Fresno councilwoman challenges longtime Rep. Costa. Is she his toughest opponent yet?

In his next bid for re-election, U.S. Rep. Jim Costa may face his toughest challenge to date — and it comes from within his own party.

Fresno City Councilmember Esmeralda Soria announced on Thursday she is running to represent California’s 16th Congressional District. Soria, a Democrat born to Mexican immigrant farm laborers in the Tulare County town of Lindsay, is in her second and final term on the city council.

Soria’s political strength in Fresno could make her the most formidable challenge of Costa’s career.

The 16th district stretches from western Merced County, through Madera to the southern part of the city of Fresno.

After Soria’s announcement, Costa said he was disappointed in her decision and pointed to her past endorsements. He said in the last eight months they’ve met for lunch, coffee and social events and she never shared any major criticisms or disagreements with him.

Costa said his record will help him win again as it has in prior elections.

“I always work very hard every day to help people in our Valley,” he said in a telephone interview with The Bee. “…I always put my trust and faith in the voters of the Valley. This is my home and this is what my passion is.”

Costa’s victories over the years have come from his strong voter base in Fresno, while he lost ground in Republican-dominated rural areas like Merced County’s west side. Much of Soria’s council district in south-central Fresno falls within the 16th Congressional District, and she’s made allies with the other Democrat council members representing the southern parts of the city.

Soria also enters the race at a time when people of color are gaining traction in Fresno and challenging the political establishment in ways similar to what Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez accomplished in New York through grassroots organizing and community activism.

In an interview with The Bee, Soria never uttered Costa’s name, saying her congressional bid isn’t about her opponent or partisan politics. “I’m focused on who I represent,” she said. “People want a fair shot. They don’t want a handout.”

Costa, a 67-year-old Blue Dog Democrat, has faced one Democratic challenger since his first bid for Congress in the 2004 primary, Steve Hazei n 2010. (NOTE: The original story incorrectly reported that Costa hadn’t faced a Democratic challenger since his first bid.)

Over the years, he beat out numerous Republican challengers – Brian Whelan, David Rogers, Johnny Tacherra and most recently Elizabeth Heng.

Fundraising paths

Whether Soria can beat the veteran politician could depend largely on early fundraising. She said she won’t take any corporate money for her campaign.

Meanwhile, Costa in his last election accepted money from PACs and corporations such as Chevron, Google, Comcast, McDonald’s and Wal-Mart, plus various agriculture or labor-related groups. Costa also is likely to receive fundraising support from other longtime and high-profile California Democrats.

Costa touted his long list of endorsements from the state’s top leaders, including Gov. Gavin Newsom, Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris and Attorney General Xavier Becerra, as well as members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Many have committed to coming to the Valley to help him campaign, he said.

Soria may not be well-known outside of Fresno and her hometown in Tulare County, but the 37-year-old millennial said her background as the daughter of immigrants from a rural community will help her connect with voters in Merced and Madera.

Soria on the issues

Soria said she was inspired to run by her family’s personal stories and the ones she’s heard from city constituents, former interns and students she’s taught as an adjunct faculty member at Fresno City College.

“My family and the thousands of families here in the Valley that continue to struggle, they’ve worked hard, they’ve played by the rules and they give back. Yet, to this date, they’re barely making ends meet,” she said. “Things haven’t changed. The economy has gotten better. Our unemployment rate has decreased, but not enough. There’s still too many families that are struggling to make ends meet.”

On the issue of health care, Soria wants more affordable options, saying everyone should be able to have similar health care plans as representatives in Congress.

Immigration is a top issue for Soria, who once planned to be an immigration attorney. She called the immigration system broken and said she supports a path to citizenship for Dreamers, a guest worker program for seasonal workers, and condemned the current border crisis, saying “we can’t continue to allow these kids to be in cages.”

Affordable college and student loan debt is another top issue for Soria, who said she’s personally saddled with $150,000 debt from law school.

While Soria avoided directly criticizing Costa in her interview with The Bee, she added: “I wouldn’t be running if those issues were fixed.”

Costa pointed to his voting record to support water needs, transportation infrastructure, reducing prescription drug prices and working with state assemblymembers to bring a medical school to the Valley.

She touted her record at City Hall, helping spur job growth and fix neighborhood problems such as paving roads, building parks, advocating for affordable housing and holding more than 40 community meetings.

Soria’s council colleague Garry Bredefeld recently criticized her for a trip to Washington, D.C., where she met with Ocasio-Cortez. “AOC,” as she’s known online, has been described as a Democratic Socialist and also challenged a longtime Democratic incumbent in her district, where she represents Queens and the Bronx in New York.

While Soria vocally supports some progressive issues such as immigration reform and race-related issues, she’s also supported law enforcement and has been recognized for being “business friendly” while on the Fresno City Council.

Others in race

Costa and Soria aren’t the only ones fighting for the 16th seat.

Republican Kevin Cookingham, a retired Clovis Unified educator, also is challenging Costa. In May, Democrat Kim Williams filed a statement of candidacy with the Federal Election Commission.

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Brianna Calix covers politics and investigations for The Bee, where she works to hold public officials accountable and shine a light on issues that deeply affect residents’ lives. She previously worked for The Bee’s sister paper, the Merced Sun-Star, and earned her bachelor’s degree from Fresno State.