Democratic gubernatorial candidate Antonio Villaraigosa

Antonio Villaraigosa is not the sort of politician who would scuff his well-shined shoes with the dust from San Joaquin Valley farms, or so you might think.

And yet the natty former Los Angeles mayor and Assembly speaker is going beyond traditional Democratic sources of money in Hollywood, San Francisco and the Silicon Valley to the Central Valley as he fights for his political life in the race for governor.

The one-time union organizer and Southern California ACLU board member has tapped farmers, many of them Republicans, for more than $640,000, nearly 10 percent of the money he has raised since the start of 2017, a CALmatters analysis of his campaign contributions shows.

WhatMatters: Your daily guide to ​California policy & politics.

This unlikely pairing of the big-city Democrat and farmers suggests that Villaraigosa sees central California as a path to one of the top two slots in the June primary election so he can compete in the November run-off—presumably against the front-runner, Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Villaraigosa will be in Modesto later this month for a fundraiser hosted by almond growers, one of dozens of trips he has made as a candidate to the Other California. It’s paying off. Political action committees representing pistachio growers, berry farmers and dairy operators have given him $20,000 or more each.

J.G. Boswell Co., one the state’s largest farmland owners, has given him $50,000. Fresno almond farmer Donald Peracchi chipped in $25,000. Peracchi is president of the Westlands Water District, which supplies water to farms in Fresno and Kings counties, and no issue is more important to farmers than water.

Sarah Woolf said Villaraigosa spent “two full days” with her Fresno-based farming operation last year, “learning about water and agriculture,” and has returned multiple times since.

“He wasn’t coming with answers. He was coming to listen,” said Woolf, a Republican. Woolf Farming donated $15,000 to his campaign.

Villaraigosa supports the proposed Temperance Flat reservoir east of Fresno and Sites Reservoir north of Sacramento, projects embraced by farmers. He opposes the Delta tunnel project, intended to deliver water from the Sacramento River to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California, as too divisive. And he calls for a “grand bargain” to end water wars. Governors including Jerry Brown have tried that.

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Democratic candidate for governor, speaks to reporters. Photo by Max Whittaker/CALmatters

In the Fresno County town of Reedley, Dan Gerawan and his family lay claim to being the nation’s largest growers of peaches, plums and nectarines.

Gerawan also has the distinction of being the target of Cesar Chavez’s last organizing drive, in 1990, before the iconic founder of the United Farm Workers died in 1993. Ever since, Gerawan and the union have been enmeshed in an epic struggle that has spread from the fields to the California Agriculture Labor Relations Board, the Legislature and the courts. It continues to this day.

On Feb. 9, Gerawan gave $5,000 to Villaraigosa’s run for governor, one of the few times Gerawan has donated to a Democrat. Two weeks later, UFW President Arturo Rodriguez delivered the union’s endorsement of Villaraigosa: “Antonio has consistently stood with and worked with farm workers in good times and tough times over the course of many years.”

“Farmers and workers share a lot of the same goals,” Villaraigosa told CALmatters. “They want a healthy economy and they want the Central Valley to get its fair share.”

Villaraigosa arrived in Sacramento as a liberal, hardly a go-to legislator for farmers. The first bill he introduced as a freshman assemblyman in 1995 would have raised income taxes on rich people. In another early bill, he aimed to tax bullets. Republicans still had clout in Sacramento then, so neither bill got far. Later, as Assembly speaker, he helped make Chavez’s birthdate a paid holiday for state workers, with votes from several Republicans.

Farmers might prefer a Republican as governor. But they can count. With Republicans only a fourth of California’s voters, a Democrat almost surely will succeed Brown, who is leaving because of term limits.

They are wary of Newsom, the former San Francisco mayor, seeing him as too liberal.

In March, Newsom and Villaraigosa raised more than $3 million between them, their biggest fund-raising month of the campaign. But they are limited by caps on contributions. Not so wealthy individuals beyond the candidates’ control. That became evident recently when Netflix Chief Executive Officer Reed Hastings and Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad infused an independent, pro-charter-school campaign fund with $8.5 million to benefit Villaraigosa, a supporter of the cause. Expect more in the days ahead.

Republican John Cox, candidate for governor. Photo by Tommy Lee Kreger via Wikimedia

For now, Newsom has a significant lead, followed by Republican businessman John Cox and Villaraigosa, according to the latest poll by the Public Policy Institute of California. But many voters are undecided. That’s especially true in the San Joaquin Valley, where 29 percent of the likely voters have not made up their minds.

No wonder, then, that Villaraigosa, Cox and other leading candidates for governor will appear at a debate later this month in Fresno, though Newsom is skipping it. The race in June is one for second place.

Nor is it surprising that Cox, who lives in the San Diego area, is airing a radio ad in the Central Valley deriding “L.A. Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa.” The ad singles out Villaraigosa’s support for spending “billions on the bullet train.” Cox knows the high-speed rail project being built in the Fresno area is unpopular in the valley, particularly among Republicans who might be tempted to vote for Villaraigosa.

“For the political elites, the Central Valley is just another whistle stop,” Cox’s ad says.

Yes, it is a whistle stop for out-of-town politicians. But for Villaraigosa, it’s also an ATM and, he hopes, a well of votes.