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ANNA SMITH: An open letter to California’s new governor

Bakersfield

Bakersfield is a place with challenges and great potential.

Dear Governor Gavin Newsom:

I am writing to you from California’s Central Valley, a place you recently said was one of your administration’s top priorities. I applaud your focus on a region filled with great problems and great promise that has been historically neglected by leaders in Sacramento and Washington. As a native of the San Joaquin Valley, I think I can help.

Coincidentally, we have a history together.

While I was attending law school in San Francisco at UC Hastings College of the Law 10 years ago, you were the city's mayor. My classes were across the street from City Hall. I remember seeing you a few times, coming and going. You were hard to miss, tall with coiffed hair, always dressed in a suit surrounded by staffers, once at a press conference on the steps outside of the Beaux-Arts monument that I passed each day, with its grand dome (which happens to be taller than that of the U.S. Capitol by 42 feet). These were inspiring sights to see as I traveled, all hours of the day and night, to and from classes and the library.

I remember sitting in my apartment in 2008, studying for final exams, taking breaks to watch you deliver portions of your State of the City address on social media — the first time a U.S. mayor had done so. You had a lot to say about your hometown, from public art to poverty, in what was your longest State of the City that came in segments totaling 7 ½ hours long.

You seemed much more approachable. The video was blurry, the PowerPoints almost unreadable, and you did not appear to be using prompts. You didn’t shy away from tricky topics, expounding on schooling, health care, homelessness, poverty and crime. You were attempting to communicate the complexity and potential you saw in the lumbering beast of government in a city you cared deeply about.

I had a similar feeling as I watched you deliver your first State of the State address earlier this month. You laid out a plan to re-prioritize the controversial high speed rail project. You explained that the project should focus on the Central Valley, completing first a leg between Bakersfield and Merced.

“It’s about economic transformation. It’s about unlocking the enormous potential of the Valley,” you explained.

I moved back to my hometown of Bakersfield with laser-focused purpose, determined to help my hometown achieve its potential. As you have come to realize, the Central Valley is a beautiful place that’s often overlooked by others in our state, but my husband and I chose not to overlook the opportunity here.

A lot of the issues in your address are particularly crucial here in the valley: poverty, economic development, water, housing. I’d argue that these challenges are more acutely felt here than in other parts of the state.

You’ve said that you want to be a part of the change and focus with different intentionality on economic development in our region.

You expounded: “We don’t do justice to the needs of the Central Valley.”

Governor Brown had a number of projects intended to help our region, but he was never very vocal about them. The Central Valley was not part of his narrative, and he rarely visited our region.

In the spirit of believing that each California region adds to the beauty and diversity of this state, I applaud the recognition that we matter, too. The Central Valley, the fastest-growing region in California, has been largely ignored for long enough.

So, Gov. Newsom, I would like to make you an offer. Let’s take this pseudo-relationship to the next level—let’s meet. Come down to the ninth-largest city in the state and the second-largest in the Central Valley, our dear Bakersfield. Inspired by your interest in our region, I’d offer to serve as your tour guide.

I know you visited in the past while campaigning, but I’d like to show you a different side, a view that displays all the crue,l harsh realities of today’s world in the form of a burgeoning, mid-sized city awkwardly experiencing its own sort of adolescence. There are immense opportunities that exist in this place.

Let’s walk the streets of Bakersfield with the people enacting real change. You would see the process, progress and potential.

We have our own set of challenges: high rates of illiteracy and obesity, lack of access to quality education and health care (especially in rural communities), water contamination and extreme poverty.

We need industry diversification to encourage economic growth. Businesses struggle with attracting and retaining educated workers. Bakersfield sits at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, an especially petroleum-rich and agriculturally important area. These resource-based industries are facing struggles into the future. We need to fold in knowledge-based sectors as well.

I would be happy to introduce you to residents working to spur civic renewal in surprising and powerful ways. I invite you to meet with residents, business owners and civic leaders making waves here that will be felt for generations.

There are public officials doing phenomenal work with disadvantaged and homeless populations. Nonprofit directors are making deep and long-lasting impacts.

I know volunteer city council members who work tirelessly to create alliances and collaborative public-private partnerships, bridge divides and improve the quality of life in our community.

I know entrepreneurs who moved here from larger cities, like your hometown of San Francisco, intent to make their mark in radical new ways on this underdog city.

Business owners are taking brave risks and entering new industries to diversify our local economy, pushing for venture capital investments to fund new startups.

I work with entrepreneurs taking bold moves to improve our city’s image. They are pioneers of the open-source movement in a place that has not historically been receptive to it.

Exciting partnerships have recently formed between Bakersfield and our sister city to the north, Fresno. There is a quietly growing movement brewing in the interior of America; Fresno and Bakersfield represents two cities where this kind of magic is playing out right now.

In light of your new focus, we’d like to welcome you back. Come meet the intricately woven fabric of diverse people contributing to this place. This complex story of loss and renewal, hope and opportunity is not adequately described in the news, in Sacramento, in Washington or anywhere else, for that matter. These firsthand Bakersfield accounts could help give a more accurate picture of the Central Valley, a place largely left out of prior statewide narratives. Bakersfield proves that great things can come from the valley.

Let these people highlight our region’s unique challenges and communicate the complexity and exciting potential I witness every day in this place.

We deserve Sacramento’s support.

Respectfully,

Anna Smith

Anna Smith writes a weekly column about Bakersfield. She can be reached at anna@sagebakersfield.com The opinions expressed are her own.

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