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Column: Can this Central Valley Democrat beat the Newsom curse?

Adam Gray is contending for a California congressional seat that could help determine who controls the House.
Congressional candidate Adam Gray at UC Merced, a campus he helped establish as an state legislator. He teaches political science at the university.
(Paul Kuroda / For The Times)
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Happy Thursday. There are 172 days until the election and we’ll start today with a Roman holiday.

Not ours. We can’t afford one.

Instead, we’re talking about Gavin Newsom and his jaunt to the Vatican.

As you know, last week he hastily dropped the depressing news of California’s massive budget deficit. It looks like we need to trim an additional $28 billion.

Newsom made that announcement before state number-crunchers had even closed their calculators — so that he could jet off to Italy for a climate conference at the very fancy Casina Pio IV, a “well-preserved treasury of 16th century frescoes, stucco reliefs, mosaics and fountains.”

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Because nothing says carbon conscience like a trans-Atlantic flight to a palace.

In his defense, Newsom was invited by the pope, and as popes go, Francis is pretty cool. And a nonprofit is paying for it. So that’s something.

But timing is everything. Newsom is in Rome. We’re stuck at home.

Can he at least pick us up some gelato?

Adam Gray on the UC Merced campus.
Adam Gray points to a former cow pasture where a future medical education building will be built at UC Merced.
(Paul Kuroda / For The Times)

The Newsom drag

Don’t get me wrong. I think Newsom is a decent governor. But you know who doesn’t? A lot of folks in the Central Valley, where the harsh nickname “New-scum” is as common as cowboy hats.

Today, we’re in California’s 13th Congressional district with Democratic candidate Adam Gray, a respectable-looking fellow in a dark blue puffer vest, who has a long-standing and good relationship with Newsom, but who also is acutely aware of the rancor with which some view the governor.

This district stretches from about Coalinga in the south all the way up past Modesto — and what happens here in the next election could have real consequences for American democracy.

The animosity toward Newsom, Gray told me, may be one of the reasons Gray was defeated by a Republican during his 2022 bid for Congress — losing by only 564 votes in a district that has more registered Democrats than Republicans.

“I think people were mad at him, and a little bit of that bled on to us,” Gray said.

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Gray, a former state Assemblyman, is again running against now-incumbent Republican John Duarte.

But this time the stakes are much higher than just who represents a stretch of agricultural valley. This seat is one of about six (depending on whom you ask) that will determine whether Democrats or Republicans control the U.S. House of Representatives.

Jump scare: Donald Trump is leading in some polls (though I really hate polls). Who will control the U.S. Senate is also completely up for grabs.

I’m sure you’ve heard plenty about these gettable seats in California. But the importance of keeping at least one branch of government Democratic really hasn’t been stressed enough.

Imagine for a moment not just Trump in the White House, but also both the House and Senate under Republican control. Then throw in our absolutely fair and impartial Supreme Court.

Goodbye LGBTQ+ rights, goodbye birth control. Abor-what?

Who is this guy anyway?

I’m not going to tell you Gray’s whole record, because I know you don’t care. But I’ll tell you two things I like about him beyond the fact that, again, his victory is critical to keeping our beloved republic.

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First, he’s been key in creating UC Merced.

When politicos were fighting over where to put a new University of California more than a dozen years ago, Merced didn’t seem like the likely winner.

Gray was a state Assemblyman at the time, and part of a somewhat unpopular but also surprisingly effective group of moderates — old school Blue Dog democrats in an increasingly left-leaning Legislature who were sometimes (not always kindly) called the Mod Squad.

And Gray fought like a “dog with a bone,” as he puts it, to put a university on a donated piece of ranchland literally in the middle of nowhere. That school today is nationally ranked and about to break ground on a medical school in partnership with UCSF, at a time when California is facing a shortage of doctors.

But perhaps most importantly, UC Merced is known as one of the best universities in the country for delivering on social mobility and helping to graduate kids who are the first in their family to attend college.

Get Gray talking about UC Merced (where he teaches a class on the state Legislature) and you’ll quickly see that beyond politics, this is his real passion.

“If I do nothing else in life, if I lose the congressional race, I’ve got these young people here,” he said as we walked through campus.

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Family matters

The second thing I like about Gray is he isn’t afraid of losing, and it gives him a swagger to say what he wants to Democrats and Republicans alike.

The first (and only) time he lost, he was sitting in a Houston hospital room hoping his dad didn’t die. He’d been on a family vacation in Mexico after the 2022 election — but before the results — when his father came down with COVID-19. By the time they made it back to the United States (no easy task), his father had deteriorated.

He was eventually diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare disease that it turns out COVID can increase your chances of getting. Great. It left Gray’s father nearly paralyzed for a long time — he’s still recovering.

So when Gray got the call that he had lost the race, it didn’t seem like the worst thing in the world.

“Losing the campaign wasn’t the center of the universe at that moment,” he told me.

OK, a bit about his record

The truth is, Gray’s politics are so moderate that in a place like Los Angeles, they’d probably pass for Republican. He’s made a career out of pushing back as much on the progressive left as the far-right.

That middle ground resonates in his district.

Abortion isn’t going to bring people to the polls here. Fear of a Trump presidency isn’t likely to do it either. There’s lots of talk of increasing the Latino vote, but it’s not so clear which candidate would benefit.

Gray’s No. 1 talking point has been to bash Duarte’s claim that he’s a moderate Republican.

Gray’s team likes to point out that Duarte has voted in sync with Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (yes, she of the Jewish space lasers) more often than not. Recently, Duarte voted for a bill that would stop undocumented people from being counted in the census, and another bill in favor of the impeachment of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

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Meanwhile, Gray wanted to show me the state’s latest park, Dos Rios Ranch, which Newsom dedicated on Earth Day a few weeks ago — a stretch of riverfront restored to work as a floodplain.

It is, as he puts it, “good for the environment, good for the farmer, good for public safety. We shouldn’t be arguing about this.”

He’s clearly proud of this park, and proud of being a consensus builder in a nation of division — an outlier in his own party, despite the millions he is now receiving from Democratic super PACs desperate to take the seat.

Win or lose, he says, “I’m not afraid. I can survive it.”

But can we?

What else you should be reading

The must-read: Why Biden Wanted to Debate Trump Early, and Why Trump Said Yes
The heartwarmer: Michael Cohen and Rosie O’Donnell: A Love Story
The L.A. Times Special: Column: ‘Diaper Don’? Trump’s supporters turn the tables on his puerile critics

Stay Golden,
Anita Chabria

P.S. Charles got a new portrait

I love it, but honestly, so bold? Weird? Red? Artist Jonathan Yeo captured something for the ages, but deciphering exactly what it means has quickly become an internet pastime. Meanwhile, still no word from Kate.

Artist Jonathan Yeo and King Charles III posing with Yeo's portrait of the king wearing the red uniform of the Welsh Guards
Artist Jonathan Yeo and Britain’s King Charles III at the unveiling of Yeo’s portrait of the King, in the blue drawing room at Buckingham Palace in London on Tuesday. The artwork depicts the King wearing the uniform of the Welsh Guards, of which he was made Regimental Colonel in 1975.
(Aaron Chown / Associated Press)
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