Robert Price

Saturday, Jul 27 2013 11:00 PM

ROBERT PRICE: Democrats dealing with a thin bench

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    Robert Price is The Californian's editorial page editor. Email him at

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By Robert Price
Political parties like to recruit smart, personable people to run for school boards and city councils — people they can later call upon when the stakes get big. It’s called building a bench. Some counties have seemingly inexhaustible supplies of these campaign-ready candidates. Some, like Kern County, don’t.

At least that’s the case with local Democrats, whose bench is so thin, candidates are being picked before they’re ripe. I’m not saying Leticia Perez, Rudy Salas or Willie Rivera are unworthy candidates — they’re not. In fact, from early indications, each is smart, dedicated and destined for good things. But the key word is early.

When Kern County-based Democratic legislators Dean Florez, Nicole Parra and Michael Rubio termed out of office or otherwise moved on at relatively young ages, they left a void that state and local party leaders have struggled to fill. 

Salas had fulfilled just half of his first term on the Bakersfield City Council when he jumped into the race for the new, realignment-revised 32nd Assembly District. Rivera defeated five opponents to win the Ward 1 special election necessitated by Salas’ subsequent victory and early departure from the city council — and he did so at age 22, literally straight out of college. And then there’s the poster child for this state of affairs, Perez, who assumed her duties as a county supervisor in January and announced plans to run for the state senate six weeks later. Her perceived abandonment of the Fifth Supervisorial District may have been her single biggest liability and she lost last week’s special election to Andy Vidak.

If local Democrats had had a deeper bench, all three most likely would have been serving out their previous obligations. In Rivera’s case that would mean developing his political chops as a district rep in the office of whatever seasoned Democrat would likely have won in the 16th District, where Democrats have a 20-point registration advantage.

Longtime Democratic strategist Gene Tackett agrees that the local apparatus badly needs reinforcements. So does Stan Harper, one of Tackett’s more prominent Republican counterparts.

“Democrats have strong registration numbers but they haven’t groomed and brought leaders to the table,” Harper said. “They’re looking more to back benchers instead of bringing in people from the business community. I don’t know why they’re not looking to people like that rather than staffers” from legislators’ offices.

CSU Bakersfield political science professor Mark Martinez thinks the Democrats’ bench is sufficiently stocked with talent, however. The best just happen to live outside Kern County. Assemblyman Henry Perea of Fresno bears watching, as does Kings County Supervisor Richard Valle, a former Nicole Parra field representative. Bakersfield City School District trustee Andre Gonzales is the most viable from Bakersfield.

“If Democrats had looked at the long term, they could have brought people together and found a candidate for the 16th who didn’t have the obligations Leticia had,” Martinez said. “But Michael Rubio wanted Leticia to run, and that’s what happened.”

But what about Perez, the sequel? She made a half-joking remark early in the campaign that if she lost Vidak might just have to deal with her again in a few months’ time anyway. Would a year of nose-to-the grindstone work as a Supervisor help erase the notion that she’s itching for state office?  Democrats will want to poll that question thoroughly before trotting her out again — assuming she’d even be interested. Another name to consider: Fran Florez, the former Shafter mayor who was essentially shoved aside by Democratic leaders in favor of Perez.

Let the soul searching begin. Vidak has a little more than one year to convince voters they made the right decision. It might be tough to make a good impression with the state Senate’s Democratic leadership trying to marginalize him as much as possible. With district registration numbers against him, he’s vulnerable. But, as Vidak proved last week, it’ll take more than that to beat him.
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