Charlene Nijmeh, interviewed at her Morgan Hill home, has waged a competitive challenge to Lofgren’s leadership. Photo: Dan Pulcrano

Longtime congresswoman Zoe Lofgren is locked in a contentious battle with Muwekma Ohlone tribal leader Charlene Nijmeh and former San Benito County Supervisor Peter Hernandez that will be decided in November, when the two highest primary vote getters face off.

The normally routine business of reelecting a congressional representative attracted attention this month after a political consultant whom Nijmeh describes as her executive assistant and chief of staff produced and distributed a 24-page publication in the format of a newspaper and distributed it to homes throughout the district.

The tabloid bore a traditional blackletter-style masthead “The South Bay Chronicle” and contained articles supportive of Nijmeh and critical of Lofgren, along with photographs and unpaid advertisements lifted from the web. 

Zoe Lofgren has represented the San Jose/South County area in Congress for nearly three decades and spoke about hopes to reform immigration laws and support new technologies. Photo: Dan Pulcrano

Without bylines, a staff box or campaign identifier, recipients were left to wonder who produced and paid for the estimated five-figure expenditure. “Nobody funds my journalism besides me,” Matthew Ricchiazzi, whose LinkedIn profile describes him as “Private Equity Professional and Political Operative,” confirmed via email.  He says he produced and home delivered 60,000 copies of the publication in the district, which was redrawn in 2020 and stretches from San Jose to King City and includes Morgan Hill, Gilroy and Hollister.

Ricchiazzi, whose previous political and publishing activities were based in upstate New York and southern Ontario, Canada, describes himself as a member of the indigenous Haudenosaunee nation and provided an image of a Canadian identification card verifying his Lower Cayuga first nation status. 

The consultant says he met second-generation tribal leader Nijmeh via Zoom in October 2022 and started working with her the following month. Nijmeh jumped into the race after a 2023 meeting with Lofgren’s staff that discussed her tribe’s bid for federal recognition, which, as Nijmeh tells it, derailed over the tribal leader’s refusal to forswear gambling in order to gain federal status. 

“I met with them in January last year. That’s what they were stressing to me. And I said, we’re done taking more rights away from our people. You took our land. You took our language. You took our culture. You’re not going to take the future away from the next generations if they choose to use that tool,” the businesswoman and mother of five, who lives in Morgan Hill, recalls.

Though he sometimes posts MAGA talking points to social media, Richiazzi said via email that he isn’t involved in Trump-aligned political activities. “I do work for several clients, including for-tribal clients in the United States and Canada. My political activities are very much focused on indigenous political liberation projects.”

“My political views are different than Charlene’s political views,” Ricchiazzi said. “She is kind enough to respect my right to have political opinions and my right to vote for whomever I choose. Charlene is a ‘moderate-progressive’ Democrat, and I’m not registered with any party.”

Lofgren speaks

Now coming up on 30 years in office, Lofgren at age 76 is more tenured than 95% of her colleagues. It assures her of coveted assignments as the ranking member of judiciary, immigration, science and other committees. 

She was frequently interviewed on network news programs as an expert on the two impeachments of Donald Trump, as a member of the impeachment committees. She also sat on the body that impeached Bill Clinton and was a congressional staff member during Richard Nixon’s impeachment. (None were convicted by the U.S. Senate and removed from office, though Nixon resigned ahead of the conviction vote.)

Lofgren also faces Republican former San Benito County Supervisor Peter Hernandez, who was born in San Benito County. Hernandez owns the Ohana Shave Ice retail business in Hollister and served as a county supervisor from 2018 to 2022. In his November 2022 run for Congress against Lofgren, Hernandez received 51,737 votes, 34.1% of the votes cast.

As of Dec. 31, Lofgren had raised almost $1.3 million for her campaign, modest by congressional standards, and Nijmeh had raised less than 10% of that, $106,330, most of it self-funded or friends and family donations. Hernandez raised $72,675 in contributions before the December filing deadline.

Nijmeh, who if elected would become California’s first elected indigenous representative in D.C., thinks there should be age limits on legislators. “I think anybody over 70 years old or 75 should retire,” she says. 

Lofgren isn’t riding off into the sunset, however. During a sit-down interview on a friend’s patio in San Jose on Feb. 18, the congresswoman was energetic after shedding 70 pounds and showed command of details on a wide range of issues, implicitly rebutting efforts to cast her as forgetful or out-of-touch. 

Lofgren defended President Joe Biden as well. “He’s done very well, and he’s currently doing well. I mean, all the speculation is, you know, maybe at some future point he would not have good judgment. Well, his judgment’s been pretty good so far. And I would say that his likely opponent has never shown good judgment,” Lofgren said. “So between the two, I don’t think there’s a close call.”

During an interview the following evening at the Morgan Hill home Nijmeh shares with her daughters and husband, Kennedy, the tribal leader sought to characterize Lofgren as the face of a government that hasn’t successfully addressed contemporary challenges. “She’s been there too long. My question is: What is she waiting for? Nothing has changed in this community. We’re suffering from a high cost of living, homelessness, crime on the street. We need change.” 

Nijmeh offered few specific solutions to the environment crisis, crime, housing and homelessness and says she’ll work on those issues once elected. She wants to build six million homes in five years though doesn’t detail a program, saying that there needs to be incentives and suggested that zoning needs to allow more high density construction. When asked about violent crime, she said, “There needs to be relationship building with the police force and the communities, developing programs like community watch groups and building trust.”

On the environment, Nijmeh said, “I wouldn’t call it climate change. We’re not being sustainable. … And Mother Earth is pushing back hard.”

Lofgren, for her part, discussed her goals if she is reelected, but says it will depend on the legislature’s makeup. “I am hoping the Democrats regain the majority in the House, keep it in the Senate, adjust the filibuster rules so we can actually do something and keep a Democratic president. If that is the case, I have been trying for so long to reform the immigration laws, which are just a mess from top to bottom. I want to get that done.

“It would be great to do something further on gun violence. Talking to some kids in Hollister recently, I asked, ‘Well, what are the things you think about every day when you go to school? They’re afraid they’re going to get shot every day. And I think every parent and grandparent in the country is worried every single day about what could happen to their kids in school.

“That shouldn’t happen. We can make a difference on that,” Lofgren says.

Lofgren serves as ranking member on the Science, Space and Technology Committee and, while allowing “this is nerdy,” believes “we are on the doorstep of three very important things,” which she identifies as fusion, quantum computing and artificial intelligence. 

“I went up a few weeks ago to Seattle to visit some fusion companies. One of them, Helion, has signed a contract to produce fusion energy in 2028. Whether they can do it, I hope they can. But we’ve got ignition at Lawrence Livermore National Lab like four times in the last six months. There are all of these companies that are getting close. And if we score on that, it changes everything in terms of climate change, not just energy sources, but removing carbon from the atmosphere, which is what we need to do.

“I mean, it’s too late to just change emissions, although we need to do that and we’re doing well with alternatives, but we do need an energy source for carbon removal. And then quantum computing, with AI, is going to, if we can put guardrails on the threats—and there are real ones—and we could harness the productivity, it would be amazing in terms of health care, energy and a number of other things.”

One charge leveled by Nijmeh is Lofgren’s coziness with Big Tech. Google is Lofgren’s largest contributor, delivering $105,550 in contributions during the latest campaign cycle. The company also employs the congresswoman’s daughter in its legal department.

Nijmeh, who says she supports both Israel’s right to exist and Palestinian self-determination, wants to see the United States stop spending money on overseas wars and has been critical of Lofgren’s support for Biden and what the tribal leader considers a war undeclared by Congress.

Lofgren, for her part, says, “I believe in Israel’s right to exist. I believe that they had every right to strike at Hamas who had threatened to do this over and over again. On the other hand, I have been critical of the Netanyahu government’s approach to the fight against Hamas. And the number of civilian casualties is, as President Biden said, over the top.”

Lofgren favors a ceasefire. “At this point, we need diplomacy to get us out of this. And I do think Hamas remains a threat. But I also think that conducting the war in the current mode is not going to be successful for Israel. They need to take out in a surgical way the leadership of Hamas.”

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Dan is a newspaper editor and publishing executive.


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