Energy & Environment

Into The Haze

It's risky for a legislator from rural California to pick a fight with agriculture. Dean Florez felt he had no choice.
by | June 2003

A few weeks ago, two think tanks in California released a survey showing that the state had reached an environmental milestone: Its epicenter of smog anxiety had moved north. The most intense fears about air quality are no longer found in L.A. but in the Central Valley, the vast agricultural redoubt that lies between the Coastal and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges. An astounding 40 percent of those surveyed in the region said they or someone in their family had had severe respiratory problems.

Ordinarily, one wouldn't take much comfort in other people's worries about their asthmatic relatives--but the poll was good news for Dean Florez. In February, the 39-year-old state senator had introduced a package of bills aimed at fighting air pollution. Florez wants to repeal the laws that exempt farmers in the Valley from strict air- quality standards.

In Florez's home base, the San Joaquin portion of the Central Valley, his proposed restriction on diesel engines and ban on open-field burning had the feel of sacrilege. Normally an ally of fruit, dairy, cotton and vegetable farmers, Florez found himself up against his district's dominant industry. So the news that his constituents feel as he does came as a relief. "We didn't run a poll before we acted," he says, "so it's nice to have this one."

Even without a poll, Florez hadn't entirely gone out on a limb. The San Joaquin Valley has grown tremendously in the past few decades, fed by newcomers from the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles seeking affordable housing. Car and truck traffic also have grown exponentially, and the Valley now ranks among the most polluted regions in the United States. Its residents were taken aback not long ago to discover that they'd passed Los Angeles in the number of days each year when they were in violation of federal ozone standards.

"We had to make a decision," says Florez. "We were about to be sanctioned by the EPA, we would lose a host of federal dollars, but to me the defining moment was talking to asthmatic children, listening to their stories about how they take trips to the coast every weekend just so they can enjoy the week. Thinking about what we had not been doing--and I include myself--I decided to make it our issue."

In his relatively short time in Sacramento, Florez has shown a penchant for going against the grain. First elected to the legislature in 1998, he came to public attention last year when, as chair of the legislature's joint audit committee, he aggressively pursued an investigation into the state's $95 million deal with Oracle, the computer software giant. The no-bid contract had been rushed through despite doubts among the agencies it was supposed to benefit; the contract was, according to the state auditor, a horrendous financial deal for California. It also wound up costing several state officials their jobs and severely embarrassed Democratic Governor Gray Davis in an election year.

Florez, also a Democrat, was lionized by editorialists but shunned by party colleagues, who saw his investigation as grandstanding. When the Assembly speaker at the time, Herb Wesson, yanked Florez from his chairmanship, allegedly for missing a key vote, the Democratic caucus gave Wesson a standing ovation.

Florez, for his part, shrugged and moved on. "That standing ovation didn't make me feel good," he says, "but my dad likes to fly kites, and what he taught me, and I've always believed it, is that kites rise against, not with, the wind. I believe my kite gets higher as I work against the grain of what people think."

Of course, voters often like an independent streak in their representatives--especially in the Central Valley, which has a history of sending maverick Democrats to Sacramento--and even if Florez's support among growers has been strained by his recent moves, it's unlikely to hurt him in the long run.

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Rob Gurwitt  |  Former Correspondent
robg@valley.net

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