FRESNO -- “Drive around this city and take a look at the economic distress. It’s tragic,” Carly Fiorina suggests as we wrap up a sit-down interview in sleepy Fresno, California. “It’s way too quiet here.” She’s right. Shuttered windows, closed down businesses, and chained-off, vacant lots litter the heart of Fresno’s downtown district, which stands as an enervated shell of its former bustling self. The only storefront with any discernable foot traffic is a bail bonds joint next door to the Sheriff’s office, where Fiorina has come to accept the endorsement of the local law enforcement association. The economic outlook is grim in today’s California Central Valley, but Fiorina says it won’t stay that way if she defeats Barbara Boxer this fall.
Environmentalism Run Amok
“Just look at this situation by the numbers,” Fiorina says. “Fresno County has unemployment above 15 percent. Individual communities in the Central Valley have unemployment at 20, 30, even 40 percent (as in the case of Mendota, CA). It’s just terrible.” She points out that although the region suffers from the same economic ills plaguing the rest of the state, an additional factor is impeding any chance of recovery from Modesto to Bakerfield: A crippling water shortage. Fiorina penned an Op/Ed about the issue in the Fresno Bee last year, explaining that this “man-caused disaster” arose by dint of a poorly conceived federal effort to protect a species of small fish called the smelt. The result, she argues, has been unacceptable human suffering:
While the persistent drought has certainly contributed to these effects, what would have been a difficult problem has become a crisis due to the aggressive and ill-considered implementation of the Endangered Species Act.
The recent decision to limit water flowing to the Valley was made by nameless, faceless bureaucrats. These federal officials are unaccountable to voters for their action and there is little recourse to reverse their decision — unless Congress acts.
Congress has not acted, and Fiorina believes that failure lies at the feet of the Chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Barbara Boxer. “She is the chairwoman of the committee that could address this sort of issue, as it did in under then-chairman Pete Domenici,” Fiorina says, referring to a bipartisan solution to a strikingly similar challenge that hurt New Mexico farmers in 2003. “Today’s crisis is happening in her own state, yet Barbara Boxer won’t put an amendment forward to fix the problem. She is actively preventing the water from being fully turned back on, which the people of the Central Valley desperately need.”
What is Boxer’s motivation for sitting idly by as California’s farmers suffer? “You’d have to ask her,” Fiorina says before offering her theory. “I can only assume she’s bowing to pressure from the environmental special interest groups that fund her, but she ought to answer that question. The people of this state are stunned by her inaction. We’ve literally seen people standing in food lines, being handed cans of food from China in the middle of the most productive farm land in the world. It’s outrageous.” Fiorina also faults Boxer for failing to even convincingly pretend to care about the issue. “Barbara Boxer just recently met with the Latino Water Coalition. She didn’t meet with them at the height of the actual crisis, but she’s meeting with them at the height of an election campaign.”
Courting Feinstein Supporters
Fiorina’s profound disappointment in California’s junior Senator does not extend to her senior colleague, Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Although Capitol Hill insiders say the two Golden State Democrats don’t much care for each other, Boxer frequently name-drops Feinstein on the stump. “Dianne Feinstein is an extremely well-respected and effective member of the United States Senate for our state,” Fiorina says, admiringly. “I believe Barbara Boxer believes an association with Dianne Feinstein is very helpful for Barbara Boxer.”
Asked if she would have run in 2010 if the Democratic incumbent facing re-election were Feinstein rather than Boxer, Fiorina is adamant: “I would not have run against Dianne Feinstein, and it’s not because I agree with her on everything. It’s because I agree with her on many important issues facing California,” she says. “For example, Dianne Feinstein and I agree on water-related issues more than she and Barbara Boxer agree. The same applies to questions of national security and trade, if you look at their voting records. If you go down a list, on many big issues that matter to Californians, Dianne Feinstein and I can, and will, work very well together to get things done.”
Worlds Apart on Job Creation
Our conversation continually circles back to the question of job creation, as the specter of 12-to-13 percent unemployment persistently bedevils the state. Fiorina struggles to identify the single biggest difference between herself and her opponent on the matter. “It’s everything, really,” she says with a slight chuckle. “Barbara Boxer clearly and consistently believes that the answer to every problem is to increase taxes, increase government regulation, and increase government spending—unless, of course, it’s military spending.” She ticks off a list of what she describes as unconscionable tax policies boxer has supported. “How do you vote against the child adoption tax credit? How do you oppose relief of the marriage penalty, or tuition tax credits? You do those things only if your ideology dictates that more taxes are always the solution,” she says.
The former Hewlett-Packard CEO offers an alternative worldview that she believes will spur economic growth. “We need to cut off the flow of funding to Washington because they have a spending problem. My opponent has it backwards. We need to cut government spending, while prioritizing carefully, and we need to provide smart, targeted tax relief to our job creators. That’s the only way we will get our economy going and growing again,” she says.
A Loving Grandmother
As she’s embroiled in the serious daily grind of a fierce election fight, Fiorina’s face lights up at the mention of her two grandchildren, Kara, 14, and Morgan, 6. The pair is gearing up for a west coast election night trip with grandma and grandpa. “They’re very excited to be coming out to visit. We have spent some quality time over the last few weeks online shopping for what they’re going to wear when they’re here,” Fiorina says. Most often, though, her conversations with Kara and Morgan deal with anything but the Senate race. “Almost all of the time, we talk about them and what’s going on in their lives. Kara had a very difficult civics class, so I found myself helping out with homework regarding the Electoral College—right in the middle of my race, which was great. The other day, I called Morgan, who’s learning to play the piano. I got to hear the black key songs, the white key songs, and the two-hands songs. It was wonderful.” Fiorina says the kids understand that she is running for the Senate, but her national profile doesn’t register strongly with them. “They like it when they see me on TV, but I’m really just ‘Cici’ to them, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
A Photo Finish?
Over the course of my two-day tagalong with Team Carly, campaign aides consistently expressed a quiet, tempered confidence that Fiorina will pull an upset victory. “We’re within the margin of error in all of our internals,” one staffer tells me, “And that’s after [Boxer] spent $10 Million on negative ads against us. She pushed a few people into the undecided category, but really didn’t help herself that much.” A new Rasmussen poll shows Boxer in the lead, 49-46. “We are beginning to hit back hard and will be up on the air throughout the state for the rest of the campaign,” the aide says. “The Boxer people thought they’d knock us back ten or fifteen points, which didn’t happen, so we’re in a good position to counterattack.” Fiorina employed a similar strategy in the primary election, to obvious success. “We waited until the last three weeks before our big media push at the very end,” when Fiorina surged ahead of Republican rivals Tom Campbell and Chuck DeVore to seal the nomination. As Fiorina’s campaign manager Marty Wilson told me earlier in the week, the final result on November 2nd will hinge on who turns out to vote. A top staffer summarizes the race’s state of play this way: “If we do our job and get our message, we will win. It’ll be close, but we will win."