Stone Wheels: Covering the Ground in Condit Country
Stirling Newberry email@example.com
MODESTO, CA - I was munching a burger picked up at a franchise stand, one that is run by Hindi speakers who, presumably, don't eat cow themselves. I was driving one handed, the way one never should, and noticed that the hip, coastal, Spanish language "Radio Romantica" playing on the car radio had faded out. Searching around I found that Christian stations moved from the edges to the center of the dial. Someone had scrawled "Bush" on the side of a hill. That was all the warning I would get that I was near Ceres, the home of Condit country, where he had been a city council member all those years ago.
The grass is burned yellow, though there are few brush fires here, and the trees have that sharp green of life only when huddled around the few springs of water that muscle their way to the surface, or are clustered around the spraying machines that sprinkle the sunshine rain. They don't have fall here, but wet and dry seasons. And the dry season has months left to run.
Condit is not merely a man, and his fall is not the fall of just a man, but of a political machine. Like the fall of a plantation in a dynastic romance - the kind that weaves through the lives of three or four generations - it is, of course, intertwined with the land. His machine has tilled the soil, and up have sprung council members, positions for his children in the appointive bureaucracy in Sacramento - in this term limits state, a fourth branch of government - and prepared the way for his son Chad to run for the Assembly. His fertilizer was the same composition as that of a dozen representatives across the country - I'm your man, I am a local man. Tip knew the House of Representatives, when he said all politics are local.
Condit pushes the Democratic party of the Central Valley much farther to the right than the demographics suggest. The area is far less white, less fundamentalist Christian, and less prone to belief in what Bush the Elder called "Voodoo Economics" in a rare moment of candor. Condit's record - backing tax cuts for the rich, subsidies for agriculture, but not for cities - shows that he is firmly in the camp of Democrats who, while they don't live on the other side of the aisle, seem to head to the wrong side of the tracks for the forbidden fruit of subsidization without taxation.
His supporters claim that he is a man of his place, and yet, beyond a few street shots and some back grounding written from Sacramento, no one has looked closely as to what Condit Country is. He has connections with Gray Davis, Democrat and governor, and yet also with the Republican leadership in the House. Party with the Republicans in Washington and the Democrats of California.
Some lands are merely land, and others are places, whose people grow to be like the land itself. Condit Country is a place, and that place is set between the coastal range that faces the Pacific Ocean, and the Sierra Nevada's that divide the valley from the high desert of Nevada. The entrance to Modesto - the "base" of seat - has an arch whose slogan contains the words "Water", "Wealth" and "Commitment" - these are the virtues that Condit promised his constituents. Condit country snakes along the north-south highways, along the irrigation-fed almond groves and between grasslands that feed future steaks.
To understand a man who can preach putting the 10 Commandments in schools while he is busy breaking a few of them, to understand a man who can vote for tax cuts while representing a district whose economic life is a gift of Federal and State water projects and road building projects, you have to understand the yeoman's life - it has not changed much in a very long time.
The farmer who owns his land has value locked up in it, but not much liquidity. He borrows money to leverage the land, and buys with it the materials for planting and harvest. If he turns a profit, he keeps it, and stores it as value. In a sense, he is operating a hedge fund, filled with the risks of a hedge fund. The scrounging for money is the same reality that drives the search for water. The farmer of these dry lands is a moisture seeker - the clouds with rain hover, chained to the mountains, in sight, but out of reach - and the liquidity is across the hills - in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Though only a morning's drive away from Modesto, many people, when talked to, have not visited either - or have not in a very long time.
So many of our metaphors come from an agrarian past that few have seen. We speak of "priming the pump". Hand pumps for wells, if dry, are locked tight beyond being movable. Attempts to force them will lead to breakage - thus a bit of water is needed to bring them into motion again, and extract more water from the ground. That is, unless you like the taste of grease in your water. Water is the lubricant of life, and oil is the lubricant of engines. The later is extracted with care, the former paid for with liquidity. Costs down, prices up is the watchword. Caution and care. There is no "spend money to make money", because one does not sell shares in a farm and pass the risk to others. Of the kinds of liquidity that make the modern world move - water, oil, money - the Central Valley is dry. It is a rich place, dirt rich. It is a place that agitates for a billion dollar Auburn dam that would insure water into the next half-century, while fishermen and cities oppose it.
The yeoman thus is jealous in guarding land, water, and what wealth he can secure. They are his, because their steady accumulation marks his place in this world. The voice of John Locke - firm in its assertion that what is mine is mine is mine is mine, and all my representative is supposed to do is make sure that it stays so - is echoed, unconsciously at a truck stop along 99. "I don't see what business it is of anyone else what we do with what we have."
The image that many might have - of rubes who thump the bible with a twang - is not accurate. Though there are more than a few country music stations, and one can hear a sermon at any hour of the day or night on the FM dial - the local dialect is flat midwestern in its roots, and there are few US citizens who have not graduated from High School. Shake hands and firm grasp meets your own, clear eyes and a resonant voice. This is not backwoods anyplace; big cash crop agribusiness is not kind to hicks. And that is what one sees from northern end of the district to south - huge hulking concrete silos - and trucks marked with national brand names - Blue Diamond in particular. The towers of wealth here rise up above the flat, flat valley floor to heights of 200 feet, and they are the scenes of a bustle of trucks that come and go at almost every hour of the day.
That is the country - but what about the God? The Christian, capitalist God whose preachers preach "we must make ourselves humble", while meeting stares with an arrogant return, and evading questions with a staunch defiance? It confuses some, because the God of the city is a barrier between the human soul and the grasping greed that sloshing money brings. He is the God of humility, and charity. The city has money pass through the fingers like water - in, in waves, out in waves. The God of the Country is the bulwark against that momentary carelessness that lets a year's worth of work turn sour in an afternoon; he is the bulwark against the human weaknesses the wreck the locked up value. A divorce will do to a farm family more damage than a stock market crash - and we know what leads to most divorces. God is a reflection of his place. And here, that means a God of the solidity of the land.
The God of the Country then, is the Ganesh of the west - fortune through the world as it is. Fat, and yet on the most proscribed of paths. He is on the side of opposing the great evils of the yeoman's existence - disruption, lack of discipline, loss of face, loss of place. When asked, his own supporters agree it was not about adultery, or rather it was not the adultery per se, it is the taint of misfortune. It is that taint that is the millstone around Condit's neck.
This explains the attitude of this Condit Country. People will not jaywalk in downtown Modesto, they obey posted speed limits that connect cities as distant from each other as Boston is from New York - limits that are lower than those on crowded New Jersey roads. There is a scrupulousness to accounting a check at a restaurant. And yet they hire illegal immigrants by the truckload, brazenly calling for pickers in Spanish who have been carted in 12 hours from Mexico. There is a tightness to the official veneer of what is right is right. But "In God We Trust" is on the coins for a reason.
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By the time you read this, the Democrats in Sacramento will have begun to dismantle the Condit machine. His district will be shaded north. But it is not just in the new congressional map that changes are being made - assembly districts to the south will block together Condit-style Democrats and hardened Republicans, the two northern districts move towards the left in voter registration and voting patterns. In particular the fate of Tulare County is an object lesson. Currently it is drawn to be divided into three districts, each forming the core of a conservative assembly seat. In the new plan, there will be one district that covers most, and the most conservative, sections of the district, including adding the Blue Dog town of Madera. And the halo around Tulare is divided into three districts, two of which will lean much farther to the left than currently.
And Condit? He has treated political power the way a farmer treats the land, building his business on handshakes and being trustworthy. He is separate from the party label, and separate from even his policies. He is their agent in Washington. Which made him invulnerable and unaccountable to the rises and falls of economic fortune - but means that the scandal has undermined the only capital that he really had, his word and bond. "I don't see how we can trust him now. We don't know that he did anything, but we don't know that he didn't." Though one Condit supporter murmured that it seemed strange that the Levy family came up with the money - it was impossible to tell who the speaker felt was behind it. In general, the getting caught is, in itself, the conviction. Condit cannot be convicted by the press, because being caught is, like drug possession, on its face.
The scandal has created the perception of weakness.
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Some might feel that the yeoman politics of the Central Valley are absurd, or that their time has past. But the growth in the Valley, the growing haze of pollution that sits between the mountains, says otherwise. In China's coastal plains they are building this life a kilometer of road at a time, a grove at a time - with the same faces and attitudes. The yeoman politics of Condit Country are flourishing because they are irrigated and cared for. And Condit's fall will not change them.
But Condit is not an inevitable product of this place - in fact, many of the conservative Democrats of the Condit machine come from districts carried by Bush by slender margins, which have only faint advantages for a Republican. They demand full allegiance to vote like a Republican - for delivering only a slender sliver of the electorate.
There are some who would back Condit simply because they oppose the manner of his fall, feeling that it bodes ill for the future. The sentiment is echoed by one Ceres resident: "Who'd be left?" Yet others, who will admit that the behavior itself is probably common among politicians, respond: "Did you see him sneak into the Agriculture committee meetings on TV? What kind of man is that?"
I had not seen this episode, but the speaker had seen it on C-Span. Even some of his own volunteers express doubt as to whether he should run. In his old district, he might be able to carry a primary against a very crowded field, but it would be very close. As a Blue Dog democrat, Condit gets a good deal of his support from the other side of the aisle. But is that really the Democrat one wants in this district? The best Republican for the job?
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The sentiment in Sacramento is equally brutal and calculating, but in a different way. The same people who are content to have Condit as a feudal lord - holding an outpost - are now desirous of his swift departure. He cannot turn to those he has so often snubbed and demanded favors of. He is, as farmers often are, borrowed to the limit for his day-to-day existence, so when disaster strikes, he has no credit remaining. Those who would talk, would not talk on the record, and what they had to say was a reiteration of the obvious - about the new district, about the appearance of impropriety. Gray Davis' rebuke was a signal to the troops that Condit had fallen from favor.
Nothing is a clearer sign of this than the redistricting process. Normally, when there are seats to spare, redistricting is an incumbent protection process. Districts, even those of the opposite party, are usually left alone, though, of course, there are exceptions to this. Potential district maps of members of the party that controls both houses and the governor's office, are usually approved by the member himself. The word from Sacramento was that "Condit's seat wasn't drawn for Condit, but for any Democrat." When this is said aloud, and publicly, one does not need to see the writing on the wall. One Assembly staffer stated: "We've been told not to talk about Rep. Condit." The Sacramento Bee tried to spin the district as giving Condit "a boost", however, no one else seems to share that opinion.
His children have resigned from the state bureaucracy, which, with term limits, is a fourth branch of government here. His son, Chad, who had been groomed for an Assembly run, has disavowed politics for the time being.
In the proposed maps, Condit is shorn of the Blue Dog and Republican-leaning areas near Merced - itself the home of Dave Cogdill, a Republican representative whose office is located "oh, a way out of the way there", but whose fortunes improve with the weight of Condit lifted off of him. It gains largely Latino and African American stretches of San Joaquin County, in fact, over a third of the 180,000 people added to the district are Latino. Farther south it gives a boost to the south's up and coming Republican Mike Briggs of the 29th Assembly district, whose affable staff and open door policy have marked him as a politician with greater ambitions. He picks up a slice of Madera County that makes his district more compact.
The 18th Congressional District moves to being majority registered Democrat, majority voting for Gore in the last election cycle - Bush carried the old 18th - and ripe with potential challengers. The most widely cited of these is State Senator Michael "Mike" Machado of the 5th Senate district. In California, State Senate districts are larger and more populous than Congressional districts, and hence a good measure of having the organization and fundraising heft to win a Congressional race. A potential ally in his quest would be Tony Cardenas - powerful chair of the Assembly Budget Committee, whose district lies just to the south of the new 18th, and who is, justifiably, regarded as a strong voice in agricultural Latino communities across the state.
Condit, having lost his constituents, and local allies, cannot be held afloat by a national party that has little cachet here, especially when California's term limits create a powerful "up or out" pressure. Condit has lost face - he can no longer get by on his flat declaration that he did or did not do something. It will be questioned in the future. The street level sentiment runs against him, for no other basic reason. One can tease aside each aspect of the scandal in turn - no, people don't believe he had anything to do with the disappearance, no the adultery wasn't enough, yes they admit that other Congressmen have extra-curriculars. Even the lies. What sank Condit was his own inability to take the bull by the horns. They want a man who can do that for them, as they seek to pull the water in to the Valley, and keep the money from flowing out - and Representative Condit, is no longer that man.
So many of our metaphors come from an agrarian past. We say a rolling stone gathers no moss. If moss grows on the millstone - a heavy rock that is used to crush grain into wheat - it must be painfully scrubbed off. But a millstone used - ever turning and grinding - will not ever fall prey to moss. It is meant to be an exhortation to use one's assets, to keep busy and moving. But it is also a metaphor for the endlessness, relentlessness and callousness of the logic of the life of extracting cash from the land. The Wheels of Stone that drove Condit upward - water, wealth, commitment - are now grinding him under, pressed, as "grist for the mill," where they send horses that are no longer of use. People still speak of "Condit Country" here, but the words become ironic in their tone.
Ultimately the tabloid press must be sent down to defeat - we cannot live our national life at the mercy of who hires a PR firm, and which side of the aisle has its dirty linen outed by a press that has, increasingly, abandoned all pretense of being anything other than a herd of chattering yes-men for a Republican Regime. The Condit scandal was, always, about taking Condit out. Now that he is listing and taking on water, the coverage has dropped out of sight, his PR director has resigned, even those who were described, not long ago, as "close" to Gary Condit have nothing to say, on or off the record. Chandra Levy will probably be one of the thousands of women who vanish and are never found - and Condit another example of the results of a political discourse which is now no better than the "Yellow Press" at the turn of the last century.
Next - the Central Valley issues and the shape of the new 18th congressional district.