Legislators share stories, dissect issues important to San Joaquin Valley in forum at Merced College

MERCED, Calif.— “Welcome to the master class.”

Merced College President Chris Vitelli’s worlds nailed the concept as he introduced six former and current legislators to the stage at the Merced College Theatre on Oct. 28 for a town hall-type gathering entitled “Politics: Past, Present & Future.”

Rep. Jim Costa (D-CA 16th), the congressman currently representing the valley, served as moderator for an hour-long discussion with retired local congressmen Tony Coelho and Dennis Cardoza, former state assemblyman Rusty Areias, along with current state assemblyman for the Merced area, Adam Gray (D-21st Assembly District) and current state senator Cathleen Galgiani (D-5th Senate District) from the Stockton area.

“Just think about the lineage of all the folks you’re hearing from today,” Gray said. “They all played a significant role in our story.

“We’re looking at all of the puzzle pieces today and here are the architects.”

The group represented 95 years, and counting, of experience holding public office at the state and national levels. Over the past 50 years, the group has had a strong hand in working out issues ranging from water rights to birthing UC Merced to advocating for disabled Americans.

“It reminds us that our story as a community hasn’t changed a lot,” Gray said. “We’ve made progress but, those issues we work on today, we’ve been working on for 50 years.”

That was basically the point of bringing these politicians together. It also fit the theme for the afternoon that some matriculated from and were now gathering on a community college campus to share their expertise on those issues.

Before the event began, the participants milled about during a short private reception and agreed that a community college education is fundamental to the economic health of the central valley.

Gov. Gavin Newsom approved $46 million in additional funding for state community colleges in September. Schools can use it to offer free tuition to all first-time college students regardless of financial need. (They are not required to do so.)

The money has freed a new generation of students from worrying about how to pay for a chunk of college. Other states are watching California to see how viable it would be to follow its lead.

“I don’t know how we can afford not to focus on education,” said Cardoza, now a lobbyist in Washington. “It’s exactly what some of these guaranteed scholarship programs do. They make sure every child in America, anyone in America really, is able to reach their full potential. I think [that idea] is one of the good things coming out of the current debates happening in our country.”

Can the state legislature sustain the funding long enough to see if the initiative truly does help California’s bottom line?

“Underlying your question is how do we prioritize education,” said Gray, a Golden Valley High, Merced College and UC Santa Barbara graduate. “I’ve always landed on the side of education being the No. 1 priority because it’s the great equalizer … As long as education is affordable and accessible to everyone, then no matter what, you’re going to have a fighting chance, not an equal chance, but a fighting one.”

Galgiani, who graduated from San Joaquin Delta College and CSU Sacramento, said the state legislators are trying to do more for education every year.

“We realize community colleges provide middle class students, single parents, single working parents, those having to work during the day and go to school at night, the broadest array of opportunity for young people or adults going back to college,” Galgiani said.

“It’s the greatest predictor of economic success and community colleges are the greatest entry to that. State funding has increased over time, and it is higher than it has been in the last 20 years. But we still have more to do to catch up to other states,” she added

Already, according to the Chancellor’s Office at California

Community College system, seven of 10 nurses and eight of 10 police officers, firefighters and EMTs in California were trained at a California community college. And 29% of UC graduates and 51% of CSU graduates started at a community college.

Costa said his colleagues throughout the U.S. Congress remain envious of the postsecondary education system in California. There are some 270,000 University of California students and 470,000 California State University students attending college right now, and the state will add an 116th community college campus (2.1 million students in CC system) when the Madera campus gets certified.

“It’s a pipeline that is unique and one of the reasons why California has become the No. 1 economic state in the United States and the fifth largest economy in the world,” Costa said.

The discussion turned from a collegial walk through the past 50 years of state and federal politics in the San Joaquin Valley, to a serious focus on key concerns to all Americans—health care, water rights, political corruption and mental health issues—once Costa opened up the floor to audience questions.

Coelho bemoaned the fact that legislators don’t communicate with each other anymore, much less work on legislation together.

“Clearly the lack of bipartisan collaboration is part of the problem we face today,” Costa said. “We actually talked to each other [before], but the extremes now make it much more difficult to reach compromises.”

Costa fielded another question on health care, a hot-button issue for 2020 presidential candidates for the 2020 election. He said he felt the best course of action would be to build on what Obamacare started.

To actually go from the public-private mix we have in the country now—i.e. Medicare for All—would cost $46 billion annually in California alone, Galgiani said.

Those are the challenges the current legislators work through on a daily basis. Still, it was obvious that the people fielding questions also took pride in their own accomplishments for this valley, as well as what the valley produces in human resources.

Costa even took a moment to acknowledge one of those local success stories in a member of the audience — Colonel Taft O. Aujero. Back in high school, the proud Atwater High Falcon was nominated by Coelho to attend the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Aujero now serves as wing commander for the 129th Rescue Wing stationed at Moffett Air National Guard Base in the Silicon Valley, which basically does support and rescue missions all over the world.

Aujero attended McSwain Elementary, which is as humble a beginning as one could imagine, but still one that ended with a local boy done good.

That was the exact point that Coelho was making when he reminded the assembled crowd of students, faculty and visitors that there is an abundance of talent and potential at Merced College and in the broader San Joaquin Valley.

“If I can do it, and everyone on this stage can do what we’ve done,” Coelho said, “then any of you can do the same.”

After the event, Vitelli talked about the exposure the event brought to the Merced College campus and its students.

“This is just a wonderful opportunity for us to do what we do best and that’s to educate the community,” Vitelli said.

“We have our current students that in composition classes and American politics and government classes and history courses who got a taste of all of that today. We have students in communication and leadership courses that got to hear from the best of the best today, from people who care about our community, and who care about the students in this auditorium.”