Valley's housing woes get congressional hearing in Stockton today

WASHINGTON -- Political incumbency offers many advantages, including the chance to summon congressional hearings like the one coming to Stockton today.

The House Committee on Financial Services hearing at Stockton Arena will enable lawmakers to hear firsthand about the San Joaquin Valley's home foreclosure crisis. It also will provide a spotlight for lawmakers seeking re-election, including at least one who faces a competitive race.

The hearing comes at the behest of Reps. Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton, and Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced. Their congressional districts have suffered more than most from the epidemic of home foreclosures, and they had pressed hard for the field hearing.

"There was a fair amount of lobbying that my boss and Congressman Cardoza did," said McNerney's spokesman, Andy Stone.

The two lawmakers have held foreclosure workshops, but the noontime hearing convened by the committee chairman, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., will offer a higher profile. At least four House members will attend, and a fifth, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, was considering it.

The two panels of witnesses will range from Merced Mayor Ellie Wooten to an assortment of mortgage brokers, home builders and federal housing officials.

"We must pursue every possible means to resolve this hardship on our community," Cardoza said in a statement. "This is a significant step forward in doing so."

For McNerney, the hearing comes at a politically propitious time. He is the only one of the House members likely to attend who faces a competitive challenger, with Republican Dean Andal running hard in a GOP-tinted district that stretches from Ripon to Morgan Hill, south of San Jose.

Registered Republicans outnumber Democrats in the district 41 percent to 38 percent as of May. In part, the election will be fought over the 16 percent of district voters who declined to state a party affiliation.

"He's doing his job as a congressman," Andal campaign consultant Richard Temple said Friday when asked about McNerney's role in the hearing, "but he is also fighting for his political life in a district that's difficult for him to win."

McNerney has raised $2.1 million during this election cycle and had $1.3 million available as of June 30, according to federal filings. Andal has raised $798,145 this election cycle and had $663,038 available.

The Stockton hearing is the first field hearing convened by the full House committee since an October hearing in Boston, near Franks' hometown.

Stone stressed the hearing's legislative purposes and its relevance for the San Joaquin Valley communities that lead the nation in recent foreclosures. In California, 28,795 properties were foreclosed on in July.

"The primary benefit is to make some members of the committee know exactly what is going on," Stone said, adding that the hearing will help lawmakers learn how a recently passed housing bill is being received.

President Bush on July 30 signed the housing bill, which includes provisions meant to help homeowners with shaky mortgages and grants for communities to buy distressed properties.

Some of these key provisions, though, haven't had time to take effect. The $4 billion grant program for local governments, for instance, still does not have a required funding formula established. The bill's refinancing program won't begin until Oct. 1.