Local News

Tuesday, Feb 26 2013 10:30 PM

Many names surface to replace Rubio in state Senate

BY JOHN ELLIS The Fresno Bee

FRESNO -- It's been five days since Michael Rubio unexpectedly resigned from the state Senate, and the political world has since been roiling with rumor and speculation about who might seek to replace the Bakersfield Democrat.

The challenge is separating mere rumor from those who are actually considering a run in a special election that will be held either late this spring or early summer. Not many people are actually fessing up to a commitment, though it is clear some are testing the waters.

Leading that list is Assembly Member Henry T. Perea. The Fresno Democrat hasn't returned calls recently, but in a text message last Friday, he wrote that he was "strongly considering a run but have to talk with my wife first. Needs to be a family decision."

The district runs down the Valley's west side and into Bakersfield. But it is more than just Kern. It includes Fresno and Fresno County.

Leticia Perez, a former Rubio aide and newly elected Kern County supervisor, has been mentioned. Another Democrat is Bakersfield City School District Member Andrae Gonzales.

On the Republican side, there's Bakersfield City Council Member Russell Johnson.

Tulare Republican Connie Conway, who is the Assembly's minority leader, has been mentioned, as has Hanford Republican Andy Vidak, who fought a pitched 2010 congressional battle before falling to incumbent Democrat Jim Costa.

Through a spokeswoman, Conway said she was "flattered by all of the talk about her being considered for that race" -- and has represented part of the district both in the Assembly and in her previous job as a Tulare County supervisor -- but that she's currently focused on her job leading the Assembly Republicans.

Other names being floated are unsuccessful Republican Assembly candidate Pedro Rios of Delano, Shafter City Council Member Fran Florez, a Democrat and mother of Dean Florez, the person who used to hold Rubio's seat, and Fresno County dairyman Johnny Tacherra, who last year made an unsuccessful run for the congressional seat currently held by Costa.

The name that excites some Republicans the most isn't even a Republican -- former Assembly Member Nicole Parra.

After being an elected Democrat, she's now registered as "no party preference," but Republicans feel she would caucus with the GOP if she could win the seat -- and many feel she is the best non-Democrat bet to pull that off.

Registration numbers certainly don't favor the Republican Party.

The district that selects Rubio's replacement will be Senate District 16 as it was between 2002 and 2012.

Los Angeles-based political analyst Allan Hoffenblum, a longtime Republican strategist and author of the California Target Book, which tracks the state's elections, said the most recent numbers show the district 51% registered as Democrats, 28% Republican, and 17% no party preference.

But Stan Harper, a Bakersfield-based Republican political consultant, said special elections historically have low turnouts, which tend to favor Republicans.

"I think a Republican could pick it up in a special (election)," Harper said. "My concern is winning re-election in 2014."

The winner of this year's special election would face a re-election battle next year under the district's new lines -- Senate District 14. The two districts, Hoffenblum said, are 88% the same, and the new district is slightly better in voter registration for Republicans.

Still, the 2014 election would favor a Democrat, almost everyone agreed.

In the special election, all candidates will appear on the same primary election ballot. If a candidate receives 50% plus 1 vote, that person would win outright and a runoff election would not be needed.

"With so many candidates, that is unlikely," Hoffenblum said.

If Republicans want a fighting chance at winning the seat, he added, the party needs to "get behind one serious contender, and if there are several Democrats, that assures the Republican gets in the runoff."

In the alternative, the runoff could pit two Democrats against each other.

Except for Conway, none of those mentioned as possible candidates could be reached for comment or returned messages seeking comment.

But Harper said he likes Johnson, the Bakersfield city council member, who he called "viable," "bright" and an "up and comer."

On the Democratic Party side, he said Perez, the Kern County supervisor, would be formidable. She worked for Rubio and "she knows the people, she knows the district, she knows the issues and she has a great volunteer organization."

On the down side: She has a young baby and was just sworn into her first term as a Kern County supervisor.

Up north, Perea is a sitting Assembly member and proven fundraiser. He is a Hispanic Democrat in a district that is 53% Hispanic. But Perea also has a potential problem -- he lives in Rubio's new district, where he could run in 2014.

But if he wants to run in this year's special election, he'll have to move. State law requires that candidates live in the district they seek, and Perea's home is outside the old district.

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