Kevin de Leon

State Sen. Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles) in the capitol building. (David Butow / Redux Pictures / June 18, 2014)

As a former resident of Bakersfield, I cringed when I read state Sen. Kevin de León’s comments about the decision to start building the bullet train in the Central Valley – a place he described as “the middle of nowhere” and just “tumbleweeds” – rather than Los Angeles or San Francisco

De León made the remarks in an interview with Times columnist George Skelton, and although the L.A. Democrat supports the bullet train, he did not have kind words for beginning with the Fresno-to-Bakersfield segment.

“I don’t think it makes sense to lay down track in the middle of nowhere,” De León told Skelton. “It’s illogical. No one lives out there in the tumbleweeds.”

Tumbleweeds?! Yikes. He’s talking about a region that is home to 6.5 million people and three major cities (Sacramento, Fresno and Bakersfield). It's one of the fastest-growing regions in the state, and the economic prosperity and environmental protection of the valley will help determine the success of California in the coming decades.

Such insensitive and uninformed comments would have been bad enough if De León were just another member of the L.A. legislative delegation. But he’s about to become leader of the California Senate, which represents the entire state. Under his leadership, the Senate will have to grapple with major urban-rural disputes over fracking, infrastructure spending and, most particularly, water, including who would benefit from the proposed multibillion-dollar water bond.

There was already some concern that the election of two Southern Californians as legislative leaders – a  first – would leave the Central Valley out in the cold. De León and Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) have offered assurances that they would not be parochial, but operate as stewards for the state. But De León’s comments probably didn’t ease those concerns. Indeed, the Fresno Bee wrote in an editorial that the senator “showed himself to be 100% ignorant about the Central Valley” and urged him to educate himself about the entire state. 

De León’s office offered an apology of sorts this week for the tumbleweed remark. His chief of staff, Dan Reeves, told Bee reporter Tim Sheehan, “I know he’s sorry it came out that way and didn’t intend to insult the Valley.”

De León certainly wouldn’t be the first person to question the wisdom of building the first segment of the bullet train from Fresno to Bakersfield. Critics love to call it the "Train to Nowhere." But Reeves clarified that the senator does not want to slow efforts to build the Central Valley segment. Rather, he wanted to see cap-and-trade money used to build the bullet train and mass-transit infrastructure in high-density areas for the greatest amount of greenhouse gas reductions, as mandated by the AB 32 Global Warming Solutions Act.

De León got his wish. The California High Speed Rail Authority has agreed to accelerate work on the Palmdale-to-Burbank segment in Los Angeles County. That would reduce a 90-minute Metrolink train ride to 15 minutes on the bullet train, which would probably get a lot of commuters out of their cars and cut air pollution. It's a good move. But I’m pretty sure there are tumbleweeds in the Antelope Valley.

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