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Saturday, Mar 09 2013 10:00 PM

ROBERT PRICE: Ambition or urgency? Both are present in 16th District race

By The Bakersfield Californian

We're at a previously unscheduled place on the political calendar: a campaign during one of the very few periods that are supposed to be devoid of campaigns. Few such times of calm exist anymore, given politicians' never-ending quest for political contributions. This is about as peaceful as it gets. Normally.

Michael Rubio messed up our relative tranquility. His unexpected (and still clouded) resignation from the California State Senate barely halfway into his first term has created a stealthy free-for-all among possible aspirants, none of whom had any inkling they'd be aspirants again so soon.

Registration numbers say that Rubio's abandoned domain, the 16th District, should be a shoo-in for a Democrat. Fully 50 percent of the district is registered Democratic, with Republicans at a meager 28 percent. "None of the above" has as good a chance of overtaking Republicans in the district as Republicans have of overtaking the Democrats.

But Republicans think they have a good shot of moving this seat into their column, and they may be right. Republicans tend to vote in greater numbers than Democrats in special elections, so unless the Dems can pair a strong ground game with some real state party support, the 16th could slip through their fingers.

Democrats have another reason to fear Republicans in the special May 21 primary (and in the July 23 special general election likely to follow). Their bench is weak.

Ideally, the Democrats would have a potential candidate or two with more name recognition and elected-office experience than Kern County Supervisor Leticia Perez and Assemblyman Rudy Salas, each of whom has served all of two months -- and who likely would be portrayed by the opposition as having ditched the people who just elected them.

Perez could probably withstand that charge. Nobody saw this opening coming along like it did, so the regular rules to ladder-climbing don't apply here. Perez's seat would not be filled by way of a potentially expensive special election, either, but rather by a gubernatorial appointment -- and Democrat Jerry Brown is a pretty safe bet to fill the post with another Democrat.

Salas is another story. He was elected to his first term on the Bakersfield City Council little more than two years ago, and his premature departure has forced a June 4 special election that's expected to ding taxpayers a cool $100,000. Salas' former City Council colleague, Jacquie Sullivan, who is irked that Salas jumped into the state Assembly race practically before his nameplate had been affixed to the City Council dais, demanded that Salas repay the city for the cost of the special election.

That seemed pretty silly until Salas one-upped her with a display of political tone-deafness not seen since Mitt Romney tried to impress blue-collar racing fans last year at Daytona by noting that he has "some friends who are NASCAR team owners." Last week, Salas unfurled this tweet: "Lots of discussion about future of #SD16 seat. Flattered with the overwhelming calls. Looking forward to doing what's best for our community."

If anyone is actually begging Salas to run for the 16th District two months after first taking office in the Assembly -- Salas would therefore single-handedly create the need for not one but two special elections a month apart -- it's because they're trying to sabotage his career. The fact that Salas would even be considering such a run at this time calls his instincts into question. Quick, state Democratic leadership, get this guy a wind gauge. Or a tutor. Something.

The Republicans' bench is not exactly formidable from the bat rack all the way down to the water cooler, but it's got credible prospective candidates like Bakersfield City Councilman Russell Johnson, former congressional candidate Andy Vidak and former Assembly candidate Pedro Rios, the man Salas narrowly defeated four months ago. Could any of them win? You bet they could.

Could Perez beat any of them? You bet she could, and based on her comments published Saturday, it looks like she'll try. But, in addition to wearing down some shoe leather, she'll have to sell the 16th District on the premise that she's running only because Rubio's resignation has created a rare and urgent situation -- and that jumping in doesn't mean she's trying to challenge Salas in the runaway ambition department.

Email Editorial Page Editor Robert Price at rprice@ bakersfield.com or via Twitter: @stubblebuzz.

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