Pete Buttigieg speaks to the Stanislaus County Democratic Club in Turlock. (Alexandra Hall/KQED)
On the heels of his strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg toured several Northern California cities and towns on Friday, including a stop in the Central Valley, where he was the keynote speaker at a sold-out fundraiser for the Stanislaus County Democratic Party.
Standing at a podium before a large event hall, Buttigieg laid out his vision for the future to a crowd of around 700 people who traveled from across the San Joaquin Valley to hear from one of the few presidential candidates to visit their part of the state.
“Form it in your mind: The vision of how it’s going to feel the first time that the sun comes up over the Valley, and Donald Trump is no longer the president of the United States,” Buttigieg told the cheering audience before a sparkling backdrop at the Assyrian American Civic Club in Turlock.
Buttigieg rallied support for local down ballot Democratic candidates and directly asked voters there to support him, adding that his mother was born in nearby Modesto. He also addressed critics who say he lacks experience in Washington.
“By some standards, I might be considered a newcomer, a little different from the usual candidate. But I also know that California is a state known for looking to the future ... and we win when we do that,” Buttigieg said.
Voters at the event were excited to see a presidential candidate stop by a part of the state often overlooked. With the primary scheduled March this year (a change since 2018), California will have more say in who becomes the Democratic nominee.
“I think it’s great. It’s about time the Central Valley got some recognition and somebody that was interested in us,” said Mary Ann Inderbitzen, who said she is leaning toward voting for Buttigieg in the primary.
“They fly over us, and ag is big. It’s a big moneymaker in this state and we get ignored and that’s not fair,” she added.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg made recent visits to Fresno, about an hour-and-a-half drive south of Turlock.
Curious to hear what former South Bend Mayor Buttigieg had to say after his recent success in Iowa and New Hampshire, some said they had already decided to vote for him, while others said they were still considering several Democratic hopefuls, including Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
“He reminds me a lot of Barack Obama,” said Karen Ashlock, a retired school bus driver from Merced. “I just feel out of everybody, he’s my favorite.”
She and her partner, Ray Marino, an almond farmer and teacher, said they both mailed in their ballots early and are supporting Buttigieg.
“I feel like he represents a majority of the people here in the Valley,” said Arie Roest, a paralegal who came with his grandparents and like Buttigieg is openly gay. Roest lives in Modesto, a city that has seen recent anti-LGBTQ protests.
“The way that he speaks, the way that he represents people like me, I feel like there’s a voice that I have through him,” Roest said. “It’s very exciting.”
MaryBeth and David West, who both run Gay-Straight Alliance groups at high schools in the Central Valley, said they were also encouraged by Buttigieg’s example as the first openly gay presidential candidate.
Still, they were unsure if he would win their votes.
“I’ll probably vote for Bernie. But I’m ready to support whoever my party puts forward because anybody is better than ‘that guy,’ ” said MaryBeth West, referring to President Trump, who is expected to visit Bakersfield, the hometown of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, on Wednesday.
Several people said Buttigieg’s perceived “electability” in the Central Valley and beyond was one reason why they were now considering giving him their vote.
Gary Vessel, a violin-maker from Modesto, said he was “pleasantly surprised” to see Buttigieg’s performance in Iowa and New Hampshire and that he believed the candidate’s military background and Midwestern roots could position him well to beat Trump in November. But he also said he feared some conservative voters might reject Buttigieg based on his sexual orientation.
“If he keeps the momentum, he’ll do well in California, because that’s not really an issue here,” Vessel said.
Michael Self, who came out to support his sister Jessica Self, chairwoman of the Stanislaus Democratic Party, said he favored a more moderate candidate.
“I respect the left candidates, but I just know even if they get elected, they have an uphill battle to get anything passed through the Senate and the House of Representatives,” Self said.
Democratic Congressman Josh Harder, who flipped the 10th District blue in the 2018 midterm election, also attended the fundraiser.
“I think people are excited that for the first time in decades, California is relevant in a presidential contest,” Harder said. “This is the first time for many people in this room to have ever seen a presidential contender, because they raise money in San Francisco and Los Angeles and they ignore Modesto, Turlock, Tracy, Manteca time and time again.”
Harder said he has not yet endorsed any candidate for president, but said Democrats looking to sway local constituents should speak to issues local voters care about.
“What most people are concerned about is how do we bring more jobs to the Valley, how do we lower the cost of health care — which is unaffordable for so many people here — and how do we make sure that we’re securing our water supply, which is critically important in an area where one out of every three jobs come directly from agriculture,” Harder said.
Naramsen Goriel, a community organizer who is running for mayor of Modesto, said Democrats have been more politically active in the area since Harder’s defeat of Republican Congressman Jeff Denham in 2018.
“Our district has been overlooked for a while, but now, since we have a new congressman, (Josh) Harder, who has been doing well and having town halls, our district is becoming more politically active.”
Goriel also said the Central Valley needs a president who will be considerate of climate change and also the region’s dependence on agriculture.
“We have a very unique purple district and it’s slowly turning blue as we speak, we’re registering voters, so we’re pretty excited about what’s happening here,” Goriel added.
While some voters said they were still undecided in who they planned to vote for in the primary, most said they would “vote blue, no matter who,” rallying behind any candidate who becomes the Democratic nominee.