CASUAL CANDIDATE: Hernandez throws the shaka sign at his Hollister shave ice business.

It’s a warm Saturday morning in late February and downtown Hollister is lively. On the 700 block of San Benito Street, Kai’s Ohana Shave Ice and Creamery is yet to open for the day, but its owner is already busy.

Peter Hernandez, who runs the small Hawaiian-inspired shop with his wife Karina, is sitting at a table inside the establishment talking to a reporter—and he’s not talking shave ice.

Hernandez is speaking politics. The Hollister native is running for the 18th Congressional District Representative seat in the fast-approaching March 5 primary election. The former San Benito County Supervisor is running as the sole Republican challenger to perennial incumbent Zoe Lofgren. After 30 years in congressional politics, Lofgren has become one of the country’s most influential Democrats. Hernandez thinks it’s time for Lofgren to ride off into the sunset.

“I pray that she has an awesome retirement, that she gets to enjoy her family,” Hernandez says, sporting a polo shirt emblazoned with the phrase ‘I Am District 18.’ “But I do believe when you’re in office and you’re in office for too long, especially if you’re not in the district, you forget what it’s like to be part of that district.”

Hernandez says that career politicians like Lofgren get lost in the world of Washington and seek power for power’s sake. He doesn’t want that. He says that he would only serve three or four terms if elected.

“I’m going on almost 50 years old. God rest Dianne Feinstein’s soul, but I don’t want to pass away in office. [I want to] be able to be with my family and be part of my community because public service should be a short-term thing,” Hernandez says.

This election is a rematch between Hernandez and Lofgren, who handily defeated the “America First” Republican in the 2022 midterms.  Also running for the District 18 congressional seat is Muwekma Ohlone tribal leader Charlene Nijmeh, who lives in Morgan Hill.

The top two vote getters in the three-way March 5 primary will advance to the November general election, where the final results will determine who is elected to the 18th District seat. 

When asked why he’s running again, Hernandez says it’s about playing the long game and that his experience as a former supervisor as well as a school board trustee, and a successful small business owner has prepared him well for the next step.

Hernandez’s supervisory term was marked halfway by the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns. He says that the ordeal helped him better understand how to administer a government and work together with various agencies while keeping the public informed.

The issues concerning San Benito County residents are a priority for Hernandez. He supports the creation of a Joint Powers Authority (JPA) led by the county to take over the embattled Hazel Hawkins Memorial Hospital. He wants local government to be accountable to the local community and not a state or federal government that doesn’t consider regional needs.

“We’re becoming worse and worse listeners to local governments, to the people in those communities, and by default there’s collateral damage,” Hernandez says. 

Hernandez emphasizes that his understanding of the community around him and their struggles is what sets him apart.

“I’m a first generation Mexican-American. I‘m proud of the fact that I came from very little, very humble beginnings. My mom worked the fields for 30 years,” Hernandez says.

His family has owned and operated Kai’s Ohana since 2017, sticking to the work ethos he learned growing up.

Despite being from an immigrant family, Hernandez does not support illegal immigration or an “open border.” He says that creating opportunities and protecting them for future generations hinges on the sovereignty of the nation and its borders. Hernandez disagrees with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s policy of providing basic healthcare to undocumented families.

“We have a governor that’s basically saying we’re going to give free healthcare to every illegal immigrant coming across the border. That’s unsustainable,” Hernandez says.

As for asylum seekers (a large number of which are stuck at the U.S.-Mexico border), the conservative candidate says that the immigration system is broken and a more efficient and robust vetting process needs to be in place before the country lets people come into the U.S. en masse. He clarifies that he is not anti-immigrant, but “pro-human.” A glance at his campaign website displays a tab for a Spanish translation of the site.

“We need a border that works,” he says.

Hernandez tows the party line on most issues. He is pro-gun rights, pro-police and has dug into his position in the culture war. 

According to his campaign website, Hernandez supports what he calls parental control over children’s education and healthcare. “Our educational and healthcare systems are broken. With weakened, socially divisive curriculum in education and forced medical treatments being pushed upon children, parents are left in the dark and dis-empowered,” says a portion of his website.

Even though Hernandez takes a staunch conservative stance on polarizing issues, he says that he does not want to promote divisiveness. He touts his previous work on creating a parklet program for outside dining in Hollister, during pandemic restrictions, as an example of reaching across the aisle and bringing everyone together for a common goal. He feels that he can scale that up as a congressional representative.

“The biggest thing is that I really do believe that we need to unify our nation. If you notice from our [election] race, there’s a lot of emotion and I would say even anger coming from candidates,” he says. 

“That’s not healthy. That’s not helping anybody. You have to work harder at building bridges so you can lower the temperature so that [the other side] is even at least in a position to listen to you.”

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