The government shutdown, water wars and education were on the minds of over 200 District 10 constituents who packed into the Ceres Community Center on Saturday evening, eager to question new Congressman Josh Harder on the topics during his first town hall event.
Harder was back in the district over the three-day weekend on what he called his “First 100 Days Listening Tour,” which included mobile office hours in multiple cities as well as the town hall event about federal matters. During the campaign, Harder had accused his predecessor, Jeff Denham, of “hiding” from the public.
“I’ve only been on the job for two weeks so we’re still getting our feet wet, but I can tell you it’s been a relief after spending the last week in D.C. to be once again in front of kind, rational, thoughtful human beings,” joked Harder, who added, “I want to make sure there’s as many opportunities to get in touch with me and tell me what you’re thinking as possible.”
Harder said constituents have expressed frustration over the current government shutdown, which centers on the building a border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. The shutdown entered its 32nd day on Tuesday. The situation has given the first-time politician his first test of representing an area defined as a “purple” region with a similar number of voters registered in each party. In Stanislaus County, there is just a three percent spread between the blue and red parties, with 37 percent registered as Democrats and 34 percent registered as Republicans.
He told his Ceres audience that he is not in Congress for partisan politics but “politics that works for all of us.” Thoughts of bipartisanship were challenged during his first day on the job when freshman representatives were separated onto two buses by their political parties.
“The partisan indoctrination of our government started day one I was elected, and it’s deeply divisive and broken.”Congressman Josh Harder
“I was like, this is ridiculous. This is not the way to have a government run,” he said. “The partisan indoctrination of our government started day one I was elected, and it’s deeply divisive and broken.”
In terms of the government shutdown, Harder said he has heard from constituents from both sides: those who don’t want a wall, and those who do. During Saturday’s town hall event, he heard much of the same.
“The Democrats won’t give $5.7 billion to get people back to work,” one attendee told Harder. “Why can’t we meet somewhere in the middle and at least get something done? There are a lot of people in here saying, ‘No, no no,’ but in another room somewhere else, we’re saying ‘Yes, yes, yes.’”
Harder had to quiet the crowd when they groaned over the call for a wall to secure the border.
“I am not the representative of the people who agree with me, I am not the representative of people who voted for me. I’m the representative of every person in this district, and I really do hear you,” he said.
Harder pointed to the eight bills he has voted on since arriving in D.C. in the midst of the shutdown, all of which were meant to reopen the government but were met with pushback from the Republican-led Senate. Most recently, President Trump introduced a plan over the weekend that would trade protections for Dreamers for wall funding — a bill expected to be introduced by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell this week.
The discussion over border security — and whether or not it should be a wall, or other means like more border agents or technology — is one Harder believes should happen while the government is open and fully-funded.
“We need a strong and secure border. I will never compromise our community’s safety and security,” said Harder. “I think the best way to do that is by taking a thoughtful approach to what is actually happening and what we need to be doing to fix that.”
Harder pointed to a recent analysis of data from the southern border which indicates that the vast majority of narcotics in the United States enter through U.S. ports of entry, not wide, desolate stretches in between where additional barriers are proposed. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics, 90 percent of heroin seized along the border, 88 percent of cocaine, 87 percent of methamphetamine and 80 percent of fentanyl in the first 11 months of the 2018 fiscal year was caught trying to be smuggled in at legal crossing points.
In light of these numbers, Harder argued that border security funding should go towards means such as more border agents, surveillance and detection equipment to stop the influx of narcotics, rather than a wall.
“In this community we have a lot of people who are represented on both sides of the aisle and I think that’s great. What I don’t like is the tactic of stopping to pay and fund our government while we’re having a policy debate.”
Harder was asked about other topics on the night as well, like the State Water board’s recent decision to implement 40 percent unimpaired flows along local rivers for the benefit of fish and other wildlife. He touched on the potential voluntary agreements between the Board and District 10’s water districts that could ease the decision’s impact, but also pointed out Board Chair Felicia Marcus’ term is coming to an end soon — something he’s already spoken about to Gov. Gavin Newsom.
“I think we could make a little change there and have a State Water Board that’s not as focused on San Francisco and LA, but maybe realizes there’s another area of California they should be looking at,” he said.
More water storage is key in the fight, he added, and he is “laser-focused” on ensuring the plan for Sites Reservoir, north of Sacramento, breaks ground within the next couple of years.
“We need to be moving away from the 21st century ideal of environmentalists versus farmers — that paradigm doesn’t work anymore. We’ve got to get more water for everyone. I think we can get to a place where, hopefully, if we’re making more water available for everyone, we’re not going to be in this tight battle between different forces.”
Harder said his placement on the House Education and Labor Committee would help in his efforts to expand education opportunities in the Valley. He shared his desire to boost the number of District 10 residents with a college degree by continuing to address student loan debt and putting more college-prep programs in place at local high schools. He also emphasized the need to provide other options like more trade job training in schools and apprenticeship programs, and ensuring schools have plenty of each no matter where they’re located.
“There are so many folks that I don’t think get the same educational opportunities growing up here as exists elsewhere and my goal is to level the playing field – and to make sure that if you’re growing up in Modesto, in Ceres and Turlock and Tracy that you have the same chance at the American dream as everybody else.”
A question to Harder was posed by a Modesto mother of a man sentenced 25 years ago for murder. She asked what could be done to help model prisoners find “a pathway for release.” While he did not answer her question directly, Harder said Congress recently approved the First Step Act for prison reform that affects non-violent offenders. He suggested education addressing the problem and getting help for those who are addicted to drugs “much earlier on than actually after a crime is committed.”
He wants to ban the privatization of the prison system, reform federal prison sentencing guidelines and petition states to change the way they sentence for state crimes.
“’Three Strikes’ is probably the worst thing that has happened in our country and I think we need to fix it as soon as we can,” commented Harder.
During the Ceres event Harder said he wants to “make good” on campaign promises to make healthcare more affordable, and increasing education and jobs in the Central Valley.
He touted his co-sponsorship of HR 1 “to fight the corrupting influence of dark money, strengthen voting rights, and instill stronger codes of ethical conduct in Congress.” The act would require Super PACs and other dark money organizations to disclose their donors, and establishes a public matching system for citizen-owned elections. While it’s doubtful the bill will pass but would expand conflict-of-interest rules, closes loopholes on lobbyists and foreign agents, and institutes tougher standards on members of Congress serving on boards and working as lobbyists. It would also institute automatic voter registration, give federal employees a paid day off on Election Day, and take aim at reversing gerrymandering.
While Harder said the bill would rid of “voting shenanigans,” it does nothing to outlaw ballot harvesting, which is open to vote tampering, some insist.
Harder said he supported a bill to allocate $1.9 billion in taxpayer funds for farmers who lost livestock and crops from the California wildfires and ash fallout, as well as other natural disasters. The amendment to the Disaster Relief Package, also included funding for infrastructure, economic development, and the Department of Defense and Veteran Affairs to repair damaged facilities.
Jeff Benziger contributed to this report.