MERCED -- Merced County has lost its hometown congressman, leaving residents to wonder if an "outsider" can do the job.
The resignation of Atwater native Dennis Cardoza after almost a decade as a House Representative gives area residents a choice between two candidates from Fresno.
Democrat Jim Costa and Republican Brian Whelan will be contending for control of the newly drawn District 16, which includes Merced County, parts of Madera County and the city of Fresno.
"I think it could make a difference in the short run," said Nathan Monroe, a political science professor at UC Merced. "At the very minimum it's going to take them some time to familiarize themselves with Merced's interests and problems."
District residents share many of the same concerns and priorities: Water for agriculture and improving the economy top the list.
As a member of the House Agriculture Committee, Cardoza was able to deliver some funding for Central Valley farmers, but many feel he was never able to properly address the Valley's foreclosure crisis.
Having a district representative from Merced gave the community a certain sense of "security," said Deidre Kelsey, Merced County supervisor. However, she lamented Cardoza's inability to raise more concern around the Valley housing crisis.
"He's a homeboy and we appreciated that," she said. "It's also very important that a congressman have relationships with his peers in Congress because that's where the deals are done."
But being a congressman is not only about securing funding for the big ticket items, Monroe said.
"There's always earmarked dollars that go to specific projects -- freeway overpasses get built, roads get repaired, funding goes to particular programs," he said. "All of that can happen in a very targeted way."
For example, in 2009 Cardoza secured about $230,000 in earmarked funds for the Merced Theatre restoration project.
However, over the last few years, Congress has significantly curtailed the use of earmarks, which puts language into a bill for funding or tax relief on a specific project.
"I don't see it as being a very big deal as long as the earmarks are gone," said Merced Mayor Stan Thurston. "If you look beyond that, no matter where the congressman comes from they're going to have their field representatives here to take care of local issues."
There's a misunderstanding about who does what in the political system, said David Schecter, chairman of political science at California State University, Fresno. "I don't think it matters at all where someone lives," he said. "We don't even require a congressman to live in their district."
Once funding legislation is established in Washington, it's most often the state Legislature that decides how resources will be allocated, Schecter argues.
"It won't be an act of Congress that gets UC Merced a medical school," Schecter said. "It will be the infighting among the UCs for state dollars."
However, Congressman Costa disagrees: "You can't rely on getting funds for (the) UC and simply hope and pray that you can get a medical school in Merced. You (have) got to know how the system works and have to know Merced County."
Forming an advocacy group and reaching out to the UC Board of Regents goes a long way to securing something such as a medical school, Costa said.
Whelan echoed the sentiment that representatives can have an impact locally by fostering relationships and forming partnerships.
"Each local leader or group has their roles and functions, and ideally the representative will coordinate and be the voice in D.C. for those locally," he said. "It's a 700,000-person district -- it's not possible without the support of the local community."
Regardless of how precisely House members can focus their efforts, Schecter said, special interests in Merced County would be wise to reach out to the district candidates. "The voters have to step up in a democracy and tell their representatives what's important."
Monroe agreed: "They should expect a period of trying to get know those representatives, and those representatives getting to know them. It's going to be important for Merced residents to voice their concerns and needs."
"It's always a concern when that person doesn't live directly in your community," Kelsey said. "But it doesn't have to be. If the rep is good they will get to know the community."
Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.