Ruminations on the Borba affair
Some unanswered questions about Westlands Water District grower Mark Borba's racial slur against President Obama and the behind-the-scenes efforts to get Westlands more Northern California water
By Lloyd G. Carter
The Fresno Bee ran a front page story by reporter Kurtis Alexander on April 9 stating that prominent Westlands Water District grower Mark Borba had been removed as chairman of the board of trustees of Community Medical Centers because he used a racial slur against President Obama during a heated email exchange with Westlands General Manager Thomas Birmingham. Borba and Birmingham had been arguing via email on whether enough was being done to obtain federal water for Westlands, which has seen its 2013 allotment cut by 80 percent due to drought conditions and court-ordered fishery protections. Borba referred to President Obama as "Blackie" in one email and also described the White House as "Michelle's house." Several prominent Westlands growers, including John Harris and Sarah Woolfe, were also copied on the Borba email containing the racial slur.
The Fresno Bee's John Ellis wrote a second story published on April 10 which said the email exchanges between Borba and Birmingham were expanded to include aides to Sen. Feinstein and Republican Reps. Devin Nunes, Kevin McCarthy, and David Valadao. Expletives were copious in the email argument and at one point, after Borba had already labeled President Obama "Blackie" and accused Sen. Dianne Feinstein of doing little to aid Westlands, Borba then called Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, who represents the southeast corner of the San Joaquin Valley, a "pussy."
Borba's broadside began when Nunes, McCarthy and Valadao, refused to sign a letter (http://costa.house.gov/images/pdfs/312013ltrconnoractiontoincreasecvpallocation.pdf) from Rep. Jim Costa to Michael Connor, commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which provides Northern California river water to Westlands. Sen. Feinstein also refused to sign that letter, which asked Connor to find a way to get more water for Westlands, which Costa claimed would generate $2.2 billion in "economic activity. Westlands, with 600 growers farming 617,000 acres in western Fresno and Kings counties, is the largest federal irrigation district in America.
Despite the superb coverage by the Bee reporters, and an Associated Press rewrite of the Bee article, which ran in the Los Angeles Times, the story's statewide impact was sporadic and brief. Here are some of the questions which went unanswered during the coverage.
1. Strangely, only one of the four Fresno local television news outlets ran the obviously newsworthy story of Borba's removal as chairman of Community Medical Centers, The local ABC affiliate ran a story about Borba's ouster but the NBC, CBS, and Fox local affiliates passed on the story, which ran in newspapers statewide. Why? Did they think it was not newsworthy? Were they afraid of blowback from Agribusiness advertisers and office seekers. In 2012, the Central Valley Independent PAC, primarily a grower group, spent several hundred thousand dollars at Fresno area media outlets for campaign commercials.
2. The California Department of Water Resources (DWR) runs a daily news clipping service for water agencies, newspapers, and the general public, which includes television and newspaper articles about water issues around the state, including the politics of water. Strangely, DWR did not run a mention of either Bee story. Why not? Did they think it was not newsworthy? No mainstream media reporter asked DWR why it failed to post the Bee articles on the daily DWR news service.
3. Borba's ouster from the hospital board merited front page Bee coverage, but when Borba, on April 12, resigned from the prestigious Maddy Institute because of the uproar, the local media was uninterested. The Maddy Institute, named after the late State Sen. Ken Maddy, is a bipartisan politics think tank on the California State University, Fresno campus. Not even the Fresno Bee covered Borba's resignation from the Maddy Institute. The Maddy Institute, which also runs a daily news clipping service, did not initially run the first Borba story in its clipping service, and made no mention at the Maddy Institute website of Borba's departure or any board of directions discussion about the matter. The only place the Maddy Institute resignation reached the public was this website.
4. Mark Borba, whose "family farm" is 8,600 acres, gave over $70,000 in campaign contributions during the 2012 election year cycle, most of it to Republicans but also to Democrats Feinstein and Costa. He co-sponsored a fund-raiser for Feinstein during the 2012 election. Several Republican Westlands growers attended that fund-raiser and contributed generously to Feinstein's campaign. Borba's first email to Costa (copied to Birmingham) said the water cutbacks for Westlands were "total insanity" and he wanted to know "Where the Hell is Feinstein & the Administration?" Borba was angry that Feinstein had not signed Costa's letter to Reclamation, asking for more water. Birmingham (who copied in two staffers for Sen. Feinstein) responded, "give me a f***ing break" and said he was working "very closely" behind the scenes with Feinstein's staff. Borba fired back, "I'm tired of these f***ing politicians waltzing through here . . . telling us how tough things are . . . picking our pockets for campaign $$$$ and they [sic] returning to DC and doing nothing! Put their f***ing careers on the line ... or step down."
In a Fresno Bee opinion article by Borba, published on October 27, 2012, he urged support Proposition 30, a ballot measure (which passed) pushed by Governor Brown to raise taxes for the cash-strapped state. "It is agriculture's hope that by preventing draconian budget cuts necessary, absent the passage of Prop. 30, our governor can bring focus and energy to a unified effort to finally conclude and act to solve the ever-growing Delta-state water problem. Fixing the Delta is crucial to all aspects of California life, not just in sustaining the state's important agricultural industry," Borba wrote. "Is this support for Prop. 30 a quid pro quo as suggested by some? Absolutely not! No more than would an individual's contribution to President Obama be in exchange for any promised government benefit, or to Gov. Romney for a guaranteed tax cut! " However, Borba's emails made clear he does think Sen. Feinstein should march into the White House and simply demand water, as payback to Westlands for grower support. Borba did apologize for his racial slur and heavy use of obscenity but refused to speak to the news media and said he would continue to speak out on water issues but with more civility.
5. Sen. Feinstein has also refused to discuss the Borba emails. While we do not need her reaction to use of the racial slur, Birmingham made it clear she is working behind the scenes to get Westlands more water. What deals is she cooking behind scenes with Birmingham? She needs to be pressed on this. One must also wonder if Feinstein still thinks of the Westlands as "friends." Here's guessing some folks in Westlands won't get a Christmas Card from the Senator this year.
6. According to the Fresno Bee, Community Medical Centers officials as well as public officials and agriculture industry leaders knew throughout the month of March about the salacious and explosive emails and the petty behavior engaged in by the email chain participants, including childish use of the F-word and other expletives. Why was it kept quiet by so many people? Why did no one publicly chastise Borba for his crude slur? Does the public deserve to know how dirty water politics can be?
7. There were 238 comments on the Fresno Bee website (through April 23) on the racial slur and heavy use of profanity. Despite this heavy flow of comments on a local story, only two letters were published in the hard copy version of the Fresno Bee about the Borba emails, and only one of them mentioned Borba. On the other hand, the Fresno Bee, in an editorial published April 9, stated that when Borba sent the email with the "Blackie" slur, he was "suggesting that his negative perception of the president was formed, at least in part, by the color of his skin." Here are two examples of comments at the Bee website on the John Ellis article. "There's more to Borba's inexcusable rantings than the use of "Blackie." Read those emails carefully and it's clear that Borba is complaining that a politician he thought he and his colleagues had 'bought' was not sufficently delivering in return. It's doubtful that Borba will get a Christmas Card from Senator Feinstein this year." Another comment letter said "Maybe Borba should repay his debt to the U.S. Treasury as a member of Westlands (the 50 plus year old interest free loan for building Shasta Dam and the Delta pumps etc.) Westlands' share is in the hundreds of millions - would be in the billions if interest was being charged at anything close to a market rate. Then, free of any fealty to the federal government, he can say what he thinks."
The Bee editorial continued: "Borba has since apologized for the slur in an email to hospital board members and officeholders, saying he embarrassed friends, colleagues and himself with 'hurtful' language. Borba also said that he would continue to be vocal about agricultural causes, but would exercise greater civility. Borba may want to be a leading voice again in our community, but to do so he will have to earn people's trust through his actions and his words. His apology is only a start."
8. No one in the mainstream media challenged Rep. Costa, in his letter to Reclamation, on the accuracy of his estimates of economic impact due to the water shortage. Dr. Michael Jeffrey, director of the Business Forecasting Center at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, blogged that Costa's figures were wildly off the mark. No mainstream media did a story on Dr. Jeffrey's debunking Costa's impact estimates. (In 2009, a severe drought year, Westlands only got 10 percent of its water allotment and yet Fresno County still posted a $5.2 billion gross farm income, just 4.5 percent off the previous year.) Hardly the devastation that Borba complained about.
9. The emails also revealed what appears to be a widening rift between Borba and Birmingham, who draws one of the highest incomes ($417,000 annually) of any public official in California. It's reasonable to presume that Borba is unhappy with Birmingham's strategy to cultivate Sen. Feinstein in order to get more water. Borba must also be unhappy that in the last four years, Westlands has spent nearly $1 million on lobbying in Congress, including high-powered lobbyist Norman Brownstein who draws a hefty $20,000 a month for his services.
10. In the strangest part of this saga, Borba, in the racial slur email, tells Birmingham that he has broken his keyboard pounding out his angry emails and that his fingers are bleeding. He demands that Birmingham pay for the broken keyboard. It seems to me that Borba needs a time out and should go sit in the corner and think about whether it's worth a heart attack to engage in a rant like that. It seems that the foul mouths of Borba, Birmingham and Nunes aide Johnny Amaral need a bar of soap.
There are rumors the Westlands is going to stage another political campaign to try and get more Delta water, similar to the campaign in 2009, when hundreds of farmworkers were paid to march along Interstate 5 in Westlands and generate sympathy for western valley communities riddled with high unemployment and poverty. Ray Appleton, a KMJ radio talk show host, who participated in that 2009 march, told listeners recently there was going to be a real "water war" this time.
Meanwhile, Westlands continues to buy irrigation water from water districts with surplus supplies, including the Placer County Water Agency and the Oakdale irrigation district. Water is available to Westlands but at free market prices. They've cried wolf too many times. Placer County charged Westlands $167.50 an acre-foot (325,851 gallons), which is about double what Westlands pays for its cheap, subsidized contract water provided by Reclamation. Why isn't the mainstream news media looking into that?