Christopher Neely covers a mixed beat that includes the environment, water politics, and Monterey County's Board of Supervisors. He began at the Weekly in 2021 after five years on the City Hall beat in Austin, TX.

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Christopher Neely here, still reflecting on a wild 2021 and wondering what 2022 has in store. 

Last year began with a sobering national moment: The U.S Capitol Building was stormed and infiltrated by an antagonized mass of Trump supporters who believed, despite the election results, that Donald Trump should remain the president. The year closed with an unprecedented and controversial shift in the Central Coast’s political landscape as the redistricting process split up Monterey County into different congressional and state voting districts. 

This morning, Congressman Jimmy Panetta and I discussed 2021’s bookends, what we’ve learned, and what they mean going forward. Part of our conversation is included below, edited for clarity and space. 

Weekly: We're coming up on a solemn anniversary for the country: the January 6 storming of the Capitol. What did that day mean to you? And where's your head one year later?

Panetta: Tomorrow marks a very solemn and serious day not just for Congress, but for this country in the realization that one of our threats to our democracy is from within. We have a responsibility to look back a year ago and ensure that we can protect our democracy and protect our cathedral of democracy. That means putting certain protocols and technology in place to protect our Capitol. 

We’ve done that. We in the House of Representatives have passed voting rights legislation to ensure that state legislatures creating laws that make it easier to overturn the will of the voters are not put into effect [this bill remains stuck in the Senate]. We need to also ensure all evidence is made apparent as to what exactly happened on Jan. 6 and not just hold accountable those who entered the Capitol but also those who prompted and motivated and did nothing, despite their responsibility to do something, during that attack. 

It’s an important day to recognize, but based on that day, there are a hell of a lot of things we need to be doing to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Weekly: Is bipartisanship still an attainable goal? 

Panetta: Definitely. It’s unfortunate that people turn on the news today and see the hyper-partisanship that emanates from both sides of the extremes in our parties, clearly on the Republican side more than our side. 

But the press doesn’t show what I see in my everyday workings in our nation’s capital: that there are members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, who are actually there not to yell and scream and to flout mask mandates on the floor of the House of Representatives. There are actually representatives there from all over this country who understand what it takes to get stuff done, and that's building the relationships and building the trust necessary to do that. So I'm very, very proud of the House of Representatives and my work in the House of Representatives, knowing that there are members that I work with every day, every week, Republicans and Democrats, to get stuff done for the people of the Central Coast. 

Weekly: Now that redistricting is over, your district looks much different than the one that elected you in 2020, much different than the one that elected your father. You’ve had some time to sit with the changes, what’s your reaction?

Panetta: Fortunately, the new 19th Congressional District still has the Central Coast at its heart…but I'm extremely disappointed in the fact that the [California Citizens Redistricting] Commission apparently did not listen to the hundreds of people who waited for hours on end to call in and express their concerns with splitting up the 20th Congressional District. Unfortunately, it was apparent to me that this commission was intent on creating a new district to the east—the 18th Congressional District—and in doing so, decided to manipulate the boundaries of this district to make that happen. 

With that being said, it’s still the Central Coast and I hope to still be the Central Coast no representative in the 19th District. 

Weekly: Sure, a lot is the same but, for the first time in at least 50 years, the congressman who represents the Monterey Peninsula won't represent the Salinas Valley. Does that change your priorities at all? Do you still want to remain on the Ag Committee?

Panetta: If you look at the new 19th Congressional District, I may not have the products but I’ll still have the people who live in this area, work in that area, and that will still be a priority for me because it will continue to be a major industry in the area. 

People say to me, “You’ve done so much to become an agricultural representative.” Well, I am that representative because it’s my job. I grew up on a ranch but I don’t consider myself a farmer. I don’t do it because it’s my background, I do it because it’s my job as a congressional member to represent the number one industry of the 20th District, and that’s agriculture, by far. That’s why I've done the work I have in agriculture and on the Ag Committee with the Farm Bill. 

And I will continue to do it because the Farm Bill is about food; the Ag Committee plays an important role beyond just handing out subsidies to row crops in the Midwest. It also provides for food assistance here on the Central Coast. 

Weekly: Now that it’s over, where do you stand on this process of redistricting with the Citizens Redistricting Commission? Do you see room for improvement?

Panetta: I obviously support the independent commission. But I do believe that can be improved by ensuring that they have a better process to listen to and take into account and provide easier access for public comment. I do believe they need to ensure they have actual understanding of what a community of interest in the area they’re looking at actually is, and that might entail having someone on the commission that’s actually from this area, rather than just looking at a map and looking at numbers.

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