), the office of Riverside County Supervisor John Benoit, and Burrtec, he organized a community cleanup on Saturday, March 30, to help the remaining residents by hauling off any bulk items they wished to get rid of.

Cleaning up Duroville is a massive undertaking, and this was a great start. There will be more cleanups in the future.

Approximately 120 volunteers came, mostly youth, from all over Coachella Valley. There was a girls' softball team, Kaos from La Quinta, composed of mostly sixth-graders. The boys’ boxing and basketball team from Mecca, the Boys and Girls Club and a variety of high school teams from all over the valley were also there. Some of the school teams were receiving a stipend for their volunteering, to benefit their teams.

I joined the teams and the respective adults, and together, we went around Duroville. We asked residents whether they would like to have any items removed. Burrtec’s large dump trucks would follow us around, and we would gather and place items in the bin. In some cases, the families were there to direct us to what they wanted us to take. In other cases, they had already placed items in their yards. Dust and dirt whirled all around as we picked up items ranging from fridges to tables, chairs to broken toys, broken bicycles to pieces of metal. The kids were motivated to help, but we were all very safety-conscious. The relief was evident on the residents’ faces, the thank-yous loud and clear.

The coach of the girls’ softball team said something very poignant when we spoke about participating in the cleanup. He brought the girls out here to do something as a team, outside of softball, and to let them see how others live. He wanted the young athletes to learn to be appreciative of what one has.

Indeed, it is sobering. No one should have to live like that. No one.

The end of Duroville is nigh. The remaining families are anxious to know when they will be moved, and where they will end up. Most of the residents will end up in homes currently being finished in the Mountain View Estates. Others are unsure what the future will bring. Not all residents will qualify to live in Mountain View and thus are looking for alternatives.

After helping with the cleanup, I can’t imagine anywhere that would not be a step up from Duroville.

Published in Local Issues