SACRAMENTO -- State Sen. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, spends most of his weekdays at the state Capitol and earns most of his money in the plastics business. Yet on the ballot, the candidate for Congress will describe himself as a "farmer" first.
One of his opponents, Richard Pombo, will call himself a "rancher" -- ignoring recent work as an industry consultant.
The two politicians are not alone. Across the valley, state and federal candidates are using farming or ranching titles this year, when in some cases they spend most of their time doing something else.
"What the consultants and candidates try to do is put something down there that is not a turnoff," said Allan Hoffenblum, who analyzes legislative and congressional races.
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In the farm-rich valley, agriculture is a positive for most voters.
And the candidates know it: Eighteen state and federal candidates are using "farmer" or "rancher" in their ballot titles.
All of them are able to make some link to farming, according to the California secretary of state's office, which reviews ballot designations. But the regulations leave room for interpretation.
Listed occupations must be "employment in which one regularly engages or follows as the means of making a livelihood" in the past year.
Denham, who is running in the Republican primary for the 19th Congressional District seat, lists himself as a "farmer/businessman/senator."
The seat is held by Republican George Radanovich of Mariposa, who is not seeking re-election.
Denham lists no farming income on his financial disclosure form for 2009. But Denham said that's because the 40 acres of almonds he grows in Atwater did not generate any income last year because he recently had to pull his trees and plant new ones.
"I've always been a farmer and always considered that as something that makes me who I am," said Denham, who reported his Salinas-based "Denham Plastics" earned him more than $100,000 last year.
According to the rules, candidates do not have to list all of their occupations -- they are limited to three words -- and can even leave the space blank. There is no income test, but the occupations listed must involve a "substantial amount of time and effort."
The flexibility has allowed some candidates to pick and choose popular titles.
GOP gubernatorial candidate Steve Poizner, whose full-time job is state insurance commissioner, lists himself only as a "businessman." The former Silicon Valley executive said he could use the title because he wrote a book in 2009 and negotiated a deal with the publisher.
Pombo -- a Republican and former Tracy congressman -- calls himself a "rancher." But since leaving Capitol Hill in 2006, he has appeared to spend quite a bit of time off the ranch. One of his stints was with Pac/West Communications, which has promoted oil and gas development.
Lately, he has done work for the consulting company of Steve Ding, his former top congressional aide.
His ranching credentials are that he is a partner with R. Pombo Ranch II, a feed lot and cattle ranching business run by his family in Tracy. Pombo's stake was worth $50,000 to $100,000, according to his disclosure for 2006, his last year in Congress.
The financial disclosures he must file as a candidate are not yet available, but Pombo said he would be reporting more consulting income than ranching income for this past year. Still, he said he lives on the ranch, works there regularly and has listed it as his primary occupation in previous campaigns.
"I don't think anybody can contest that I'm a rancher. It's what I've done my entire life," he said.
Every candidate must fill out paperwork backing up their requested ballot titles, and the secretary of state's office reviews each one.
But Bob Stern, former elections counsel for the secretary of state, said policing the titles is hard and oftentimes amounts to a judgment call.
"You rely on the opponents to call attention to somebody who's doing something in a misleading way," said Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles.
Political past downplayed
In most races this year, candidates are downplaying their political credentials. And that's nothing new, said Tim Hodson, executive di- rector of the Center for California Studies at California State University, Sacramento.
It's "a direct result of 40 years of the politics of bashing government," he said. "Prior to the 1960s and '70s, people would boast 'their incumbency,' " he added, because back then "people had a generally positive view of government and elected officials."
Valley Assembly candidate Bret de St. Jeor calls himself a "small businessman/farmer," but reported no farming assets in his financial disclosure. Instead, he reported up to $100,000 from his packaging business and modest income from "Charlie Choo-Choo's Party Trains," a company he founded that sells trackless trains geared for kids. De St. Jeor, of Oakdale, is running in the GOP primary for the 14th District. He said he listed farmer because his family owns 40 acres of farmland near Turlock and he tends to the land on weekends.