Paul Buxman remembers how excited he was to meet his new congressman, Devin Nunes, when Nunes showed up at his organic fruit farm in California’s central valley in the early 2000s.
Buxman assumed that Nunes, who comes from Portuguese dairy farming stock, was actually interested in sustainable land use. Maybe they’d talk about pesticides, or water, or farm labor issues in one of the world’s largest food producing regions. Maybe Nunes would ask Buxman to address the crowd he’d brought along.
None of it happened. “I thought, this is the first farmer we’ve had as a congressman who’s come out to visit a farm,” Buxman. “But all it was was a photo op.”
Buxman never was able to arrange a meeting with Nunes, despite making multiple overtures. Pretty soon, he stopped voting for him. Then, after Donald Trump became president and Nunes, as chair of the House intelligence committee until 2019 emerged as one of Trump’s staunchest defenders, Buxman started leaving messages with the congressman’s staffers. “You have to remember, you don’t only represent people who you agree with. At least, sit quietly and put up with us,” he’d tell them.
Nunes paid no attention until Buxman signed a petition demanding that Nunes stop describing himself as a farmer on the electoral ballot. Nunes’s parents had long ago moved the family dairy farm to Iowa and Nunes himself had no apparent farming connection left other than a small investment in a friend’s Napa valley winery, the petition argued.
Now, Nunes did respond – with a lawsuit, accusing Buxman of being part of a dark-money plot that threatened his good name and the integrity of the electoral process. It was one of a flurry of suits the congressman filed against critics and media organizations after facing heavy criticism for his role in Trump’s various Russia scandals.
Lashing out at his critics in this way has not been without a political cost. Two years ago, after 16 years in Congress, Nunes faced his first significant re-election battle when a local prosecutor, Andrew Janz, came within five percentage points of unseating him. This year, small business owner and civic activist Phil Arballo could come closer still with a campaign that has focused predominantly on the local issues that many constituents accuse Nunes of ignoring.
In a district that, until recently, was considered one of the few remaining safe Republican seats in California, Arballo is polling about five points behind Nunes but is rapidly closing in, according to a recent internal Democratic party poll. The Democrat has also managed to pull in a sizable fundraising haul, largely from small donations including hundreds of thousands of dollars raised in response to Nunes’s constant lawsuits. (Nunes still enjoys a huge fundraising advantage, though).
Arballo’s coalition is built on two pillars: the changing demographics of the area, which is now almost 50% Latino, and disaffection with Nunes. As Nunes has focused his energies largely on Washington’s toxic political culture and made himself less visible in his district, that disaffection has only grown.
“He’s forgotten about his constituents. That’s the bottom line,” Arballo said in an interview with the Guardian. “Instead of holding himself accountable and reassuring people they’re going to be protected, instead of pushing for stimulus money and PPE in response to the coronavirus, he’s on Fox News talking about Hillary Clinton. He’s in a different world. He has no plans for the future. He believes he’s entitled to this seat and takes every voter for granted.”
Nunes’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but his critics say he has done little to counter this critique. According to local media reports, he has not held an open constituency meeting for about 10 years. He almost never gives media interviews, other than to Fox News and a friendly district radio station. His rhetorical style is hot and uncompromising, whether he’s talking to his favorite TV hosts or on the podcast that he started last year. Over and over, he has dismissed any suggestion of undue Russian influence on Trump as a hoax, demonized Democrats as closet socialists, and characterized Joe Biden as a would-be revolutionary akin to Mao Zedong and Pol Pot.
Last month, he published a 95-page pamphlet titled Countdown to Socialism which he has since distributed widely to his constituents. The Democrats, he writes in it, “sympathize with the rioters and statue-topplers, they’re ashamed of their nation and their history, they believe their fellow countrymen are irredeemably racist and, most important, they want to ‘transform’ our country into something different”.
Such rhetoric may energize the Trump base in his district, but it exhausts and bewilders many others. Amy Aragon, a schoolteacher, and her husband, who runs a trucking company, are lifelong Republicans who voted for Nunes in each of his past elections. But this summer they decided they’d had enough when they saw how Nunes and Trump responded to the protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The same religious faith that once drew them to conservatism, she said, now filled them with moral revulsion at their political leaders as they equated anti-racist protesters with thugs and criminals. “When we saw the hatred they were spewing,” Aragon said, “we couldn’t stand it any more. We walked into Democratic party headquarters in downtown Fresno and asked for an Arballo sign … Then we asked if there was a way to get involved.”
Two years ago, Andrew Janz ran much of his campaign on national issues, ramming home Nunes’s willingness to cheerlead for Trump and questioning whether the congressman was being used as a tool by hostile Russian interests. Arballo, by contrast, has focused on the issues he believes voters of all political stripes care about most: healthcare, containing the pandemic, lobbying for emergency economic aid, and worrying about the central valley’s worsening air quality.
A big part of Arballo’s appeal is his life story, which dovetails at many junctures with these concerns. Arballo had nothing handed to him: his father was an alcoholic and died when he was 14, and he had to scrape for every dollar to become the first member of his family to graduate from college. When the pandemic hit, his wife Cynthia lost her job as a translator for local schools, and they have struggled ever since to make ends meet while shepherding their six-year-old through remote school learning and also looking after a two-year-old.
They know first-hand what it is like to wait for months for unemployment benefits. And they worry that their six-year-old could lose access to healthcare because he is asthmatic, a pre-existing condition that may no longer be covered if the Affordable Care Act is overturned as Nunes has advocated.
“People can relate to my story,” Arballo said. “I know what it’s like to live paycheck-to-paycheck and do a household budget. I grew up here, and my family’s still here … Devin Nunes couldn’t be more different. He’s been a representative for 18 years and knows nothing outside of that.”
The question of political authenticity looms large in the race and perhaps helps explain Nunes’s sensitivity to the accusation that he’s not really a farmer. A few years ago, his connection to the Alpha and Omega winery in Napa generated unwelcome headlines after the owner of the winery, who describes himself as a “good friend”, was alleged to have hosted a party on his yacht involving prostitutes and cocaine. (Nunes was not present.) Last year, soon after filing suit against farmer Paul Buxman, Nunes claimed a farm as one of his assets. But he also conceded, in a congressional disclosure form, that the property was worth less than $15,000, the price of a storage shed, and generated no income – an admission that prompted widespread ridicule among his detractors.
Although the district has plenty of ardent Trump supporters, the administration’s agenda has, in some respects, been on a collision course with local interests. The uncompromising crackdown on immigration, for example, has made it much more difficult for the big almond and raisin growers around Fresno and the dairy farmers further south around Visalia to produce their goods and bring them to market because most farm laborers in California are undocumented immigrants.
Buxman, a soft-spoken man in his 70s who says he would as soon spend his retirement making marmalade, expressed regret more than anger over Nunes’s trajectory from farmer’s son to hot-headed ideologue. “I’ve said prayers for him,” he recounted. “The way I see it, the best thing that could happen to him is that he lose the election. For his own sake. Then he really could start farming. I’d be glad to help him do that.”
Nunes quietly dropped the suit against Buxman and his co-defendants last year. And, this year, the designation “farmer” no longer appears next to his name on the ballot.
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