Local Politics

Saturday, Jul 27 2013 08:00 PM

Democrats reflect on 'astonishing' 16th loss, plot their future

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Leticia Perez checks the early returns for the state Senate District 16 seat with field director Joey Williams, left, and Perez's assistant, Alex MacIltraith.

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    By Tomas Ovalle / Special to The Californian

    Hanford -- State Sen. Jim Nielsen congratulates Andy Vidak at an election gathering at Vidak's cherry farm in Hanford. Vidak is in the 16th District special election against Democrat Leticia Perez.

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BY JAMES BURGER Californian staff writer jburger@bakersfield.com

Democrats lost painfully on Tuesday.

They were backed by all the strength and star power their state party could muster, but failed to fend off a well-organized campaign by the Republican Party and lost the 16th Senate District seat -- a post they'd held since Jim Costa took it from Republican Phil Wyman in 1994.

Kern County Democratic Party Chair Candi Easter called it a failure of the party.

"If we lose this race, we lost it because of Democrats. We lost it because prominent Democrats didn't get engaged. We lost it because Democratic voters didn't vote," she said as votes were still being counted but the ultimate outcome was clear. "We weren't prepared."

What the local party wasn't ready for was the abrupt resignation of its shining star: state Sen. Michael Rubio, D-Shafter, who stepped down in February to take a governmental affairs job with Chevron.

"Before Michael resigned, we had a plan," Easter said, not wanting to detail that plan. "When Michael resigned, everything had to be moved up really fast."

Now the Democrats must learn from this year's disappointment and find a way to unseat Vidak next year.

Pundits say it won't be easy.

RUBIO

Thomas Holyoke, associate professor of political science at Fresno State, called Rubio's withdrawal "a gift to Republicans."

It wasn't Rubio's fault that Democrats didn't find a candidate to replace him that was of similar ability, Holyoke said.

"A good, strong candidate matters," he said.

Easter maintains that Kern County Supervisor Leticia Perez was the best candidate the Democrats had to offer.

"We picked the only person who could have possibly won," she said. "Everybody was in agreement."

But Perez was virtually unknown outside Kern County when the race started in March and, with just months into her first term on the Kern County Board of Supervisors, she had unfinished business there.

She barely squeaked into the July 23 runoff election and, even though that gave her some time to build a connection with voters, she still lost big.

"It's an astonishing victory (for Vidak)," Holyoke said. Perez "should have been able -- without other candidates in the race -- to win easily."

Kings County, he said, was a big part of that win.

"He clearly knew the issue for Kings County -- high-speed rail -- he was really able to turn out his hard base well. He won so big there he was able to overcome the losses he suffered in Fresno and Kern."

Holyoke said Vidak's "dirt-on-the-jeans" persona and easy appeal worked for him. And, simply, people across the district knew Vidak.

"They didn't know her," Holyoke said.

KINGS

"The message sent to Sacramento was, 'we don't want politicians thinking about self-service, we want outsiders who stand for public service,'" said former Senate Majority Leader Dean Florez, then D-Shafter -- Rubio's mentor. "Sacramento leadership should thus let such a candidate bubble up from the district itself in order to win the seat back."

Florez's mother, Fran Florez, originally put her name in the hat for the 16th District seat but pulled out after the Senate Democratic Caucus supported Perez.

Easter said Kings County presented a problem for Democrats.

"I don't think we ran a bad campaign. But it's a pretty tough nut to crack in Kings County. The people there are so Republican," she said.

In 2012, she said, the Democrats sent out a team to register voters across the southern San Joaquin Valley. They sent the same team that registered 10,000 voters in Kern up to Kings County and "they didn't do nearly as well," Easter said.

Vidak's victory gives Republicans control over four of Kern County's five state legislative districts and both seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Freshman Assemblyman Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield, is the only Kern County democrat to hold a position higher than Kern County supervisor.

It's a tough place for Kern democrats, who for years have held at least one Congressional, Assembly and state Senate seat, to be in.

Now they need to figure how to get out.

ANOTHER ROUND

Democrats will try to knock Vidak off his new perch next year when he runs as an incumbent for the 14th Senate District seat -- the district created to serve much of the current 16th District during 2011 redistricting. The old 16th Senate boundaries were used for last week's special election.

Ousting Vidak will be critical to the Democratic Party's efforts to retain the complete control over state financial policy that it holds through a super-majority in the Assembly and state Senate.

"In order to protect the (Senate) super-majority, Sacramento leadership will have to think almonds, oil and water because it will all come down to Central Valley seats," Florez said. "They either have to recapture Sen. Vidak's seat or defeat Sen. (Anthony) Cannella, R-Ceres."

Vidak campaign consultant Tim Orman said Vidak keeps his seat -- even in a Democratic district -- by being the same guy next year that voters elected this year.

"He," Orman said, "works his tail off. He's gotta keep raising money and keep talking to people and go up there and do what he promised to do. He's gotta do it. Any incumbent's election campaign is built around how they can do their job."

Democrats say Vidak will be sidelined by his minority party affiliation.

"I think he can be effective and be effective for the valley," Orman said. "It's not going to be easy by any stretch of the imagination."

Holyoke said Democrats' chances of booting Vidak "are relatively small."

"He's a candidate with a lot of appeal. Next time he will be an incumbent and if we know anything about incumbents in politics," Holyoke said, they tend to win.

And Democrats just proved they are short on candidates ready to run, he said.

Bringing up new leaders is difficult when the Kern County supervisorial districts and Bakersfield City Council wards are drawn to limit the number of seats Latinos and Democrats can hold, Easter said.

Latino advocates argued, when supervisorial districts were recently redrawn, that a second Latino-majority district should be added to the 5th District seat currently held by Perez. But supervisors decided such a district would have been awkward and geographically arcane.

"We do have some bright young people," Easter said. "We have (new Bakersfield Councilman) Willie Rivera. (Bakersfield City School District Trustee) Andrae Gonzales may have some life in him. Jose Gurrolla, the young Arvin city councilman, is very impressive."

But "the Republicans have money. The Abernathy machine has money. We don't have that."

Florez said Democrats need to look beyond the ranks of politicos.

"To recapture the Vidak seat, I think the Kern Democratic Party chair put it best when she said, 'Do we want someone who's already lost twice?'" Florez said, referring to when the party chose Perez over two-time Assembly candidate Fran Florez, his mom. "This loss should be a wake-up call to find an un-elected, non-politician to run in 2014."

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