Valley Republicans Make HSR A Top Target
Good article in the Fresno Bee about Republican candidates in the Central Valley making opposition to the high speed rail project a top priority in their campaigns – even when it means reversing long-held positions:
For Republican candidates this election season, high-speed rail is Enemy No. 1 — or had better be.
And that’s putting some Republicans who once supported the idea in an uncomfortable spot.
Take Republican Assembly hopeful Jim Patterson, for example. On Bullard Avenue, just west of Blackstone, a sign for Patterson’s 23rd Assembly District campaign proclaims: “Stop the High Speed Rail Boondoggle.”
But a Republican opponent, Fresno attorney David DeFrank, points out that in the 1990s when Patterson was Fresno’s mayor he spoke glowingly of the project.
That, Patterson responded, was a different proposal that was to be routed along Highway 99 and paid for with private dollars.
Welcome to the 2012 political campaign, where the state’s proposed high-speed rail project has become one of the hottest campaign issues for Republicans from city council right up to Congress.
Some of this is about crass partisan politics. The article quotes a GOP strategist as saying HSR is one issue where Republicans can draw a clear contrast with Democrats. So it is worth keeping in mind that for a lot of Republicans, their anti-HSR statements are intended not as factual assessments of the project but instead as politically motivated attacks designed to undercut Democratic candidates.
But it’s also about Republican candidates needing to appease their own base – both their voters and their donors. Most right-wing voters, who make up the base of the Republican Party, are ideologically opposed to passenger trains. This causes difficulties for those Republicans who are supportive of rail, like Patterson, or like many people who do vote Republican and who like trains. Because most Republican voters oppose trains, any Republican candidate has to play to that train-hating base if they are going to prevail against another Republican. They don’t have to do that, but if they didn’t then another Republican could run to their right on an anti-rail platform and win more of the base’s votes.
Similarly, the people who fund the Republican Party are also dogmatically opposed to rail, especially high speed rail. The Koch brothers emerged in 2010 as key funders of GOP candidates, and they fund right-wingers who among other things oppose rail and other forms of public transit. They do so because they have several business lines in oil, and perceive trains as a threat to their bottom line. This attitude is shared among many of the wealthy donors on the right, and it’s an important consideration for Republican candidates.
That puts Democrats like State Senators Alan Lowenthal and Darrell Steinberg in a tough position. Lowenthal wants to go to Congress as a Democrat. For his party to retake the majority this fall, they’ll need to pick up some Central Valley seats. If Lowenthal continues to side with Republicans against fellow Democratic candidates on the HSR project then it could cause significant problems for him with the Democratic leadership, including Nancy Pelosi, as it would undermine the all-important effort to retake the House.
For Steinberg, the problem is similar, although he’s not himself running for Congress. Steinberg needs good relations with Congressional Democrats and also needs to see Dems pick up some Valley seats, including a key run for the State Senate by Cathleen Galgiani, one of the strongest supporters of the HSR project. Steinberg would cause himself serious political problems if he helped undermine those Valley Democrats, even though that’s exactly what Sen. Joe Simitian would have him do.
High speed rail would provide a dramatic economic boost to the Central Valley, creating desperately needed jobs in the near term while enabling the region to participate in the economic growth driven by the coastal metropolises. For Republicans to oppose the project is to consign the Valley to decades of economic stagnation. But that’s exactly what their agenda is. Let’s hope California Democrats don’t help them succeed.