Progressive Fresno Councilwoman Takes On Blue Dog Democratic Rep. Jim Costa

While prominent Democrats rally behind the congressman, Esmeralda Soria lands major endorsements closer to home.

Esmeralda Soria found her way into local politics in Fresno, California, through ― of all things ― garbage. 

In 2013, Fresno was trying to privatize its municipal garbage division, and Soria believed not enough council members were fighting for the workers who would be laid off. She volunteered to campaign against Measure G, and the people of Fresno voted against it. After the vote, people encouraged Soria to run for the city council against the Democrat who had supported the measure. 

Her grassroots campaign in 2014 was victorious after Soria knocked on doors and met with thousands of voters. She won by less than 600 votes. 

Now Soria is taking another incumbent Democrat in the 2020 election. In July, she announced a challenge to Rep. Jim Costa, a centrist — claiming her spot among a wave of young and diverse progressive candidates hoping to unseat moderate incumbents. Soria, who was raised by Mexican immigrant parents in the small Tulare County town of Lindsay, said she has a deep understanding of what the district needs from its elected officials.

Like the handful of progressive women of color who ran and won in 2018, Soria is organizing a grassroots campaign and banking on the support of younger voters. It’s already working: Although she’s received significantly less in donations than Costa, the California Young Democrats endorsed Soria in October. Also that month, Costa and two other moderate Democrats ― one another House member, the other a state senator ― failed to secure an early endorsement from the state’s Democratic Party, illustrating the increasingly progressive views of many California voters.

Last year, Soria became the first Latina in Fresno’s history to be elected president of the City Council, and Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) tapped her for his task force on homelessness and affordable housing.

Her father’s early retirement from a full-time job spurred her to challenge Costa, Soria said. Her mother, who spent much of her life as a farm laborer in California’s San Joaquin Valley, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease a couple of years ago, and her father is now her caretaker while getting paid minimum wage at a part-time job — certainly no match for expensive prescription drugs and frequent doctor visits. 

“Man, our health care system isn’t working for families like my family,” Soria said. “I’m going to step up because I believe our working families have been muted by corporate interests.”

Costa, a Blue Dog Democrat elected to the 16th Congressional District in 2004 after more than two decades in the California Senate and Assembly, has been criticized by progressives like Soria for not doing enough to combat the state’s affordable housing crisis or act on climate change. As part of her criticism, Soria pointed to a 1995 state law co-authored by Costa that essentially empowered property owners to raise rents and regulated how cities could employ rent control laws. 

“I don’t think that my opponent has represented working families,” Soria told HuffPost last month. When I think of my opponent and what he’s done, he’s been kind of responsible for a lot of the housing issues,” Soria said. The ’95 law “was not a good thing for communities like the ones I represent.” 

Costa did not return HuffPost’s request for comment. 

The League of Conservation Voters has rated Costa’s voting record on issues of importance to the group at 49%, and he has also come under fire for criticizing the Environmental Protection Act.  

Rep. Jim Costa of California speaks at a news conference held by the Blue Dog Coalition, a House caucus comprised of &ld
Rep. Jim Costa of California speaks at a news conference held by the Blue Dog Coalition, a House caucus comprised of “fiscally responsible Democrats,” two years ago. He was first elected to his Fresno-area seat in 2004. 

But Costa remains the favorite among mainstream state Democrats. Newsom attended a fundraiser for him earlier this month, and Sens. Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein, as well as California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, have thrown their support behind him.  

“Those endorsements were expected,” Soria said. “It’s establishment. What we are trying to make sure the community knows is that the campaign is about them. It’s not about the people in Washington or Sacramento.” 

Though Costa enjoys national Democratic Party support, Soria has a different approach: scooping up endorsements closer to home. State Sen. Anna Caballero (D), who represents parts of Fresno and the Salinas Valley that overlap with the 16th District, announced her endorsement of Soria in October. 

Soria “will be a champion on the issues of health care, clean drinking water and education. Her track record shows that she can get the job done,” Caballero said. 

Soria has also earned endorsements from a handful of labor unions, most recently SEIU California (an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union), her campaign told HuffPost, among 40 other endorsements from council members, mayors, community leaders and local businesses. 

“I think that’s what matters at the end of the day,” she said. 

Soria is also prepared for an uphill climb on fundraising. Costa has currently received about $600,000 more than she has — an unsurprising advantage considering Soria has pledged not to take any corporate money while Costa accepts thousands from corporate PACs including Kraft Heinz, PG&E, Comcast and Sempra Energy. 

“I refuse to accept the status quo,” Soria said. “The families that I represent deserve to have a voice in Congress.”