Hours before he was scheduled to appear at a much-anticipated Denair town hall meeting, Congressman Jeff Denham dropped by the offices of the Ceres Courier/Turlock Journal to talk about issues facing his 10th Congressional District.
It was a low-key discussion with editors and reporters, one in which Denham repeatedly remarked he was allowed to speak without interruptions he was becoming accustomed to in highly charged town hall meetings.
The forthcoming April 17 town hall meeting itself became the first topic since critics have for months have harped on Denham "hiding from constituents" now that Donald Trump is president. Denham, whose district now is now comprised of only Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties, said he's been hiding from no one and remarked at a Ceres breakfast event - an event which saw no protestors - that he routinely has met one-on-one with some of his loudest detractors. Denham was surprised at the absence of opponents at the Howard Training Center in Ceres, a Ceres Chamber event which apparently flew under the radar of many.
"I was actually surprised," said Denham about the turn-out of the Ceres event." That was an open forum in Ceres; ask me any question you want. I would have stayed there and answered any questions that people had for me. But there are certainly protestors picking and choosing which events to go to."
Denham said he routinely meets with people in his district at mobile district office hours and at "many different events."
The Turlock Republican bristles when he hears claims that he is out of touch with his district.
"I've represented this area now for 14 years. This is my 15th year in office. I think the Central Valley is different from the rest of the country. Some of what I think we're seeing in different areas of the country are shouting matches and I think our town halls, for the most part, have been pretty respectful."
The town hall that night proved to be a shout-down at Denham, similar to the well-publicized raucous events conservative Rep. Tom McClintock has faced in Loomis, Sonora and Roseville, events some believe were shut down by Democratic activist organizations. Leading up to the event, Denham had been accused of dodging a face-to-face with voters as well as using silencing tactics. They said scheduling the venue in Denair was designed to discourage people since they had farther to travel.
"I think it's ridiculous. This is our Turlock Government Night. The only reason we moved it to Larsa Hall ... was because it was the largest location. I wanted to accommodate more people."
Critics also wondered why they had to submit questions in writing beforehand as well as pre-register to attend. Denham said that a pre-registration process to include admittance of people who showed proof of district residency was designed to give preferential treatment to his constituents, but never excluded those living outside the district.
"There's certainly an organized effort to meet me at all of my different community meetings and that's fine and I'm happy to answer them. Some people I see several times and I answer all of their questions every single time and I'm respectful."
Denham said he normally schedules town hall meetings in March after there are bills introduced to discuss with his district.
He said meetings are productive and have caused him to either change his mind or "at least helped me to understand a different aspect of what's happening in my community."
The town hall meeting lasted three hours. Denham called it off out of respect for the time of the two other officials on the dais - Supervisor Vito Chiesa and Turlock Mayor Gary Soiseth.
On the reform of the so-called Affordable Care Act, often referred to as Obamacare, Denham was asked his views on solutions. Increasing access to medical care in the Valley is his primary focus. While it's a good thing that more people have health insurance, said Denham, the federal government has doubled funding to support health centers over the past seven years yet the Valley has a doctor shortage. Denham stressed the need for a U.C. medical school in the Valley and residency programs.
"(California is) 48 out of 50 in the nation for reimbursing our doctors.So first of all, our doctor shortage got worse. The doctors that we do have won't see any new patients and if they do they will not see any Medi-Cal patients. We had huge lines in our emergency rooms before the Affordable Care Act and now they've gotten worse."
Denham pledged to vote "no on the replacement of the Affordable Care Act until we actually address access." But he also called on the governor to step up reimbursements.
He said pre-existing conditions will be a part of the GOP replacement as well as keeping children on their parents' plan until age 26.
"The Affordable Care Act was set up to fail. It does not have the funding possible for the people who are signing up for it that will ever make it solvent. Both Republicans and Democrats know that it's going bankrupt and changes need to be made. That's not a partisan issue."
On immigration, Denham says he's gaining bipartisan support for his ENLIST Act to grant citizenship to the children of those who are in the country illegally if they serve in the U.S. military. He has 175 co-authors on his bill. He is also a co-author of the Bridge Act, bipartisan legislation intended to allow people who are eligible for or who have received work authorization and temporary relief from deportation through Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) to continue living in the U.S. He also supports Rep. Carlos Curbelo's RAC Act, which would give children of illegal aliens three pathways to become U.S. citizens - higher education, service in the armed forces, or work authorization.
"There is nothing in our judicial process which has ever convicted the children of the crimes of their parents so I think we have to address all of the ‘dreamers' altogether," said Denham. "Now I have never made the claim that my ENLIST Act solves all of the problems but it's a start."
Denham said Congress must talk about extended visas and a guest worker program to allow Mexican nationals to fill agricultural jobs.
"When we bring up the omnibus bill, our funding bill that's coming up at the end of the month and funding for the border security wall is in there, I want to make sure we're addressing other parts of immigration."
Denham said he supports the building of the U.S.-Mexico border wall and that the issue is highly politicized today even though then Senator Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer all voted for legislation that including border wall funding.
"We should secure our borders. That shouldn't be a Republican issue. It should be an American issue to make sure that we actually have secure borders. If we can put the technology in place for our war zones, we ought to be able to make sure that we have the technology in place to know who's coming across our border.
"We are a kind nation. We are a nation of immigrants. We want immigrants to come over. We want to know who's coming over, why they're coming over and how they're going to contribute to the greatness of our country, not just arbitrarily sneaking across."
Denham said he is "very concerned" as Democrats in Sacramento push to make California a sanctuary state. He said it makes no sense to shelter felons from the federal criminal data base.
"If you're preying on our community, if you're raping people, if you're selling drugs, do we really want you in our country? This should not be a controversial issue. It should be the rule of law."
Denham said he will remain critical of any president who bypasses Congress to rule by executive order, saying they are "not the way to run a country." He cited Obama's 2012 executive order for DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. That action, he said, "leaves thousands of kids who are very concerned about their future."
Recent state actions to raise the gas and vehicle taxes could help place California in a competitive advantage to receive greater federal highway dollars. But he fears state leaders will find a way to steal transportation dollars during future budget troubles since it promised to pass allocation guarantees the next year.
"I never voted for anything based on some future guarantee," said Denham, who noted the governor recently shifted $1.4 billion from the tobacco tax money in Prop. 56 intended to reimbursement rates for doctors and placed it into the general fund. "You can't have trust in government if you're going to continue deceiving people," charged Denham.
With water perhaps the most important issue for the Valley, Denham said the state is closer to building additional water storage projects than ever before with a president who appears poised to deal with the water crisis.
"He's seen the challenges we've had with the Delta smelt and being able to transfer water. He's also seen Oroville Dam break, our infrastructure that hasn't been taken care of and we've talked about our water shortage. I think we have a president that gets it."
He said California's water problems have been exacerbated by federal regulations that have flushed water out of area reservoirs far beyond what is needed to sustain fish populations. Denham noted policies often conflict with one another, such as requirements to double salmon population and bass populations simultaneously. The policy makes no sense since bass are predatory and kill 97 percent of the salmon making their way back to the Pacific. As a solution, the limit has been raised on the amount of striped bass that can be caught by fishermen.
He said the Sites project is closest to reality with its level of bipartisan support and funding. Raising Shasta Dam is more controversial but U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein recently spoke in favor of it.
Denham spoke the need for more off-stream storage projects for flood protection, similar to Turlock Lake which is storage from the Tuolumne River east of Modesto.
"If we're really going to percolate back into the underground water table we need to have some off-stream."
He also commented on the controversial State Water Board's proposal to take water rights away from irrigation districts and hijack stored water for fish habitat.
"It is something we can address from the regulatory side in the Natural Resources Committee. We are looking at having a federal policy that deals with a lot of these rogue agencies that aren't dealing with sound science."
State Assemblyman Adam Gray has introduced AB 313 to overhaul the state's water management structure and thus take power from the State Water Resources Control Board but Denham believes that Gov. Jerry Brown will continue to push for greater water conveyance and push for his Twin Tunnels proposal.
"If he's going to continue taking water it makes no sense to do any more conveyance. We're going to fight for our water - it's ours. We paid for the project."
Denham said he doesn't believe that Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts will be denied relicensing to operate the Don Pedro Dam and Powerhouse through FERC (the Federal Energy Regulation Commission). But he feels the "process has been slowed and much more expensive than it should be."
"It feels, to me, they're holding our irrigation districts hostage to have some kind of takeaway," said Denham.
On the matter of international affairs, Denham said he supports the recent U.S. airstrike on Syria as he did under Obama. But he also is concerned about presidents using the Authorization for Use of Military Forces (AUMF) adopted in 2001 and used 19 times by Obama and 18 times under Bush.
"My bigger concern is any administration putting boots on the ground without congressional approval," said Denham.
Before ending his 45-minute, Denham expressed concern about Korea leader Kim Jong-un.
"There are several concerns around the globe but this is a crazy dictator - somebody that's just launching missile tests at will and has a vocal hatred toward the U.S."
With regard to refugee immigration policy, Denham deflected criticism on Trump's recent action to scale back the numbers the U.S. will accept. Obama maintained a cap of 50,000 refugees per year for seven years until his final year in office when he increased the number to 110,000. Trump lowered the number back down to what it was for 14 years.
"My concern is vetting," Denham said. "I've always said the best way to vet people is to make sure they have a family tie, to be able to house them, to make sure they've got jobs and make sure that they're assimilated into our community. The number one job of government is safety of our community and our country."
On allegations of Russian hacking to influence the last presidential election, Denham said he pushed for an independent investigation.
"Russia has hacked our systems. So has China. We shouldn't allow anybody to do that, whether it's the IRS or Social Security or hacking social media and putting it out there to influence elections."