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Saturday, Oct 13 2012 10:00 PM

ROBERT PRICE: Thomas and Ashburn, pals? Now we've see everything

By The Bakersfield Californian

Did hell just freeze over? Did a pig just fly past my window? Or was that really former Congressman Bill Thomas playing unofficial master of ceremonies at an endorsement party for former unfriend Roy Ashburn?

Yep, that was really Bill, the famous curmudgeon and amateur lounge singer, standing alongside a phalanx of current and former politicos urging voters to choose the guy who's running against the Mark Abernathy candidate. You remember Mark Abernathy: He's the guy whose name is usually followed by the word "machine," as in "ruthlessly efficient political machine." Thomas himself was a longtime Abernathy client and the arrangement served him well: He was elected to 15 consecutive terms in the House of Representatives. Abernathy's wife Cathy was Thomas's top aide for years.

So, for Bill Thomas to endorse Ashburn for 1st District Kern County Supervisor instead of Abernathy's likeable and perfectly suitable client, Mick Gleason, says something. But what? That Ashburn is simply the best choice? No argument here: Ashburn had this very same job for 12 years before heading off to the state legislature for 14 years. He'd be joining a board that's losing three of its five members, so all of that experience would come in handy.

But is something else at work? Other than an apparent reconciliation between Thomas and Ashburn, a former aide with whom he has not always been chummy?

It sure seems that way. Maybe the "machine" (Thomas says he despises that label) simply needs a tuneup. Or maybe there's a deeper philosophical issue at work here that reflects the Republican Party's hard turn to the right. Twenty years ago, in an op-ed piece for The Californian, Abernathy was cautioning us against "the forces of the Radical Religious Right" that would challenge "our long-held pro-choice position" and wage "a cultural war." Now, by all appearances, Abernathy's newfound religious fundamentalism has become his guiding light. Meanwhile, Ashburn, once regarded as an unwavering social and fiscal conservative, has inched a bit toward pragmatic realism -- and perhaps that's more comfortable territory for Thomas and others.

To be sure, Abernathy's clients have had a tough go of it recently. Harley Pinson, an oil company attorney who hired Western Pacific Research to manage his run at the Board of Supervisors 4th District seat, was defeated decisively by Bakersfield City Councilman David Couch in June. Some observers thought Abernathy seemed to devote more resources to other clients, at Pinson's expense. Pinson was persuaded to stay with Abernathy and pursue the 4th Ward city council seat that Couch would be vacating, but he didn't stay long. He withdrew from the race abruptly last month (even though his name remains on the ballot), citing "significant differences with campaign management." I asked Pinson on Friday if that meant he was somehow dissatisfied with Abernathy; he declined comment.

Abernathy also managed the campaign of Karen Goh, who won an appointment by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to the vacant 5th District seat on the Board of Supervisors almost three years ago and then ran to keep that seat when the abbreviated term expired this year. The campaign was dogged by a series of gaffes, but it really came down to this: Goh probably never had a chance in the heavily Latino, dominatingly Democratic district. It should have been no surprise when Leticia Perez, a Latina Democrat, won the three-way race outright in the primary.

Is Abernathy losing his grip, or is this just the normal ebb and flow of politics? Thomas's protege, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, is still in his corner, as are several others. But the ground has shifted a bit. Hell is getting chilly.

Email Editorial Page Editor Robert Price at rprice@bakersfield.com.

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