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 saw him meet one-on-one with community members via office hours in multiple cities as well as welcome an open dialogue with attendees at Saturday’s event about the current state of the federal government — fitting for the freshman member of Congress who during his campaign 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,” Harder joked. “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.”
Central Valley residents, both Democrats and Republicans alike, have expressed frustration about the current government shutdown, Harder said, which 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.
Bipartisanship is Harder’s name-of-the-game when it comes to D.C. politics, he said, whether it be through Republican- and Democrat-supported bills that address prescription drug prices or ending the shutdown. Those thoughts were challenged during his first day on the job, however, when freshman representatives were separated onto two buses by their political parties.
“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, which is the longest in U.S. history with funding for President Donald Trump’s border wall at the heart of the conflict, 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. Why can’t we meet somewhere in the middle and at least get something done?” one attendee asked. “There are a lot of people in here saying, ‘no, no, no’ but in another room somewhere else, we’re saying ‘yes, yes, yes.’”
The opposing voice was the first of the night for Harder, who had to quiet down the crowd as they voiced displeasure with the call for border security by way of a wall.
“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 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,” Harder said. “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 country enter through U.S. ports of entry, not the wide, rural areas in between where additional barriers could be erected.
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,” Harder said. “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,” Harder said. “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.”
As a member of the House Education and Labor Committee, Harder also shared during the event that he hopes to improve on 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 for students which don’t involved a degree, like more trade job training in schools and apprenticeship programs, and ensuring schools have plenty of each no matter where they’re located.
“The best route to solving our income inequality is making sure that no matter where you grow up, you still have the same opportunities and chances as anybody else,” Harder said.