The photo above is of Soria being interviewed by Univision Fresno on election night in 2015. Photo courtesy of Esmeralda Soria.
By Emily Brandt
Editor’s Note: Emily Brandt has campaigned in 2019-2020 for Kim Williams for Congress and Bernie Sanders for president.
WHAT MOTIVATED SORIA TO RUN FOR CONGRESS IN 2020? “We live in grim times,” she says in response to the question. Esmeralda Soria’s personal story is compelling and speaks to the experiences of many growing up as she did in the southern San Joaquin Valley community of Tulare, a child of farmworker parents, who encouraged her to continue her education at the University of California, Berkeley and at UC Davis Law School.
The district in which Soria is running, California Congressional District 16, is one of the poorest, most polluted, most segregated by race, and most under-resourced in the nation. The unemployment rate continues to be 11%. It includes the cities of Fresno, Madera, Los Banos, Chowchilla and Mendota*. According to the U.S. Census’ 2018 American Community Survey, 58.0% of people in the area identify as Hispanic, 25.1% as White, 8.6% as Asian, and 5.8% as Black.
In exchange for the opportunities she was afforded, Soria took it as her responsibility to give back to her Central Valley community by working as a legal clerk and legislative advocate for California Rural Legal Assistance. Soria was Policy Advisor for California Assemblyman Henry T. Perea and District Director for State Senator Michael Rubio before becoming an adjunct professor at Fresno City College and running for Fresno City Council.
She has won numerous recognitions, including an invitation in 2010 to participate in Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government Executive Leadership Program. Beginning in 2014, Soria’s work on the Fresno City Council, where she has served as councilmember for District 1, has made her a trailblazer in the face of the conservative and socially unresponsive attitudes of the two mayors with whom she has had to work, as well as a group of Democrats on the City Council whose thinking often aligns with these Republican mayors. Many see Soria as a champion for the underserved areas of South Fresno.
VOTING RECORD: Prior to 2018, hers was regularly the lone vote (or one of only two with former District 3 councilmember, Oliver Baines) in favor of good policies and opposed to bad ones. Since 2018, she has had two allies in the city council, forming a new voting block. Current District 3 city councilmember, Miguel Arias (D) and District 7 city councilmember, Nelson Esparza (D) often team up with Soria to counterbalance the history of regressive efforts. As a lawyer, Soria looks at the redress offered by the law, which leaves vast areas untouched by practical and sufficient means to correct abuses in the courtroom.
However, Soria has carefully marked out her territory of social justice. Her record is mixed on redevelopment policy in Fresno, environmental restrictions on industrial and agricultural pollution, and policies that would end the gross under-employment suffered by tens of thousands of city residents. In her campaign letter, Soria mentions her commitment to clean water and air and says she is a leader who “will stand up to corporate special interests and the powerful to do what is right for the Valley–no matter what the political consequences.” Does her voting record bear out this commitment?
Soria has authored or co-authored some local proposals. A major item that passed allowed for the sale of marijuana within the limits of the City of Fresno. It gained the support of five of the seven City Council Members. Another of significance went down in a two to five vote defeat, but against a high level of community support. Soria brought the bill before the council which proposed setting up a legal defense fund for undocumented residents of the City of Fresno. While the city did not pass the measure, a legal defense fund was created through local non-profits.
Although Soria was absent for the city council vote to give Amazon tax benefits and locate a fulfillment center in South Central Fresno, one of the most polluted and poorest areas in the city, she has since spoken favorably about the Amazon Center. This came as a surprise to some who admire Soria because, prior to that, she and fellow councilmember Oliver Baines had voted against The Gap’s warehouse. **According to Kevin Hall of Valley Climate, however, Baines’ and Soria’s opposition to it was due only to the lack of a requirement to source jobs locally, not because of environmental and health concerns. The city made no demands in their 2018 deal with Amazon that the company hire locals for the construction of the center.
It appears, therefore, that Soria did not reverse course on Amazon by saying in our interview that “we need the jobs.”** Jobs are always a priority in Fresno because the county maintains some of the highest rates of unemployment in California. Additionally, she forfeited the tax monies the community could have benefited from and sank residents into increased trucking and diesel pollution that brings in tons of toxic air. An example of the pollution damage from the failed Caglia Project in South Central Fresno can be found here. It is common for polluting companies to make campaign donations to both Republican and Democrat political candidates in Fresno and Caglia donated to Soria’s city council reelection campaign in 2018.
During this interview, she said that she would stand up to corporate interests, but that remains to be seen so far as some of her policies fail to pass as progressive. Nor do they reflect the environmental values she professes regarding protections against water and air pollution by vigorous enforcement of restrictions with legal consequences. As with most issues, Soria often knows what she should be against, but she appears to lack the expertise or will to read and research some subjects to gain the expertise to be able to write legislation and make informed policy decisions.
MONEY IN POLITICAL CAMPAIGNS: In the past, Soria has not been above taking money from real estate developers and other big donors. One look at opensecrets.org reveals a history that is not aligned with the current practices of progressives. In her political novitiate years, she worked for two masters of acquiring corporate funds, former public officials, Henry T. Perea and Michael Rubio. Both men took large donations from corporate interests and then retired from politics early to work full-time as lobbyists for them.
She has committed herself to not accept any “corporate PAC [Political Action Committee] funds,” though she is still accepting direct donations from developers and other powerful corporate interests. This will make it very difficult for Soria to do as she states in her campaign letter “I did so [declared my candidacy] knowing I would be going against incredible odds and entrenched corporate interests.” A comparison of all three candidates’ financial records can be found here.
There is a vast difference between the three Democratic campaigns for Congressional District 16 and their willingness to accept money from corporations. Rep. Jim Costa (D) accepts money from all corporate interests including corporate PAC funds. Soria said in our interview that she is accepting “small donations,” however, her Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings reveal money in all forms except corporate PAC funds. To be clear, this means she has accepted money from individuals who are powerful developers giving the maximum amount allowed and which could make Soria beholden to their interests.
Kim Williams accepts money only from individual small-amount donations and from non-profit PACs; she accepts no for-profit corporate PAC funds. The fact of the matter is that even if Soria were currently scrupulously avoiding such big donations by individuals who represent a corporate interest, she still has a record of doing so which continues to provide ties to these interests. Williams has no such history as she has never run for public office before.
Author Update: 2/20/20 Costa has launched a series of attack ads against Soria that many have found offensive. One which attacks her relationship with Fresno developer Terance Frazier is here and a second which claims that she has praised Costa in the past is here.
ENVIRONMENTAL COMMITMENTS: The term, “Green New Deal” during this interview, elicited no response from Soria. At the recent Fresno County Latina Democrats District 22 Debate Forum, which featured only Williams and Soria, the latter candidate showed a clear lack of mastery of the subject matter. As a city councilmember, Soria doesn’t seem to have considered it a subject that demanded much research and concern. This, clearly, is not the case since Fresno development is fraught by what to do with land that has been restricted in use by land covenants due to complex toxic land-use histories.
These matters do not seem to have surfaced as areas of focus for Soria. They were not explored deeply in this interview either. During the Fresno County Latina Democrats Forum, Soria gave no hint of having dived into a study of the Green New Deal. She didn’t mention it or any part of the subject of green jobs, ending the reliance on fossil fuels or Climate Change as it will affect the Central Valley.
Climate Change wasn’t a term Soria used or appeared to consider in any way. As mentioned above, she failed to protect South Central and Southwest Fresno from the devastating pollution of the Amazon warehouse, Ulta Beauty distribution center, and other truck distribution headquarters in South Fresno that contribute to life expectancies that are 20-25 years shorter than in North Fresno.
MEDICARE FOR ALL/SINGLE PAYER/MEDICAL DEBT FORGIVENESS: “I can tell you that I have personally experienced what it is not to have health care!” Soria is a clear supporter of The Affordable Care Act (ACA, also known as Obamacare). When it comes to the failures of ACA to offer affordable and wrap-around services of dental, optical and other medical care, she suggested that it may need to be tweaked. The expectation that it should be tied to employment did not seem unreasonable to her despite the fact that it usually excludes non-union, part-time workers (including those with multiple part-time jobs) and unemployed people, however, she repeated her belief that “healthcare is a human right.”
There is a self-awareness gap present considering that the first story she told in the interview and gave in her opening statement at the Latina Democrats Debate Forum was about the struggles of her father as he was forced to quit his well-paying job in a packing shed in order to become her mother’s full-time home-healthcare worker at minimum wage after her Alzheimer’s worsened.
This compelling story of empirical force, however, still didn’t drive her to take a second look at Medicare for All or immerse herself deeply in studying healthcare policy. At a recent UC Merced debate forum, a student asked Soria about Medicare for All. Soria responded that Medicare for all is a “dream.” She likewise said in our interview that it couldn’t become a reality.
WAR, IMMIGRATION, INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS: There weren’t any direct questions on these subjects, but there was also no reference in any of Soria’s statements relating to them. The only area of international discussion was that of immigration, a huge area of concern to all residents of the U.S. This is clearly a subject that Soria has much direct experience with, both because she told the story of her brother whose wife is undocumented and a beneficiary of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and because of her extensive experience as an immigration rights lawyer.
Yet, she supports the so-called “Blue Card Bill” (Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Zoe Lofgrenoth . . . introduced the “Agricultural Worker Program Act of 2019,” S. 175/H.R. 64, which puts many restrictions on undocumented farmworkers that are quite burdensome and do not provide for circumstances in which workers become seriously ill or injured and can no longer perform physically demanding jobs and/or does not allow workers who might wish to pursue other employment that offers better pay and benefits to do so. Has Soria really studied the bill?
Her experiences as a lawyer, a board member of several non-profit organizations, including Hands-On Central California, Fresno Barrios Unidos, and UC Davis Immigration Law Clinic Council, the board chair of the Housing Successor Agency of the Fresno Redevelopment Agency, and as a city councilmember have prepared her to serve the City of Fresno, but there are still vast areas that Soria has not explored when it comes to why the local economy is failing and poverty and pollution are increasing. She doesn’t seem to have the data uppermost in her thinking and often doesn’t come forward with solutions.
Soria, instead, often reacts to the proposals of others. Although she frequently is on the side of the poor and failing middle class, at other times she doesn’t seem to see how her choices, such as allowing Amazon’s tax exemption for building fulfillment centers in Fresno, increases poverty. It hands over the economic power of the poorest and most polluted regions of the City to rich developers (those who are local and those who are not), corporate agriculture, large oil companies and other industries.
Amazon has a record of paying below a living wage, providing “robot-like” working conditions in which workers are on timers as they search up orders that give them demerits if they don’t complete tasks within the time set on the timer. After a certain number of such demerits, they are fired. After Bernie Sanders started the $15 an hour movement (2015), in 2018 he convinced Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, to raise employee pay and make some improvements in benefits.
There is clear evidence, however, that these fulfillment centers are about five years away from replacing human workers with robots. This would cause the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs across the country, sinking many communities into even deeper economic problems than before they got their millions of dollars of tax exemptions. These centers are all located in areas with low levels of educational opportunity; Amazon doesn’t teach any valuable skills that machines will not soon be able to replace.
DISCRIMINATION: Soria talks about her experience as a Latina forging a path through college, law school and into political office. Upon graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, she accepted a fellowship in Sacramento at the State Capitol where she worked for two years on issues of public safety, education, and women’s health. She was the first Latina in the history of the City of Fresno to be elected as Council President and served her term proudly from January 2018 to January 2019.
Soria’s pro bono work in immigration law with California Rural Legal Assistance and the UC Davis Immigration Clinic speak to her deep realization that laws against immigrants can be one of the most direct forms of discrimination experienced by any minority group. As a member of the City Council, she also frequently defended the rights of the homeless against bans on urban camping and the anti-panhandling ordinances with passionate pleas for respect and understanding rather than criminalization.
These actions have earned her a reputation as a compassionate leader and spokesperson for the poor in City Hall. She was an advocate against absentee slumlords and supported new legislation that holds offenders accountable for code violations. She has also been a passionate advocate for young people in projects like the summer internship program with the City of Fresno Youth Commission and the Youth Jobs Task Force with the Youth Leadership Institute. Soria often, however, seems to rely on the policy knowledge and legislative work of others.
FREE PUBLIC UNIVERSITY TUITION/STUDENT DEBT FORGIVENESS: “I can tell you that I have personally experienced what it is to have college debt,” Soria says, but she fails to go further to solve the problem of what to do to prevent future generations from accruing such college debt and of how to resolve the problem for those who have five and six-figure college debt which is impeding their quality of life right now. They don’t have access to buying houses, in many cases, to having a family and many other things that their parents were able to afford. She spoke of no plan for debt forgiveness, or any other method of solving the problem of college debt.
Likewise, Soria did not talk about how to reduce the cost of college education, but she did devote considerable time to telling the story of her brother who went to the University of Southern California as an undergraduate and then completed a Master’s in Education. He taught for over a year only to leave the profession because he wasn’t earning enough money to support his family.
She mentioned that it makes her angry that he had to make this hard choice as he is now a truck driver and no longer contributing to student lives through teaching, which he clearly loved. Still, Soria provides no broader statistics of information on how these problems can be resolved. What is her plan to fix the problem or will she rely on others to formulate plans and she will just vote for or against them? And will that be enough for residents of Congressional District 16 to vote for her?
* Editor’s Note 12/21/19: This section originally stated that Turlock is one of the cities in CD-16. It is not. It is in CD-10.
** Editor’s Note: This section updated on December 10, 2019.