Local Politics

Saturday, Feb 08 2014 07:45 PM

Democrats struggle despite favorable registration trends

BY JAMES BURGER Californian staff writer jburger@bakersfield.com

Take a look at voter registration and other polling numbers and it's clear: Democrats should be doing much better at winning elections in the four counties at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley.

The question in 2014 is whether they will improve.

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LINGERING IMPACT OF RUBIO’S DEPARTURE

It’s been nearly a year since Michael Rubio resigned from the state senate.  By all accounts, his decision to take a corporate job with Chevron Corp. was a serious blow to the Democratic Party in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

The Democrats weren’t prepared to operate without the charismatic, politically talented man who had become their leader.

So, just months later, Republican Andy Vidak seized the 16th Senate District seat.

"Before Michael resigned, we had a plan," said Kern County Democratic Party Chair Candi Easter in the wake of that election.

Cal State Bakersfield political science Professor Mark Martinez said south valley Democrats have indulged in a dangerous tradition that left the party in the lurch when Rubio left.

For Latino elected leaders, he said, “it’s been more about personal empire building than creating an infrastructure for Latinos” to build political power.

Without a hand up, Latino Democrats have struggled to take the early steps to a political career.

Martinez said the deck has also been stacked against Latinos, blacks and other disadvantaged groups for decades because many low-level political offices on school boards and city councils were elected “at-large.”

Republicans, most of them part of the shrinking white majority, had the political backing and money to win all the seats on boards that represented a far more diverse population of people.

But things are changing as school districts choose — or are forced  — to create geographic districts that represent the diversity of the community.

Bakersfield City School District and the Panama Buena-Vista Union School District in Bakersfield have moved to district elections.

And on Thursday, the Fresno Bee reported, a Tulare County Superior Court judge blessed a lawsuit settlement that will require the city of Visalia to create political districts and hold geographic elections.

So far Democrats have not been able to capitalize on those changes,

And the power gap left by Rubio’s departure has yet to be filled.

— Staff writer James Burger

In the past decade, Republican voter registration in three of the four counties -- Tulare, Kern and Fresno -- has suffered more than Democratic registration as Latino populations have grown and dissatisfied voters from all parts of the political spectrum have shifted to "no party preference."

Fresno County is now registered as a Democratic county. And Kern seems on its way there.

Only the smallest county -- Kings -- retains a staunchly Republican stance.

But by the most obvious measure of political power, the south valley still belongs to Republicans.

Take Kern County:

Only one of its seven highest elected state and federal officers is a Democrat and only one seat on each of the Bakersfield City Council and Kern County Board of Supervisors is blue.

SWING

In 2003, 48.3 percent of Kern County voters were Republicans. Today that's slipped to 40.1 percent

The trend is repeated across the southern San Joaquin Valley.

In 2003, 46.2 percent of voters in the four south valley counties were Republicans. Now only 40.4 percent of voters have an "R" after their names and the gap between Democratic and Republican registration has been halved from 6.2 percentage points to 3 points.

According to a 2013 Scarborough Research poll of 1,900 Kern County adults (not necessarily registered voters), 32 percent identified themselves as Democrats -- a statistical dead-heat with the 31 percent who identified themselves as Republican considering the poll's 1.5 percent margin of error.

Previous versions of the poll show that gap has narrowed quickly since 2006.

An even larger sample -- the 335,000 Kern County voters registered here in 2012 -- reflects some of those same trends.

In 2012, 4,423 existing Kern County voters changed their registration affiliation to Democratic, elections records show.

That's almost double the 2,252 who switched to Republican from another party.

But the most powerful shift in voter registration -- by far -- has been away from any political party at all.

No party preference registration jumped from 10 percent of the registered voters in the four counties in 2003 to 17.5 percent in 2013.

Cal State Bakersfield political science Professor Mark Martinez said many people have re-registered as no party preference because they are fed up with the partisan bickering at all levels of government.

But that doesn't mean they will change how they vote.

"The vast majority of those who left the Republican Party -- both nationally and, I think, locally -- they're still going to vote for the Republican candidate," Martinez said.

WIN AND LOSE

Democratic power in the south valley has proven fragile despite the changing registration numbers -- especially in the past two years.

In 2012, even with a huge burst of voter registration and the power of President Barack Obama's election campaign behind them, the Democrats lost the 21st Congressional District seat to Republican David Valadao of Hanford.

The area -- which in Kern County includes Arvin, Lamont and parts of Bakersfield plus such northwest areas as Delano, Wasco and Shafter -- had long been represented by Democratic Congressman Jim Costa.

After the 2010 census, redistricting pushed Costa's home into a district that no longer included Kern, leaving an open seat that still favored Democrats.

Still, Valadao trounced a weak, poorly funded Democrat by 15.6 percentage points.

Martinez said Democrats have some built-in disadvantages.

The Democratic Party is less organized across county lines than the GOP and has less of a grassroots political system to promote candidates from lower-level school board positions, he said.

And voters in the Latino-leaning state and federal districts on the west side of the valley aren't necessarily Democratic loyalists, said Tony Quinn, an editor with the California Target Book, a respected publication that tracks political races in the state.

"Latinos in the Central Valley tend to be second and third generation and small business owners," Quinn said.

Those voters are more likely to be influenced by conservative business-centric messages.

Then there is the turnout issue.

"Part of having more of a blue county is that Latinos are not as active voters," Martinez said.

Especially in special elections, he said, Latinos, blacks and other underrepresented voters who lean Democratic don't turn out to vote, he said.

BALLOT BATTLES

Democrats learned a painful lesson about turnout in July when the Republican Party's dedicated voters in Kings County -- the smallest of the 16th Senate District's four counties -- boosted cherry farmer Andy Vidak to a solid victory over Kern County Supervisor Leticia Perez.

Perez won handily in Fresno and Kern counties -- the two most populous areas. But Kings County actually turned out more voters than Kern did and a massive 75 percent of those votes went for Vidak -- the hometown boy.

By contrast, Perez took just 60 percent of the vote in her home county of Kern.

There was one other huge hindrance to the Democrats in both the congressional and state senate races: Michael Rubio.

The then-Democratic state senator from Shafter pulled himself out of contention for the 21st Congressional District post at the last minute, leaving Democrats to scramble for a replacement, John Hernandez.

Valadao stomped Hernandez.

And it was Rubio's resignation from the state Senate in February 2013 that set up the Vidak-Perez special election match-up.

Though they're reticent to say it publicly, local Democrats continue to seethe over Rubio's decisions, which he said he made for family reasons.

REBOUND

When Democrats are able to harness the growing power of Latinos -- get more friendly voters on the rolls and to the polls -- they can win.

In 2012, Democrats took back the 32nd Assembly District -- a largely Democratic, Latino area that before redistricting was called the 30th District -- from the Republicans.

They want to, but will they do it again?

Democrats will try to seize the 21st Congressional District from Valadao and what's now the 14th Senate District from Vidak.

Valadao faces a challenge from Democrat Amanda Renteria, who was raised in Woodlake and has a Stanford education and Washington, D.C., staffer credentials. She has cash and national Democratic Party backing, too.

And Democrats have a 14.7 percent registration advantage over Republicans in the 21st Congressional District as of 2013.

At the end of December, Renteria had raised $337,992 for the race and had $256,737 in the bank. Valadao has raised $941,777 and had $676,734 on hand.

Two Democrats -- one from Kings County and one from Fresno County -- have committed to challenge Vidak.

But they are little known in Kern County and have raised little or no money to defeat Vidak, who has been in office less than a year.

Vidak had raised $209,305 for the race by the end of 2013 and still had $183,838 of that money ready to be used on the campaign.

GRASSROOTS

Kern County Democratic Party Chair Candi Easter said she believes winning the 21st District seat, protecting Assemblyman Rudy Salas' 32nd Assembly District seat and knocking off Vidak in the 14th Senate District is possible.

She said Democrats aim to register 12,000 Democrats in Kern County this year and are already beating the streets of Democratic-friendly districts across the county.

Renteria's campaign issued a statement saying its focus is on getting people on voting rolls and to vote.

"We are working every day to organize the district from the grassroots to the grasstops to ensure that we turn out our voters," the statement said.

Valadao's side struck a non-partisan tone.

"Instead of focusing on politics, Congressman Valadao is focused on finding solutions to the serious challenges facing the Central Valley and will continue to work with both sides of the aisle to earn support from every constituent in California's 21st Congressional District," the statement said.

EXECUTION

Quinn said both Valadao and Vidak know exactly what they need to do to fend off the challenges.

"Valadao and Vidak are both aware of the need to get Latino voters," he said.

Both have done it before.

But Quinn said there could be a problem for them if a conservative Republican with an anti-immigration stance -- such as Tim Donnelly -- lands at the top of the party's ticket in a race against Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.

That could crystalize opposition to down-ticket Republicans, he said.

House Speaker John Boehner's announcement Thursday that immigration reform won't proceed in 2014 will only hurt Vidak and Valadao, Martinez said, if their opponents can tie them closely to the Republican Party.

But both Vidak and Valadao back immigration reform, a critical issue for many Latinos.

"Valadao and Vidak can say, 'We're not mainstream Republicans,'" Martinez said. "They've been very vocal about some of the hot topic issues for Latinos."

And they both benefit from a very powerful trend in San Joaquin Valley politics.

"These areas have tended to -- once people have gotten into office -- keep them," Quinn said.

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