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IN THIS ISSUE – “Curious Anomalies”
- “Partisan Huddles”: Understanding the Legislature
- End of Legislative Session Tests Governor’s Word
- CA Unions Gain Political Clout, Lose Members
- San Diego Mayor Builds An “Inclusive” Republican Party
- Insurance Commissioner’s Political Missteps
- Housing Deficit “Still Going in the Wrong Direction”
Capital News & Notes (CN&N) harvests California legislative and regulatory insights from dozens of media and official sources for the past week, tailored to your business and advocacy interests. Please feel free to forward.
FOR THE WEEK ENDING SEPT. 6, 2019
What does political polarization look like in California?
Or you can see it on the floors of the California Assembly and Senate, where this year state lawmakers have voted to pass an annual budget, ban home-assembled “ghost guns” and demand that all presidential candidates publish their tax returns—with every Democrat an “aye” vote and every Republican a “no.”
You can see it in last year’s election results too, where the state’s remaining Republican congressional districts appear as blood-red as ever, while Democratic-dominated population centers along the coast continue to skew further blue.
By analyzing every legislative vote in every committee on every day of each legislative session going back to 1993, a picture of the ideological divisions that shape our state’s politics emerges.
It’s a pretty simple picture.
On the left side of the political spectrum, mostly clustered at the edge: the Democrats in blue. On the right, somewhat more spread out but mostly packed into their own partisan huddle: the Republicans in red.
State lawmakers still have a week to go before the end of this year’s session. Many of the year’s most controversial bills still have to be debated and voted upon. But with 8,740 roll calls behind them already, it might be a little late for the 2019 Legislature to break its sectarian streak.
This isn’t exactly a new trend. Though political independents and bipartisan-curious members of both parties populated the corridors of the Capitol throughout the 1990s, the state Legislature has been more or less neatly divided between “R” and “D” since the turn of the millennium. That’s despite a series of recent reforms — including an independent commission to draw districts and the non-partisan “top two” primary — that the state enacted to inspire moderation.
Which legislators fall closest to the moderate midpoint? In the Assembly, it’s Huntington Beach Republican Tyler Diep and Bakersfield Democrat Rudy Salas. In the Senate, its Diamond Bar Republican Ling Ling Chang and Sanger Democrat Melissa Hurtado.
A caveat: The tool used to create these ideological scores doesn’t capture one important quirk of the California lawmaking process: the strategic “no recorded vote.” (More about that below.)
The analysis uses software cooked up by political scientists at UCLA, USC, the University of Georgia and Rice that takes legislative vote data and boils it down to an ideological value (they assign values on a -1 to 1 scale, but we’ve converted them from 0 to 100, with 50 as the midpoint between left and right).
Other methods of measuring a particular lawmaker’s political leanings might judge legislators by their votes on a particular set of bills or use scorecards from left- or right-leaning interest groups. Instead, this method takes into account thousands of “aye” and “no” votes, employing an algorithm that clusters legislators based on how frequently they vote with one another. The result is a kind of ideological map, said Jeff Lewis, a political scientist at UCLA who helped develop the model.
“People located more closely together on the line are people who vote more similarly,” he said. “The idea is to reduce the thousands, or in this case, maybe even tens of thousands, of voting decisions that each member makes into a single number that characterizes their voting patterns relative to other members.”
By analogy, you can think of each legislator’s ideological position like a coordinate on a map.
Let’s say you’re clueless about California geography and have an even worse sense of direction. Someone tells you that Redding is 660 miles from San Diego, while Fresno is about 330 from both. Without consulting a map or knowing north from south, you’d still be able to say that Fresno is roughly right in between Redding and San Diego.
In the same way, the algorithm “takes the matrix of distances” between voting patterns and “tries to make a map,” said Lewis.
The result, when applied to this year’s roll call data and layered atop an actual map of California, is a Golden State with navy blues coating the coasts, crimson streaks blazing the interior and very few splashes of purplish pigment in between.
(To make optimal use of the charts and maps, you’ll need to know your legislators’ names, and/or your Assembly or Senate district numbers. You can find that information by putting your address into this state tool. Then check out the ideological scores of your lawmakers.)
Across California, Democratic lawmakers represent a wide swath of ideological terrain, from bluest Berkeley to Huntington Beach, where registered Republicans still outnumber Democrats.
But for all that diversity, most Democrats still vote with their party most of the time. According to Lewis, that partisan clustering is predictable for a number of reasons—some of which have nothing to do with ideology.
For one, legislative leaders—the Speaker of the Assembly and the President Pro Tem of the Senate—have a lot of power in Sacramento. They assign committee positions, dole out office spaces and generally have sway over whether a bill moves forward or is buried in committee.
“When leadership comes and tells you to vote for something, you probably want to have a pretty good reason not to,” he said. As a result, even legislators who are centrist at heart will pick their battles when deciding when to break with their party.
But partisan voting patterns in the Legislature also reflect how Californians vote.
The state officially holds a “non-partisan” primary for non-presidential candidates, in which a registered voter can cast their ballot for whomever they like regardless of party affiliation. But the state’s primary electorate is disproportionately made up of loyal Democrats and Republicans, with independents and the politically uninformed staying home. Candidates often have little reason to appeal to the political center, because the center generally doesn’t show up.
“You could imagine (moderate Democrats) trying to stave off a challenge from someone on their left rather than someone on their right,” said Lewis.
As a result, even in a relatively moderate district, Democratic lawmakers may tend to skew progressive in their voting habits.
When a lawmaker chooses not to support a particular bill, but doesn’t want to vote “no” outright, they have the option to abstain.
Why the pretense? Maybe a “no” vote will make the lawmaker look bad with constituents. Maybe it will antagonize the legislative leadership or the bill’s interest group backers. Maybe it’s just a way of being polite to the bill’s author.
The ideological scoring algorithm used in this analysis cannot distinguish between a real “no recorded vote” (maybe the lawmaker just had to go to the bathroom) and one used to duck a tough vote. So it simply ignores them.
By skipping what are effectively “no” votes on controversial bills, in which a lawmaker breaks from his or her own party, the method might be overstating how often lawmakers from the same party vote together. In other words, the Legislature may be less divided along partisan lines than it seems.
Moderate lawmakers do tend to skip votes more often than their colleagues at the ideological edges. Maybe that’s just a coincidence. But maybe not.
LA Times commentary
Gov. Gavin Newsom is about to show the Legislature and all of us just how much his word is worth.
In June, the governor promised to sign a highly contentious vaccine bill if it was changed to narrow its scope. The measure’s author, state Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), amended it the way Newsom wanted.
The governor and the senator publicly praised each other for being cooperative.
Fast-forward to Tuesday after the bill passed the Assembly 47 to 17 and was returned to the Senate for confirmation with Newsom’s requested amendments. The governor’s office tweeted that there still were “technical — but important — changes” Newsom wanted saying, “The governor believes it’s important to make these additional changes concurrently with the bill.”
In truth, the newly requested changes weren’t just “technical,” they were significant.
Left unclear was whether the new changes needed to be approved by the Legislature “or else” — or else Newsom wouldn’t sign the bill; he’d veto it. And there wasn’t any clarification Wednesday after the Senate sent the bill without the changes to the governor on a 28-11 vote.
Gubernatorial spokesman Nathan Click merely referred me to the previous day’s tweet.
The changes still could be approved in a separate bill before the Legislature adjourns for the year next Friday. But Pan wasn’t in any mood for that. “I’m optimistic the governor will keep his word,” Pan told me. “Giving in to the [anti-]vaxxers is not something that would be looked upon favorably by Californians. We have the bill we agreed upon.”
Newsom tripped over his word earlier this year and landed in hot water with people. In 2016 and again in 2018, Newsom pledged that, if elected governor, he’d follow the public’s will on capital punishment, even though he opposed it. Twice in recent years, Californians have voted to retain the death penalty. In fact, they even voted to expedite it. But soon after being sworn in, Newsom declared a moratorium on capital punishment while he’s in office. Also, when voters were given a chance last year to repeal hefty gas tax and vehicle fee increases, the state promised that if the increases were retained, every community would share in the new transportation money. Voters bought into the state’s pledge. But after becoming governor, Newsom proposed legislation to withhold gas tax funds from cities that weren’t doing enough to spur home building — a non sequitur.
The vaccine bill, SB 276, would tighten the state’s immunization law that requires children to be vaccinated against contagious diseases — including measles and polio — before being admitted to school for the first time. Kids can be excused for medical reasons, such as a weak immune system.
Pan, himself a physician, believes a few unscrupulous doctors have been peddling medical exemptions for phony reasons to parents who obsessively fear vaccinations.
Under his bill, the state Public Health Department would review and potentially reject medical exemptions written by doctors who have granted five or more in a year, or for children who attend schools with immunization rates of less than 95%.
One of Newsom’s requested changes is to count only those exemptions written by a doctor after the bill is scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1. Under Pan’s bill, past exemptions would count, too.
Pan told colleagues during the Senate floor debate Wednesday that he’s always willing to work with the governor on legislation, but it’s too late in this year’s session to tinker with his bill.
“No one wants to go through this again,” the senator told me. “People are tired of being harassed and attacked.”
The bill encountered the nastiest opposition lobbying campaign I’ve ever seen in the Legislature, going back decades.
Some parents believe that vaccinations can cause other ailments — mistakenly thinking, for example, that a measles shot can trigger autism, a discredited theory.
For months during committee hearings and floor debates, opponents have shouted and screamed. At protests and rallies, Pan has been compared to Adolf Hitler and Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. The senator’s face has been printed on T-shirts and covered with fake splattered blood. There have been death threats.
On a hot August day, Pan was walking to lunch with a fellow lawmaker when an anti-vaccine activist shoved him in the back.
“He slammed his hand into my back; a real thud — not just a push,” Pan told me.
Anti-vaxxers tried to disavow the attack, but Pan doesn’t buy it. His attacker “was ginned up by their rhetoric,” the senator says. ”That’s what leads to violence.”
One of the “ginners,” Pan says, was Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who lobbied in the Capitol against what he called the “draconian proposal.”
Trying to avoid hordes of opponents, the Assembly unexpectedly took up the bill on Wednesday.
“Legislators have had enough,” Pan said. “It didn’t matter where they were on the bill.”
During the Senate debate, Republican leader Shannon Grove of Bakersfield was arguing against the bill when anti-vaxxers began shouting from the balcony. Grove told them if they didn’t shut up — those were not exactly her words — she was going to sit down and not say another word.
For some reason this became a partisan issue, with Democrats supporting the bill and Republicans opposing it.
Some Senate Republicans said it was about “personal freedom.” Democrats shot back that if it was about that, they should be for personal choice on abortion.
The next move is Newsom’s. Children’s immunizations and his word are at stake.
One of the more curious anomalies about California is that while labor unions’ political power has increased to virtual hegemony, especially in the last decade, union membership has declined just as sharply.
On Labor Day 2019, one can only wonder whether both trends will continue and if so, what the eventual outcome will be.
Labor’s ever-increasing political influence, from the smallest school district to the Legislature and statewide offices, including the governorship, is an uncontested fact. There’s an almost seamless relationship between union officials and the dominant Democratic Party, as evinced in last year’s elections. Union money and other resources fueled massive Democratic Party wins at all levels, including a seven-seat pickup of congressional seats, even stronger supermajorities in the Legislature and all statewide offices, including the election of Gavin Newsom as governor.
Newsom’s first year as governor has seen an outpouring of union-backed legislation aimed, or so labor leaders hope, at staunching the decline of union membership.
One of the year’s biggest battles, for instance, is over legislation, Assembly Bill 5, that would lodge into state law a landmark state Supreme Court decision that sharply curtails the classification of workers as contractors and potentially categorizes millions as payroll employees who can be unionized.
It’s a legal and political assault on the so-called “gig economy,” such as transportation services Uber and Lyft, that, union officials believe, has eroded union membership.
—Union-backed legislation attempts to soften the potential blow to union membership from the U.S. Supreme Court’s highly contentious Janus decision in 2018 that sets aside state laws requiring public employees to pay union dues.
—As the state’s housing shortage gets attention and money, construction unions are winning new requirements that housing projects use union labor.
—The California Teachers Association and other school unions are at least partially successful this year in blocking the growth of charter schools.
—The Service Employees International Union and other unions won legislation to help them unionize rapidly expanding childcare and early childhood education programs, just as the state did vis-a-vis home care workers for the elderly and infirm two decades ago.
However, these and other legislative wins have not stopped the steady decline in union membership from a quarter of the state’s workers in the mid-1980s to 14.7 percent in 2018, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Membership declined nearly a full percentage point just from 2017 and in the previous decade dropped four points.
During the 2008-2018 decade, according to the BLS, employment in California increased from 14.9 million workers to 16.4 million, but union membership declined from 2.7 million to 2.4 million.
Union members are also getting older, indicating that organized labor is faltering most among industries employing the young. Just 8 percent of workers aged 18 to 24 are covered by union contracts, but 22 percent of those over 55, according to a recent study by the pro-union Labor Center at the University of California, Berkeley.
The Legislature created the UC labor center, supported by taxpayer dollars, at the behest of union leaders to supply studies and data promoting union membership. A recent report from the center on truck drivers is being wielded by unions as part of their campaign to pass AB 5.
Will union membership ever recover in California, or will it continue to decline as the state’s economy evolves and eventually erode the immense political influence that unions, particularly those representing teachers, police officers, firefighters and other civil service workers, wield?
Kevin Faulconer is the pro-choice, pro-same-sex marriage, climate-change acknowledging, Mexico-embracing, Spanish-speaking mayor of San Diego who didn’t vote for President Trump.
In other words, he’s the embodiment of everything the California Republican Party isn’t.
The other big difference between Faulconer and many of his fellow California Republicans: He gets elected. Twice now, in a city where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1.
So he should be an ideal person to show the moribund party the way forward when he speaks to the state GOP this weekend at its three-day convention, which begins Friday in Indian Wells outside Palm Springs. The question is whether the party will listen or dismiss him as just another “RINO,” a Republican in name only.
Faulconer, 52, is a rare Republican ray of hope for a party that has no statewide elected officials, a super-minority in the Legislature and a statewide congressional delegation that can fit into a Honda Odyssey — with room for San Diego Rep. Duncan Hunter’s political baggage. Most Millennials, Latinos and people of color have deserted the party, leaving it with a dwindling base of aging white supporters.
Faulconer, who is white, recognizes this and wants to rebuild the California Republican Party as “inclusive.” That’s why his first campaign ad for his 2014 mayoral run featured him speaking Spanish.
“I believe strongly that California should not be a carbon copy of the national party. We are unique,” Faulconer told The Chronicle’s “It’s All Political” podcast. “For us to be successful as a party in California, we have to be the party that actually provides real results, and tackles issues that people are dealing with, in a common-sense manner.”
To Faulconer, that means making homelessness and housing “the No. 1 issue I deal with as mayor.” Homelessness is just as big a problem in his city as it is elsewhere on the West Coast, but unlike in San Francisco and Los Angeles, San Diego’s unsheltered population has stabilized.
Faulconer supports a concept for California called “right to shelter,” which New York City has used for decades. It would require cities and counties to build enough shelter space to house everyone living outside, which now amounts to an estimated 90,000 people statewide. Plus, it would require homeless people to go indoors if their communities have enough shelter space for them. It is supported by Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who heads a task force on homelessness that Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed — although the governor himself opposes the idea.
“It’s not OK to let somebody stay on the street,” Faulconer said. “A riverbed or a tarp is not a home. That is no way to run a major American city.”
On some big issues, however, Faulconer is more aligned with his party. That includes his stance on one of the hottest topics before the Legislature:Whether gig economy workers should be classified as independent contractors or as company employees covered by labor laws.
This week Newsom sided with labor by endorsing AB5, which would turn many gig workers into employees. The governor said tech companies and other employers have eroded people’s basic labor protections by wrongly classifying them as independent contractors. Faulconer disagreed.
“Folks have to have that independent contractor status. You cannot have a one-size-fits-all policy for everybody,” he said.
However, Faulconer was less definitive on how to provide benefits and workers compensation to gig workers if they are independent contractors, saying only that “there’s a balanced approach that needs to happen on this.”
Faulconer walks a similar tightrope when it comes to talking about Trump. He won’t directly criticize the president, but he isn’t shy about pointing out their differences.
Former Assemblywoman Catharine Baker — who was the lone Bay Area Republican in either the Legislature or Congress before losing her re-election campaign last year — told The Chronicle that supporting Trump was “a path to death for the Republican Party” in California.
Still, the state party embraces him. Its keynote speakers at this weekend’s convention include Brad Parscale, chairman of Trump’s re-election committee, and the president’s energy secretary, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Faulconer demurred when asked if backing Trump was indeed “a path to death” for Republicans. “The party is a big party, and people are going to make their own decisions,” he said. “It’s important for us to create our own brand.”
But he remains undecided about whether he will vote for Trump next year. He says he wrote in former GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan in 2016.
“I’ll be making all of my endorsements for the federal level coming up soon,” Faulconer said.
Earlier this year, Faulconer met with Trump after attending a conference on border issues in Washington. Trump told Fox News that the mayor “came up to thank me for having done the wall because it’s made such a difference. He said, it’s like day and night. He said people were flowing across and now nobody can come in.”
Did Faulconer really say that?
“I did not,” Faulconer said. “We have different views of the conversation. I’ll leave it at that.”
Faulconer has done the opposite of wall-building. On his second day in office, he visited the mayor of Tijuana to talk about how the two cities could cooperate.
“I would say our overall relationship with Mexico is a strength. We talk about San Diego and our neighbor in Tijuana not as two cities, but as one region,” Faulconer said. “I don’t talk about what divides us. I talk about what makes us stronger together.”
Faulconer has one big political liability in California, other than the “R” next to his name. When he is termed out in 2020, his electoral choices will be limited. He has been mentioned as a possible candidate for the congressional seat now held by San Diego Rep. Susan Davis, a Democrat who announced her retirement Wednesday.
“There will be plenty of time to think about those things,” Faulconer said.
California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara is halting fundraising while his staff reviews how he vets contributions from the industry he regulates, according to a letter he sent to consumer advocates.
Lara, a Democrat and former state lawmaker, has faced scrutiny in recent months for accepting more than $50,000 from industry executives in April, with most of the money coming from out-of-state donors.
Lara then admitted to meeting in May with the CEO of Applied Underwriters, a workers’ compensation agency with pending matter before the department.
Lara in a letter addressed to three advocacy organizations that he violated a campaign pledge not to accept contributions from the insurance industry.
“I believe effective public service demands constant adherence to the highest ethical standards,” Lara wrote. “But during my campaign and first six months in office, my campaign operation scheduled meetings and solicited campaign contributions that did not fall in line with commitments I made to refuse contributions from the insurance industry. I take full responsibility for that and am deeply sorry.”
Lara had designated himself as his own 2022 reelection campaign treasurer. Usually, a campaign treasurer manages accounts, tracks donations and weighs political consequences of accepting money from certain donors.
Lara has since appointed Denise Lewis of River City Business Services to fill that role, his campaign said. Finance records reflect that he’s also returned the industry-connected contributions.
Lara promised to increase oversight of future donations and said he terminated his “longtime contractual relationship” with unnamed fundraising personnel. He also said he placed a “strict moratorium” on fundraising activity for his reelection campaign until “at least” the end of the year and tasked department attorneys with increasing oversight of scheduled meetings with stakeholders.
“I am implementing rigorous vetting protocols and am retaining experts to develop new processes for the screening and reporting of all outside political activity – to ensure greater transparency and no direct connection to the insurance industry or department-regulated entities – consistent with best practices,” he pledged.
Lara’s tone in the letter contrasts with his remarks he made previously defending his meetings and the decisions he made in cases before his department.
“I meet with CEOs all the time with insurance companies,” he previously said in an interview with KQED. “In the six months that I’ve been in office, I’ve met with CEOs, I’ve met with consumer advocates, I’ve met with fire victims. If you’re asking me if I met with the CEO of Applied Underwriters, I did. I met with him.”
His department also previously denied requests to make his calendars and meeting scheduled public, though Lara reiterated in his letter that he planned to release those records on a regular basis.
In closing, Lara said he would “renew” his commitment to more principled behavior and reconfirmed his promise to fight the wildfire insurance crisis in California, mitigate declining property taxes and home values and combat climate change.
“Even though no laws or rules were broken – and these interactions did not affect nor influence my official actions in any way – I must hold myself to a higher standard. I can and will do better,” Lara wrote. “These failures are not consistent with my personal values nor my long career in public service.”
Sacramento Bee commentary
This was going to be the year that California’s political leaders fought and won the war against the skyrocketing cost of unaffordable housing. They promised to do everything possible to build more homes and bring down the state’s mind-numbing housing prices. But new data from the respected Construction Industry Research Board illustrates the scope of that challenge: in the first six months of 2019, there was almost a 20 percent decrease in housing permits statewide compared to the same time period last year.
“We’re still going in the wrong direction,” said Dan Dunmoyer, California Building Industry Association president.. “Notwithstanding the near universal opinion that California is in a housing crisis, and our homeless population is skyrocketing, it is getting harder everyday to build homes in California.”
Carl Guardino, president of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, acknowledged that this is a problem that has festered over many years and can’t be fixed overnight. But he also warned that voters are impatient for solutions.
“Whenever we talk about the need for more homes for hard-working California families, we must never forget the… three-decade drought in building the annual number of homes needed to keep up with our population growth,” Guardino said. “While California residents… list the lack of homes affordable to people of all incomes as our state’s number one need, it is still difficult politically for elected leaders at the state and local levels to build on that firm foundation of voter support.”
Several of McClatchy’s California influencers proposed an enhanced role for the public sector to bolster housing starts.
“The slowing of private sector construction activity is a reflection of the waning economic cycle. It demonstrates that the public sector needs to be more proactive in funding and building the kind of housing that working families need,” said Cesar Diaz, legislative and political director for the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California. “Public sector construction activity is a proven tool for economic growth. If we can build dams, bridges and power plants, there is no reason why we cannot build more homes.”
But even more Influencers focused on dramatic increases in development fees charged by local governments for housing construction, putting the cost of homes even further out of reach of many Californians.
“Because of how significantly these fees affect overall project costs, these fees are often passed along to buyers in the form of higher home prices, especially in high demand markets,” said Jennifer Svec of the California Association of Realtors. “Until our state leaders get a handle on… pre-development costs, future generations of Californians will continue to suffer and homeownership rates will continue to decline.”
Tia Boatman Patterson, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s senior housing adviser, cited a range of causes for the construction shortfall, but reiterated the governor’s belief in the need for an enhanced role for state government.
“There are structural barriers to production, many of which are at the local level where the final housing construction decisions are made,” said Patterson, who pointed to increased funding for local housing projects in Newsom’s budget, while also reinforcing the governor’s carrot-and-stick approach. “Meanwhile, our Governor and State legislators have worked to strengthen the consequences for those jurisdictions that continually refuse to even plan for enough housing.”
But San Bernardino County Supervisor Janice Rutherford argued development fees were often a result of a lack of state financial support.
“Cities have been left to figure out how to fund parks, recreation, public safety, and other needs on their own,” said Rutherford, who also called for comprehensive reform of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). “This has led to the fees and regulations that are now strangling the housing sector.”
California Business Roundtable President Rob Lapsley disagreed.
“Excessive development fees are a hidden tax that are decreasing new housing starts while driving up the costs,” Lapsley said. “As cities and local governments continue to increase spending on their expanded programs and employee costs, California families should not have to pay the price just for a place to live.”
Former Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle criticized the “cost of uncertainty,” suggesting an unpredictable approval process was an even greater deterrent for builders than fees and regulations.
“The time it takes to secure land, jump through the regulatory hurdles and get development approvals make many developers pause with concern – thus housing starts will slow,” Pringle said. “Cities and school districts should defer development fees… until each housing unit is sold or occupied, taking away a large upfront cost and reducing development risk.”
Dan Schnur, a veteran analyst and longtime participant in California politics, is director of the California Influencers series for McClatchy.
Legislative Analyst’s Office
California is the wealthiest state in the nation. Despite this overall prosperity, wealth varies considerably across the state and its residents. The concentration of wealth among a small number of very wealthy individuals and households has been the topic of much research and commentary in recent years. Perhaps less discussed is the similarly uneven geographical distribution of wealth. This publication provides a short introduction to the geography of wealth in California.
A man named Hector Osorno – they call him the ketchup master, which is actually a formal title at Kraft Heinz. “He’s completely obsessed [with ketchup],” his boss, Michael Siragusa tells me. “He’s got secrets that he won’t divulge.”
A few hours later, I meet Osorno. He’s smiling the way people do when they’re hiding delightful secrets.
“What makes you a ketchup master?” I ask him. “Is it your skill? Your knowledge?”
“I like to think that it is my skill. But it’s probably my stubbornness more than anything else,” he says. “I’m obsessive to do the right thing the first time.”
Osorno grew up in Mexico, became an engineer, and started working at the Heinz company, now Kraft Heinz, more than 20 years ago. It’s been all ketchup, all the time, ever since. He’s in charge of making sure that each batch of Heinz ketchup comes out of the factory exactly as advertised.
I ask him my question about ketchup’s taste. It’s remained constant, Osorno assures me, although the Heinz recipe is slightly different in different countries. This created a minor crisis a few years ago, when the company had to come up with one version for all of Europe. Germans liked ketchup with more vinegar; the British version had always been spicier.
There was a time, Osorno tells me, when old-timers at Heinz thought that the taste of their American product was shifting a little. “They detected that something was changing, and adjusted accordingly,” he says.
He won’t tell me exactly what they adjusted, of course. “For that I’d need a letter from the president of the company, co-signed by the legal counsel,” he says, shaking with laughter.
For some people, ketchup is a symbol of the problems with American food. It’s highly processed, mass-produced, and full of sugar. Historian Gabriella Petrick certainly saw it that way when she started digging into the archives of the H. J. Heinz Company.
“I’ll be honest, I came to my subject as a complete food snob and jerk,” she says. “I was going to show how awful Americans eat, and how terrible industrial food was!”
When Henry Heinz started his company in the late 1800s, there were all kinds of ketchup: walnut ketchup; grape ketchup; tomato ketchup. But over time, Heinz’s version of tomato ketchup took over. “The company crafted a very particular product that now reshapes what we think of as ketchup,” Petrick says.
It was a captivating mix of tomato sauce, sugar, vinegar and spices. Above all, it was thick and red. You couldn’t make anything like it yourself. In fact, maybe you didn’t really want to make it yourself. “Women used to make ketchup at home,” Petrick says. “Why make watery ketchup when you can simply buy high-quality, super-thick ketchup?”
Petrick isn’t quite so judgy about industrial foods anymore. “A lot of these products, I just learned to understand how important they were for people’s lives, and how they made people’s lives easier — women’s lives in particular,” she says.
Today, Kraft Heinz sells about 70% of America’s ketchup, and it all comes from just two factories, one in Fremont, Ohio, and the other in Muscatine, Iowa.
But here in Los Banos, the center of tomato growing, Hector Osorno has set up a miniature version of those factories, just for research purposes. It’s a room filled with stainless steel pipes and pumps and cooking vessels.
He and his colleagues use it to check the quality of the tomato paste that’s being supplied to the company’s big ketchup factories. “Every day, I’m making 18 batches!” Osorno says. “If we detect something that [the factories] didn’t, we immediately notify them.”
He’s checking the ketchup so you don’t have to.
BAKERSFIELD — The rotis were flawless, king-size rounds. Each one was thin and even, freckled with char and shimmering. The dough had been rolled and cooked to order, so the rotis came out hot and supple, stacked on a paper plate alongside deli containers of dal and a few plastic spoons.
It was a modest-looking setup. But if you were tired and bleary-eyed from the road, like so many of the drivers who parked their big rigs in the lot behind Punjabi Dhaba, it was a luxurious breakfrom fast-food chains and gas-station snacks.
Next to a truck wash and a repair shop, Punjabi Dhaba is reminiscent of dhabas in India and Pakistan, the absolutely-no-frills roadside restaurants that cater to truckers and others passing through with cheap, hearty dishes of chole — chickpeas soaked in a gingery tomato sauce — and slick parathas.
For over a century, Bakersfield and its tastes have grown alongside its immigrant work force. When Basque immigrants came to the region in the late 1800s, to farm sheep and grain, boardinghouses sprang up near the train depot, along with kitchens that specialized in comfort food for shepherds from the Pyrenees.
That culinary legacy survives in a handful of Eastside bakeries and restaurants, including Noriega Hotel, which serves an early breakfast of fried eggs with chistorra — a smoky pork sausage, dyed red with paprika — and dinner with sides of beans and pickled tongue.
In the United States, trucking has traditionally been dominated by white men, but in California, home to well over 100,000 drivers, immigrants with roots in the Indian state of Punjab are helping to alleviate a national shortage of drivers. The American Trucking Associations estimated a shortage of about 50,000 drivers last year — a number that keeps growing as truckers age out and retire.
In the process, the Punjabi population is expanding the definition of what it means to be a trucker in California, as well as changingthe flavors of the great American truck stop.
Punjabi Dhaba caters to the growing community of Punjabi truckers with ample space to park semi trucks and a stack of free Punjabi Trucking magazines, filled with bilingual articles and ads. (A green-eyed cat comes around and naps on this occasionally.)
A husband-and-wife team, Balvinder Singh Saini and Mansi Tiwari, took over Punjabi Dhaba in 2016, a former Mexican food truck. The menu is small, and Mr. Saini, a former trucker, along with Ms. Tiwari and their relatives, cook each dish from scratch.
The kitchen is run by several fast-moving, masterly women who chat among themselves in Punjabi, as well as to their clientele, while handing out sweet, freshly boiled chai in Styrofoam cups.
Most of the dishes are vegetarian, but they’re still road-stop fare: thick and rich with sauces of reduced tomato and cream, and generously seasoned and spiced. The butter chicken packs heat and smoke — it’s made from the dark thigh meat and cooked in a clay tandoor. All of the food is ideal for drivers who might find themselves craving something familiar on the road, away from home for weeks at a time, moving freight up and down the highways.
In India and Pakistan, dhabas aren’t only for the truckers who frequent them.
College students visit them late, on the way home after a party, and families stop in on road trips. It’s similar at Punjabi Dhaba, where local families with small children and truckers passing through all sit together, ripping rotis, scooping up mouthfuls of paneer and chole, and slurping hot tea.