This is California’s most fiercely contested political turf

Kern County Democrats get ready to canvass voters in Bakersfield at a kickoff event at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers on Oct. 15, 2022. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

On an already-hot Saturday morning in east Bakersfield, state Assembly candidate Leticia Perez stands at the front of the electrical workers’ local union hall, working a crowd of fellow Democrats ready to knock on doors and talk to voters. 

But the thrust of Perez’s message has bipartisan appeal. Bakersfield is not like the rest of California: “Many people outside this community think they know us. They don’t.” 

Indeed, voters are being told what to do in millions of dollars in TV ads produced by high-powered consultants from Sacramento and Washington, D.C. They’re being interviewed by national reporters parachuting in to take the pulse of a pivotal area.

The union hall is less than a mile from Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace, the iconic country and western bar that for many symbolizes the Dust Bowl origins of Bakersfield. But looking at the assembled volunteers, Perez describes a region and political moment that seem far removed.

“I see my Indian brothers and sisters in the back, and I see my black familia here today. I see a few Latinos…I got a lot of my Okie brothers and sisters here too in the house!” she said, as the applause grew. “That’s right! Kern County is what we say it is.”

Whether that’s true is a question at the heart of three overlapping toss-up elections on Nov. 8 that make this stretch of the southern Central Valley — nearly the size of Connecticut — among the most competitive pieces of political turf in America. 

There’s the congressional race between Republican U.S. Rep. David Valadao and Democratic Assemblymember Rudy Salas, now the second-most expensive House contest in the country and one that could help determine which party controls the next Congress

There’s the contest between state Sen. Melissa Hurtado, widely considered to be the most endangered Democratic incumbent in the Legislature, and political newcomer David Shepard, the Republican scion of a Tulare County farming family. 

And there’s the face-off for the local Assembly seat between Perez and fellow Democrat Jasmeet Bains, who have attracted the financial backing of the oil industry and state doctor’s lobby, respectively.

The outcome of all three races will be determined by voters in east Bakersfield, historically the city’s poorer, Latino, less politically powerful side, as well as voters in the ag towns that dot the road north to Fresno: Shafter, Delano, McFarland.

An aerial view of farmland near Bakersfield, California. Photo by Vincent Toesca via Unsplash

The stakes are high. Kern County has California’s highest homicide rate. It is often blanketed with noxious air. The share of the population behind bars is among the highest in the state and its public health numbers are among the lowest. Choosing effective representatives in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., is essential.  

The irony of this sudden surge of outside attention on an area so often overshadowed and beset by so many problems is not lost on some residents.

“I feel as if there are two perceptions of California: It’s either Northern California or Southern California,” said Manpreet Kaur, a 29-year-old Democrat running for Bakersfield City Council. “This entire Central Valley region tends to be overlooked. But this is where I think you find the hardest working people with grit.”

Republicans and Democrats alike repeat the line that Kern County — the center of the state’s agricultural and oil industries — feeds and fuels California. 

“And yet we’re treated like a stepchild,” said Republican consultant Cathy Abernathy.

It’s also a place that defies the expectations and political rules of thumb that govern elections across the state. 

This area has sent Valadao to Congress six times despite Democrats outnumbering Republicans by double digits. While the electorate is overwhelmingly Latino, they’re not necessarily like the liberal-leaning Latino voters on the coast. 

There’s “the myth that there is going to be change because of the demographic numbers — that demographics is destiny. That’s not necessarily the case,” said Ivy Cargile, a political science professor at California State University, Bakersfield.

And partisan labels don’t determine where a candidate stands on the issues as much as elsewhere in the state. Valadao was one of just 10 Republicans to vote to impeach former President Donald Trump. Salas and Hurtado regularly irk the Democratic Party’s liberal base. The Central Valley is home to the highest number of conservative Democrats in the state

That may be an oxymoron in much of California, but at the union hall, Perez embraces the description. “We like to say we have a purple center. We’re merging and changing and evolving,” she said. “We’re a melting pot.” 

The ‘Publishers Clearing House guy’

Knocking on doors in a subdivision on the southern outskirts of Bakersfield last Saturday, Salas seems to enjoy the personal touch of campaigning — even if the going is a little slower than the average volunteer.

That’s because voters who recognize him will invite him in for a beer, some barbeque or pan dulce, and he always accepts, he said. Earlier this month, however, he reneged on an invitation to a televised debate.

Nationally, election messaging has taken on a rote consistency: Democrats accuse Republicans of wanting to end the right to an abortion. Republicans blame Democrats for persistent inflation. 

While those arguments are familiar to Bakersfield voters, Salas says his congressional race is going to be won or lost on personal connections in this close-knit community. That, and who has delivered the most to the district while in office.

“It’s about putting food on the table. It’s about providing opportunities for their kids and for themselves,” he said.

“I’m kind of like that Publishers Clearing House guy. I keep bringing taxpayers money back into the district.”

Salas is exaggerating, but only a little. This month, he has delivered oversized checks to a hospital, a community college and a local nonprofit

Apparently that’s a tried-and-true political tactic. The day before Salas went canvassing, Hurtado celebrated new funding she helped secure to repair the Friant-Kern Canal. On prominent display: A supersized check for $100 million with Hurtado’s signature. 

But Salas and Hurtado aren’t the only ones showering the area in cash this election. 

At $14.5 million and counting, the 22nd District is the second largest money magnet for outside political spending of any House race in the country. Salas has raised $2.2 million, while Valadao has brought in $3.2 million.

A volunteer sits at the Republican National Committee office in Bakersfield during a training for door-to-door canvassing on Oct. 14, 2022. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

Valadao has survived most prior Democratic challenges (he lost the seat in 2018, but returned two years later) by relying on white conservatives turning out in higher numbers than Democratic-leaning Latinos and by carving out a moderate reputation. 

But the state’s redistricting shaved off the conservative north end of the district, Valadao’s home turf, and added more of Kern County, which is more Latino and Democratic — and less familiar with him.

If Salas wins, he would be the first Latino member of Congress in the Central Valley, despite six Valley counties having a Latino majority. Nearly 60% of the congressional district’s voters are Latino.

Valadao, through his spokesperson, declined to be interviewed for this story. But the national GOP establishment — at least those portions at peace with his impeachment vote — are riding to his rescue. 

Earlier this week, former Vice President Mike Pence showed up in Fresno to make a pitch for Valadao.

In July, the Republican National Committee opened a Hispanic Community Center in a south Bakersfield strip mall as part of a nationwide effort to capitalize on Democratic weakness in Latino-majority districts in Texas and Florida in the 2020 election. But it’s also an acknowledgement that Valadao won’t win unless he can appeal directly to the district’s majority. 

A demographic and political shift

On a Friday evening, roughly two dozen elected officials and other community leaders gathered in McFarland, a town 25 miles north of Bakersfield, to talk about crime.

Four days earlier, two people were killed in a drive-by shooting in nearby Delano. Rumors about an impending gang war rippled through the community. Parents kept their kids out of school and the school district canceled a much-anticipated high school homecoming football game.

The meeting was organized by Bains, a family doctor backed by the California Medical Association who is running for the Assembly. She says she opted to run against a well-established politician, even as she continues to see patients, to try to address crime and other issues.

“What prescription can I write that’s going to clear the bad air quality that my community sees? What prescription can I write that’s going to increase access to quality water? What prescription can I write to address domestic abuse?” she said. “I can treat the patient in my clinic, but what can I do once they leave my clinic?”

State Assembly candidate Jasmeet Bains hosts a roundtable with local leaders in the town of McFarland after an uptick in gang-related violence in the community on Oct. 14, 2022. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

While not a campaign event, the meeting did highlight a few of Bains’ selling points. One is her appeal to bipartisanship. Perez has the support of the Kern County Democratic Party, whose chairperson is Perez’s campaign manager. Bains, independent of the party establishment, may be the more likely option for GOP-leaning voters. 

David Couch, a Kern County supervisor and registered Republican, is among them. “Hey Jasmeet, have I formally endorsed you?” he asked Bains after the meeting. “I can be for or against you, whatever helps you the most.”

The contest between Bains and Perez, however, is about more than competing Democratic factions. It also reflects an inflection point as the region’s political representation begins to catch up with the growing ethnic diversity of its population.

In 2013, Perez became the first Latina ever elected to the Board of Supervisors in Kern County, which is 56% Latino. And if Bains is elected, she would be the first Sikh and the first South Asian woman to serve in the Legislature. 

The changing leadership is also one of politics. Bakersfield, whose population grew faster than that of any of the state’s most populous cities in 2020, underwent a historic redistricting this year — one that created three new Latino-majority City Council districts and united the city’s Sikh and Punjabi populations in one of them.

Kaur, the city council candidate, was part of the local redistricting effort that she hopes will bolster her community’s electoral voice: “It’s so important to keep our community together, because we’ve literally been divided.”

If she wins, she would be the first member of the city’s sizable Punjabi population to serve on the council, and she would give Democrats a majority on the body for the first time in recent memory. 

But Bakersfield’s Punjabi population is not the only one on the political ascent.

The city’s Latino population has been growing since the early 1980s, when efforts to recruit low-wage labor launched an ongoing wave of immigration. In 2020, Latinos surpassed 50% of residents, making Bakersfield the fifth-largest majority-Hispanic city in the country. 

Pablo Rodriguez, the founder and executive director of Communities for a New California, said he’s seen this shift first-hand coming of age in Bakersfield. “When I was growing up, there was never a Latino-majority anything…It changes the basic math. Now we finally have to be taken into account,” he said.

That isn’t an automatic boon for Democrats. 

Ignasio Castillo, a life-long southeast Bakersfield resident and student body vice president at California State University, Bakersfield, says he sees a political tension in the city’s Latino community.

“A lot of Latinos do have a conservative mindset a lot of the time,” he said, particularly on issues like abortion and LGBT rights. But as a disproportionately low-income community, many voters are also inclined to support “change for your communities — and a lot of that is progressive values.”

Bonifacio Gurrola, a 44-year-old Navy veteran and fuel truck driver who lives on the far southend of the city, said he wants to see change, but not the progressive kind. He vowed to vote “anything Republican to get California back to normal. If not, we’ll probably be, like some people, moving out of state.”

Gurrolla said parents brought him to the country as a child illegally. But border security, along with inflation and crime, remain his top concerns. 

Perez says there’s “contention” between Kern’s growing non-white populations and those who have historically controlled local politics, mostly Republicans.

“What you have is a small group of people who do not want to let go of power, and they do not represent the whole of Kern County,” Perez said, referring to longtime Republican leaders including House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy and state Sen. Shannon Grove.

But the redistricting could turn the tide for the county’s Latino and Sikh communities seeking representation.

“There’s a broader sense that things are more fair now, that we have a fair shot and it just comes down to electing people,” said Bob Alvarez, former chief of staff to Dean Florez, the first Latino to represent the Central Valley in the state Senate.

A blurring of red and blue

Some Republicans also acknowledge the changing face of the region. And they see it as an opportunity.

“I don’t think that Republicans in general have done a good job reaching those voters,” said Shepard, the state Senate candidate, whose great grandfather immigrated from Mexico. “That is going to change with me.” 

“I look at Latinos as being taken advantage of by the Democratic Party,” he said at a fundraiser last week for Republican candidates. “[Democrats] pretend like they’re going to be there for you, but then they’re going to turn around and stab you in the back, and your kids are going to suffer.”

His opponent is Hurtado, a Fresno native and the Senate’s most moderate Democrat who earlier this week backed out at the last minute from a scheduled debate on KGET, the local NBC affiliate.

She has occasionally irked her more liberal fellow party members for her votes on oil industry regulations, public health and agricultural and water policy. But there’s a sensible political logic behind Hurtado’s voting record. The oil industry alone employs one in seven jobs in Kern County, and agriculture employs even more.

In an interview at the Padre Hotel, an eight-story landmark in downtown Bakersfield, she told CalMatters that though she wants to learn more about Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposal to tax the “windfall profits” of California oil companies, she isn’t enthusiastic about the idea. 

“A tax is never good — not good — for Valley families,” she said.

If that position puts her out of step with most Democrats, so be it, she said. “Your party doesn’t really make a difference here,” she said. “You have Democrats that vote for Republicans if they believe in them, and you have Republicans who vote for Democrats if they believe in them.”

But Hurtado’s stance has cost her some traditional Democratic allies. She was not invited to the county party’s Saturday canvassing event, a snub she attributed in part to her endorsement of Bains over the party-backed Perez.

State Sen. Melissa Hurtado speaks at a press conference where she presented a $100 million check to repair the Friant-Kern Canal near Terra Bella on Oct. 14, 2022. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

Some advocates for safe drinking water have turned against the incumbent for her call to dissolve the state’s Water Resources Control Board and replace it with a blue ribbon commission.

“It may seem a little extreme, but it’s best to start somewhere and call it out then to have status quo, because status quo is not working for folks,” Hurtado said.

Janaki Anagha at the Community Water Center, a statewide advocacy group, called the proposal “bananas,” and said her organization “vehemently” opposes it.

“That is one of our only ways to really ensure that there’s a future in any way for some of these communities that deal with water quality and quantity issues,” Anagha said.

Hurtado has also alienated many of the local unions that would otherwise be the natural allies of a Democrat. In September, the Building Trades Council of Kern, Inyo and Mono counties endorsed Shepard.

Dillon Savory, executive director of the Fresno-Madera-Tulare-Kings Labor Council, said he wasn’t surprised. Organized labor was instrumental in helping Hurtado beat an incumbent Republican in 2018, but he said Hurtado has not repaid the favor and “just became a symbol of how to walk away from your allies and not have labor’s back.” 

While Savory’s group has not taken an official position in this year’s race, he said: “I hope she loses.” 

Hurtado shrugged off the disapproval; she has backing from some unions. She also has the support of fellow Senate Democrats, who were in town the same day as the local party canvass to help her. They and party groups have contributed $1.9 million. Independent political groups have spent another $1.4 million on her campaign, while Shepard has only raised roughly $900,000.

Shepard said he welcomes the fight. “It’s an honor to challenge them,” he said. “I’m from the Central Valley, so I mean, we’ve got enough cowboy in us to where we don’t care who it is.”

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