The Case of the Fake Farmer on the Election Ballot

When you’re a kid, you have all sorts of different dreams and ideas about what you want to be when you grow up. For California Reps. Jeff Denham and Devin Nunes, clearly, it was to be a farmer. After all, they do say they’re farmers, and that’s how they’re going to be described on this fall’s California election ballots.

But are they farmers?

Democrats say no, and they’re trying to stop them from labeling themselves that way. The party is mounting legal challenges to these California Republicans in the San Joaquin Valley over their using the word “farmer.” Farmer is a popular ballot description among those representing the San Joaquin Valley, used by Denham, Nunes, Rep. David Valadao, a Republican, and Rep. Jim Costa, a Democrat. Democrat groups want to force Denham and Nunes to take that description off the ballot.

California’s election code allows candidates to include a three-word description of their “current principal professions, vocations, or occupations,” or one they held in the previous year, beneath their name on the ballot. The “ballot designation,” as it is known, is a constant source of dispute in election years. Both academic research and anecdotal evidence indicate that a candidate’s description on the ballot can affect support, particularly in races where voters know little else about the candidates.

As a result, campaigns and political consultants try to figure out the description that will most appeal to local voters. Before the state’s June primary, more than a half-dozen congressional and statewide candidates were forced to amend their designation after being denied their first choice by California’s secretary of state or because of an opponent’s court challenge.

And of course, a lawsuit against Denham was recently filed, saying he isn’t truly a farmer because his 20-acre almond orchard in Atwater is leased to someone else. The income he earns from the land is in rent and not listed as farm income on his 2018 financial disclosure report. The majority of Denham’s overall income, besides his congressional salary, comes from renting out a property in Turlock and from his plastics company based in Salinas.

Denham said the plastics company also makes farming equipment, adding to the income that comes from his involvement in agriculture.  So that’s kinda like a farmer, right? Calling the lawsuit “ridiculous” and “an attempted distraction to not talk about water issues,” he said he grew up farming a wide variety of produce, from corn to watermelon. He also bought the farmland 15 years ago and worked on it personally with his children, he said.

Nunes is facing a similar challenge, with Democratic Super PAC Fight Back California funding a challenge in court that would force the congressman to remove the farmer designation. While Nunes’ most recent financial disclosure reports less than $5,000 in income from Alpha Omega Winery and less than $200 from a Bank of America Savings Account, his family owns a farm in Tulare. The lawsuit says Nunes has not “earned income from farming or agriculture operations in at least 10 years.”

What defines a farmer isn’t clear-cut. Under the California Farm Bureau bylaws, it seems to come down to how much income comes from farming activities, which can include leasing farming land to others.

So hold on to your dreams of farming, kids. But don’t be surprised if you encounter a nasty legal dispute or two on your journey because they are everywhere taking up the courts’ valuable time as well as your own. And when disputes affect YOUR business including landlord/tenant matters, contract issues and even collections, you can call on the litigator who always wanted to be a litigator (and is), Dean Sperling, to resolve YOUR matter with YOUR best interests in mind!

More on the Case:

Fake farmers? California congressmen’s self-descriptions challenged