Farmers are already lobbying Newsom on Feinstein’s replacement

Farmers are already lobbying Newsom on Feinsteins replacement scaled | ltc-a

Water is a perennial hot-button topic in drought-prone California, which has both the largest agricultural industry and the largest population of any state. Staff for Feinstein were working on water issues up until the day before her death, said one Central Valley farmer.

Conversations taking place behind-the-scenes in recent months about who will replace Feinstein, both immediately and in next year’s election, moved into the public realm following her death Thursday night.

“It was a delicate situation,” said William Bourdeau, an executive vice president at Harris Farms and a board member at Westlands Water District, the largest agricultural district in the country. “There was some apprehension in the agricultural community about the future.”

Bourdeau said he met with Feinstein’s staff in Washington on Wednesday and discussed “all the normal things we talk about: the complexity of California water and trying to find a path forward that both sides of the aisle can agree on.”

Feinstein was known for her willingness to represent agricultural interests and her ability, despite hailing from urban, liberal San Francisco, to work across the aisle with congressional Republicans who represent the Central Valley.

Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a fellow Californian, credited her Friday with “passing the most significant California water bill in 25 years.” The WIIN Act encouraged increases in water exports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and required a filibuster override at the end of 2016.

Tom Birmingham, the former general manager of Westlands Water District, which is located west of Fresno, said many water deals wouldn’t have happened without her.

“She would get as much information as she possibly could, and then make a policy decision, often knowing that policy decision would frustrate people who would be closely politically aligned with her,” said Birmingham. “She was never afraid to be a leader.”

Another farmer who worked with Feinstein on crafting a 2006 agreement on San Joaquin River water supplies and habitat restoration said she used her stature to get things done.

“She was the only one I’ve seen in California water who could really be the adult in the room and have the clout and then the history and reputation to be able to get people in a room, shut the door and say, ‘We’re either solving this or you’re staying here,’” said Cannon Michael, the president of Bowles Farming Company in Los Baños, in the heart of the Central Valley.

None of the three main candidates jockeying to replace her — Democratic Reps. Barbara Lee, Katie Porter, and Adam Schiff — have weighed in significantly on California’s water policies since they declared their candidacies, although Schiff has touted his work on drinking water in the Central Valley.

Michael said Schiff visited his farm on Aug. 4 and showed a desire to learn and engage, which changed the perception of some of the other more politically conservative farmers there who were skeptical of his leftist and anti-Trump politics.

Del Bosque said he thought state Sen. Anna Caballero, a Democrat from the agriculture-heavy Salinas Valley, would be a good choice to replace Feinstein. “She has been a very fair person to us and she has a great deal of experience in Sacramento and also she’s very open to working across the aisle,” he said.

Feinstein’s death has also rattled agricultural interests because they have yet to foster a close relationship with Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), whom Newsom appointed in 2021 to fill former Sen. Kamala Harris’ seat.

Feinstein’s dominance in the space has meant agricultural groups haven’t sought out other senators as much, which Michael said was a “mistake.”

“I certainly think California water is going to have to be served now by both senators,” said Michael. “It’s going to be much different.”

Padilla chairs the Senate’s subcommittee on water and has called the issue a priority, but has proven more tentative than Feinstein so far, farmers said.

“I like Sen. Padilla, but I don’t see that he has engaged that much with water, as much as he needs to,” Del Bosque said. “Facing potential drought anytime in California, you need to get on it right away.”

Bourdeau said he was worried about losing the expertise of her longtime staffers, including John Watts, an attorney who has worked with her for more than 20 years.

“She was huge in the water community and took our positions seriously, and she had a lot of constituents, but we always had access and she did consider us,” he said. “It’s a big loss for California and the country.”