There’s only one federal politician that Luigi’s Restaurant and Delicatessen owner Gino Valpredo says he trusts to restore Old Town Kern’s culture: former President Donald Trump.
The 112-year-old family-owned deli was in a shopping and entertainment hub almost a century ago; but as the postwar heyday has worn off, the lifetime’s worth of photographs lining its walls and the stalwarts who still drive out for lunch are the only things that have stood the test of time in this sometimes bleak neighborhood.
On his ballot, Valpredo will face a choice in November: back a Democrat, or potentially a Republican who voted to impeach his hero in 2021.
Rep. David Valadao, shifting thanks to redistricting from California’s 21st Congressional District to the 22nd, was one of only 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump after the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.
Valpredo said Valadao’s impeachment vote wouldn’t necessarily be a deal-breaker in the primary election on June 7. In fact, that type of independence is exactly what Valpredo wishes more politicians would demonstrate.
“Nowadays you’re either Democratic or you’re Republican, which I don’t totally agree with,” Valpredo said. “Someone’s got to be intelligent enough to look at things on an individual basis and make a decision instead of completely, always as just a Democrat or as a Republican.”
Of the six lawmakers who voted for impeachment and are seeking reelection, Trump has avenged each by endorsing their challengers in the primary election. There’s one notable exception: Valadao.
Perhaps it’s because this is one seat Republicans could lose thanks to redistricting, even as they are poised to win enough seats to reclaim control of the House.
On the day of the impeachment, Valadao tweeted that he had to “vote [his] conscience,” explaining that Trump’s “inciting rhetoric was un-American, abhorrent and absolutely an impeachable offense.”
That impeachment vote is the premise of at least one of his two Republican challengers’ campaigns. Army veteran and real estate broker Chris Mathys has listed it as his sole complaint under the issues tab on his campaign website.
Without Trump’s endorsement, which did not materialize before the primary, both Mathys and Valadao’s other Republican challenger, longshot Hanford salon owner Adam Medeiros, are running far behind. Combined, they raised less than $150,000 in the year’s first quarter, $1.5 million less than Valadao. He stands as a testament to a rare brand of Republicans who may be better poised to compete in the general election from defying Trump — especially given the makeup of the district after redistricting.
California’s independent redistricting commission reshuffled the districts in the Central Valley, making Valadao’s turf more Democratic and more competitive in a general election. Under the new lines for the 22nd District Valadao is looking to continue representing, Joe Biden would have carried it by 13 points.
“In 2020, no member of Congress was elected to a district that voted so heavily for the other party’s presidential nominee,” Roll Call reported; but Valadao is also used to winning in a Democratic-leaning area. His former district backed the Democratic presidential nominee in 2020, 2016 and 2012. The 21st District was just one of nine “crossover” districts, with Valadao unseating Democratic Rep. TJ Cox even as Biden carried the district by nearly 11 points. The margin of victory was just 1,522 votes.
Like most districts across the country, voter turnout in the 21st reached an all-time high in 2020, with registered Democrats driving those numbers.
“That type of a turnout with the type of district that we’re in just makes it all the more difficult, and the fact that we won is a pretty strong sign for us,” Valadao said in a May interview in Hanford. “I think we’ll be in a better situation even though we go two points the wrong direction on the registration.”
An afternoon in the district suggests voters aren’t as tied to their registered parties as much as other places in the county.
“Valadao is able to convince Democrats to take a chance on him, to vote for him,” Central Valley Democratic political organizer and local news analyst Neel Sannappa said. “And his [impeachment] vote only makes him more competitive when it comes to him running against Democrats.”
Observing Valadao in his district on a recent Wednesday evening, the congressman seems comfortable with his constituents, regardless of their party registration status.
Roughly 50 middle and high school students and their families joined Valadao in the Hanford West High School cafeteria on May 4 to learn about the service academies and the congressional nomination process that’s a requirement for some. In a testament to how confusing things can be in a redistricting year, event organizers reminded attendees that their congressional district may have a new number.
As families perused the six service academy desks before the presentation began, Valadao too walked from desk to desk, striking conversations with students and parents alike — and even crouching down to talk to some younger attendees.
Valadao can often be spotted wearing blue jeans, a brown belt that complements his Clarks boots and a loosely tucked collared shirt throughout the Central Valley, including turf the new 22nd excludes. Prior to his event on Wednesday, he spent the day in Fresno and Fowler, which are in his current district but won’t be in the new one.
Valadao, a dairy farmer, said in the interview following the event that water is his top priority, because of the obvious concerns an agricultural community would have in drought-stricken times but also because of another problem plaguing California. The California Association of Realtors found that California’s housing affordability has yet again shrunk in the first quarter, and Valadao hopes to help build more homes to drive the price down.
“Even where we look to build some of our new communities or where some of our communities are trying to expand, their biggest concern is having water to be able to build homes, that they can supply water to those homes,” Valadao said. “In some of my communities the wells are literally going dry.”
State Assemblymember Rudy Salas — the only Democrat running in the June 7 top-two primary — is also no stranger to the Central Valley and its water woes. The lifelong Valley resident became the first Latino on the Bakersfield City Council before being elected to the state Assembly. It’s a position he has held since 2012, the same year Valadao took office.
“Rudy has the same kind of name recognition among the voters as David Valadao,” Sannappa said. “There have probably been thousands and thousands of people who have not just once, but multiple times marked a ballot for Valadao and for Rudy in the same breath.”
That’s the premiere reason why Kern County Democratic Party Chair Christian Romo said he believes Salas, who recently championed legislation that secured $50 million for Central Valley projects, is “the best shot we’ve had.”
“People in the Central Valley don’t always vote with party lines, so it’s all about messaging,” Romo said. “If we get out there and actually contact voters one-on-one and remind them that Rudy Salas is the person who’s already done the work to provide them real resources, then he’s going to pull it off.”
A quick look at Salas’ Instagram feed suggests that’s his strategy too, as it boasts photos of the assemblyman with various community groups. He has raised just over $470,000 in the first quarter.
The Cook Political Report has rated the November general election here a toss up. Republicans need a net gain of just five seats to take the House majority, so if they lose this seat, they will need six.
There is of course still the community neither Valadao nor Salas will likely be able to attract: the Trump loyalists who blame both Democrats and Trump-impeaching “Republicans in Name Only,” or “RINOs” for electing Biden.
One of those loyalists is 22nd resident Opal Cook, who called Biden “the worst president in our history” before boarding the bus to Bakersfield. She said Valadao’s impeachment vote would cost him hers.
“I’m always going to be a Trump voter no matter what,” Cook said. “I hope he comes back and wins in 2024. So I would have to support someone else.”
She did not say who she planned to support in the primary.
Valpredo, the deli owner, said he too is unsure which candidate will earn his vote in a month, but the slew of campaign mailers he received last week will help inform his decision.
“This is usually the time I kind of start doing research, but I’ve just been insanely busy around here,” he said, just moments before getting up to lock the deadbolt on the restaurant’s entrance.
Across the street, two men had broken out into a fist fight. As Valpredo approached the door near the bar, which even at 3:30 p.m. on a Wednesday was full, they dispersed.
He continued to gaze out the door’s window for the next two minutes or so as portraits of both John F. Kennedy and former California Gov. Jerry Brown hung above him.
Perhaps Valadao could earn a spot on Luigi’s wall eventually, too.