Government / Politics

‘Use Your Voice’ forum brings political candidates together to discuss wide range of topics

Candidates for Congress, State Assembly, San Benito Health Care District and Gavilan Board of Trustees debate at election forum hosted by BenitoLink and San Benito County Farm Bureau

It was nearly standing-room only during the Oct. 6, "Use Your Voice" election forum held at the Hollister City Council chambers. The crowd listened politely, giving mild applause as each of four rounds of debates were completed. The eight candidates answered four questions each from moderators. The questions were solicited earlier from the public and were tailored to the offices for which each pair of candidates was running.

The candidates included: Casey Lucius and Jimmy Panetta, running for the House of Representatives, District 20; Anna Caballero and Karina Cervantez-Alejo, competing for the State Assembly; Dr. Ariel Hurtado and Gordon Machado, who were vying for a seat on the San Benito Health Care Board, for which Machado is the incumbent; Danielle Davenport and Rachel Perez, running for the Gavilan College Board of Trustees.

House of Representatives

On immigration policies and balancing them with the agriculture industry, Panetta said having grown up in the area, he knew immigration reform was important to not only agriculture, but to Central California. He said it is his number one issue and referred back to 2013 Senate Bill 744, which he said was a comprehensive bill that dealt with all aspects of the issue. He said reform is not only about jobs, but a pathway to citizenship and said the bill had a 13-year pathway, which he said was difficult. Panetta, whose father Leon previously held the Congressional seat representing San Benito County, said it’s important to “bring people out of the shadows so they can contribute to our country.”

“It’s an economic thing, it’s a humane thing, it’s the American thing,” Panetta said. Then he associated himself with Hillary Clinton’s campaign and took a swipe at Republican Paul Ryan when he said, “We can do that if we have a president who’s willing to do it, a Speaker of the House who’s willing to be a good speaker and your representative, and make sure we have comprehensive immigration reform.”

In answering the same question, Lucius said that while she agreed that comprehensive immigration reform is something to strive for, “Unfortunately, it’s a divisive issue, and a political and partisan issue that the two parties can’t seem to agree on.”

Lucius said she wants an approach that is practical and not ideological, which she said is found in the H-2A visa reform plan. She said that nationwide, the agriculture industry needs 3.2 million H-2A visas every year, but Congress set the cap at 140,000. She said the first thing she would do is to work to remove the cap and place the H-2A program with the Department of Labor, which would work with growers to figure out the numbers for the visas, streamline the process and address the expense per visa that growers have to pay.

The two were also asked about their philosophy on the role of the federal government and the need for regional control; what sort of presence they would have in the county to ensure it received equitable attention and resources; and long-term security of fresh water supplies.

Lucius said businesses in the state are “being hammered” by regulations, licenses and fees. While she said she believes there are roles for federal and state governments, ultimately, authority and autonomy need to be at the local level. She said the unemployment rate in the district is double the national average because businesses cannot be successful with all the regulations they face. She also addressed water issues.

“In this county we need to focus on water storage, but it’s the federal government and nine federal agencies that get in the way of us making normal progress,” Lucius said. “We need to give autonomy to local water districts and agencies, and get some of those federal agencies out of the way.”

Panetta said everyone asks him why he wants to go to Washington if it’s so dysfunctional, and why things can’t be done locally. He said the answer is having faith in the process and working together. He agreed that agriculture has “been getting hit from all sides” and everyone needs to get together to make sure county, state and federal regulations aren’t conflicting and overwhelming.

When he was addressing what sort of presence he would have in the county, Panetta brought up the SAFER grant that would have funded 12 firefighters. He said it was denied because it wasn’t detailed enough.

“There needs to be more coordination with the Congressional office to make sure grants like that are done correctly and appropriately so when it’s approved or declined they know exactly why,” he said.

Lucius said one of her priorities would be to have a fully-staffed district office in Hollister. She said she would fight for federal grants and that the application process should not get in the way. She said there is a need to elevate all three counties in the district to a national infrastructure protection program, under the Department of Homeland Security, because of the agriculture industry, which includes transportation, water, and affordable housing.

“As you know we produce enough food here to feed the rest of the country, so we need the roads to transport the food, we need the labor, the housing and the water,” she said. “The best way to see all those things is to see them as a network, and then look at how we can arrive at a solution.

Watch forum video of the Congressional candidates below:



State Assembly

Karina Cervantez-Alejo and Anna Caballero were first asked to address highway congestion and the loss of $750 million from the state highway program. Alejo said there needs to be regional collaboration and mentioned that Santa Clara County has a measure on the ballot that if passed will improve the interchange at Highway 101 and Highway 25, which she described as a critical corridor for commuters from the county. She said transportation funds that were redirected to the general fund during the recession need to be returned to allow counties to invest in highways and local roads.

Caballero said she would support reinvesting the $750 million cut from the budget by putting it back into the budget in order to repair roads. She said Governor Jerry Brown had called a special session to address unmet needs statewide. She said she will make sure rural counties are at the table when the money is handed out to include support for public transportation. She said construction on Highway 156 needs to begin immediately, not two years from now.

In addressing the issue of San Benito County being a bedroom community for Silicon Valley that doesn’t share in the economic benefits, Caballero said it is important to protect agriculture or the area would become an even bigger bedroom community. She said she wants to work with county supervisors and city councils to assure all available resources are in place in order to build the economy. Alejo said that while the agriculture industry is important, attention needs to be given to the emerging green energy industry, which, together, could increase the economic vitality of the region. She described the organic industry in the county as an emerging economic engine. She said it’s important to generate local jobs so people don’t have to leave the area, to be caught up in commuter traffic.

Watch forum video of the Assembly candidates below:



San Benito Health Care Board

When asked what they thought the role of the board was in overseeing the hospital, employees and other agencies, Dr. Ariel Hurtado, chief of surgery at Hazel Hawkins Hospital, said he grew up in Hollister and after becoming a doctor moved back in order to serve the community.

Incumbent Gordon Machado said that over the years he has been involved with a number of subcommittees going to department head meetings. He said that while he did not participate in the meetings, he could overhear what was said and bring it back to the board to act on. He said he doesn’t believe in micro-managing the hospital, but when there is a concern, the board should speak up.

Dr. Hurtado said the role of the board is to provide accountability for the actions of the hospital where every small decision affects the community. He said the board needs to provide more benchmarks and guidelines from other hospitals, which can easily be found on the Internet. He said the community currently has a lack of faith in the hospital and they don’t think the facility has their best interest in mind. He said the hospital needs to take better care of its employees than they just did, apparently referring to the recent nurses’ strike.

Both were asked how aggressively the health care district should seek a major medical organization with which to partner.

Machado said he thought it was critical that it be done in order to have specialties available, such as heart surgery capabilities. Dr. Hurtado strongly disagreed with Machado. He asked why a hospital such as Stanford or Kaiser would want to partner with “little Hollister.” He said the biggest problem, as far as the hospital is concerned, is that people are leaving the community for their health care.

“These entities aren’t coming here to manage the health care of our population,” he said. “They’re not interested in how healthy you are. What they’re wanting is referrals. They want to suck patients out of here to go up to San Jose.”

Dr. Hurtado said the hospital is the second largest employer in the county and if people continue to go out of the county for medical care jobs will be lost at the hospital and at companies that support it.

“I’m completely opposed and it’s a failure of leadership to run profitable operations,” he said. “It is an excuse and I want to hold our management accountable to run in the black and respond to the needs of this community.”

Watch video of the Health Care Board trustee candidates below:



Gavilan College Board

Danielle Davenport and Rachel Perez were asked about promises that were made to expand Gavilan College educational facilities using voter-approved Measure E bond money and opportunities that did not materialize. Perez, who has served 16 years at Gavilan as an administrator, said she was disappointed at what “didn’t transpire” for the county. She said she was involved in calling residents about the bond. She said part of the promise made was that there would be an educational center and eventually a full-service campus.

Asked why that did not happen, she said, “We had an oversight committee and seven trustees for the president of the college who made those decisions of the spending the Measure E money. I feel your pain. I’m hearing you and I understand the issue in terms of the promises made to you.”

Davenport said adamantly, “I want to correct what my opponent just said. There was no promise to build a facility.”

She said that even though she was new to Gavilan, she did her research. She said Measure E raised $26 million, of which a third was used to purchase land in San Benito County (at the corner of Airline Highway and Fairview Road, across from Ridgemark Golf and Country Club). She said the college's strategic plan stated that land would also be purchased in Coyote Valley. She said building in San Benito County was stopped because of mitigation plans and environmental issues, as well as the lack of student levels that would kick in matching funds from the federal government. But she said that because Coyote Valley was a joint venture with about 10 different colleges, a campus there moved forward.

“I don’t want to keep facilitating that perception because all it’s going to do is make you more frustrated,” she said to the crowd. “We need to come back to reality, look at the strategic plan and what was actually promised and that was we would establish a foothold, not a full-fledged campus. Unfortunately, the county didn’t get what they thought they were promised.”

Watch video of the Gavilan College trustee candidates below:



The next "Use Your Voice" election forum will be held Thursday, Oct. 13 at 6:30 p.m. at Hollister City Hall. It will feature candidates for the following races: 

  • City of Hollister Mayor
  • Hollister City Council
  • San Benito High School Board of Trustees
  • Hollister School District Board of Trustees
  • Measure U
  • Measure V
  • Measure W

Watch the Oct. 6 "Use Your Voice" forum, courtesy of CMAP-TV, below. 





John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a freelance photojournalist with additional experience as a copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter, and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer, having worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John worked as a scriptwriting consultant, and his own script, "God's Club," was produced and released in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime, which are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected]