Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Vidak, off to quick Senate fundraising start, nets $90k in 10 days

On March 10 — which was just 10 short days ago — Hanford Republican Andy Vidak announced on his Facebook page that he would seek the 16th state Senate seat that came open when Bakersfield Democrat Michael Rubio abruptly resigned last month.

Since then, Vidak said, he’s been working the phones, seeking both support and cash.

Andy Vidak

He’s off to a good start, according to the Secretary of State’s Web site.

By March 13, records show, Vidak was already recording a string of donations.

The most recent filing was today. The total so far — close to $90,000.

To date, almost all of the cash is coming from agriculture, though Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway of Tulare also chipped in $4,100 from her 2018 state Senate account.

Contributions also include $2,500 from Allbright Cotton of Fresno and $4,100 each from Madera farmer Chester Andrew and Cutler-based Golden Star Citrus.

As of this afternoon, the other candidates, including Kern County Supervisor Leticia Perez and Shafter City Council Member Fran Florez — the two highest-profile Democrats — have yet record any donations, according to the Secretary of State’s Web site.

In the meantime, the list of people who have at least pulled campaign papers — the first step toward a run for the seat — has grown to seven.

Besides Florez, Perez and Vidak, other candidates who already had pulled papers included Fresno resident John Estrada and Francisco Ramirez Jr.

They are now joined by Jerry Armendariz and Arif Mohammad, who have unknown hometowns and list no ballot designation.

Perez, with big-name backing, rounds out 16th Senate front runners

A little more than two months ago, Bakersfield Democrat Leticia Perez was sworn in to her first term on the Kern County Board of Supervisors.

Now, she’s looking to move up to the state Senate, announcing Monday that she would run for the seat of fellow Bakersfield Democrat Michael Rubio, who abruptly resigned last month.

In doing so, Perez will have the backing of the Senate’s Democratic leadership team — including President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg — and some of its most influential senators.

Leticia Perez

Among them are Majority Leader Ellen Corbett, Democratic Caucus Chair Jerry Hill, and Ron Calderon, Lou Correa, Kevin De Leon, Cathleen Galgiani and Hannah-Beth Jackson. There are 18 in all.

Perez’s announcement — which was widely expected — sets up what is likely a three-way race between her, fellow Democrat Fran Florez and Hanford Republican Andy Vidak.

Others are running, but Florez, Perez and Vidak will have the name identification and/or money necessary to be competitive.

Florez, who is on the Shafter City Council and is the mother of Dean Florez, who held the Senate seat before Rubio, could be the odd person out, said Stan Harper, a Bakersfield-based Republican political consultant.

“There is no question in my mind Leticia will get more votes than Fran,” Harper said.

That would likely put Perez into a runoff against Vidak.

Florez gave some insight into her strategy when on Monday she officially announced her candidacy — in Fresno.

Fran Florez

She said Fresno County, in terms of the number of voters, is the biggest part of the 16th Senate District. The numbers confirm that. There are more than 137,000 voters in the Fresno County portion of the 16th District. In Kern County, it is around 75,000.

The district is 50.7% Democrat and 28.6% Republican.

Fresno County also happens to be a part of the district where Florez has some name identification, either through her two unsuccessful state Assembly runs, or from Dean Florez. Perez, in the meantime, is virtually unknown in Fresno.

But Perez will likely have plenty of money to help close that name identification deficit, thanks to the Senate leadership’s backing. That support seems like a slap in the face to Dean Florez. It was Steinberg, as incoming Senate President pro Tem, who in 2008 named Florez Senate majority leader.

Perez also has a political get-out-the-vote machine inherited from Rubio — her former boss.

“Leticia will have a better ground game,” Harper said. “As much as Fran has what Dean had several years ago, Leticia has everything in place that Rubio had a year ago.”

Fresno City Council Member Blong Xiong introduced Florez, and one person standing behind her was Dave Wilson of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. He said he personally supported Florez and would work to get the UFCW behind her as well.

On the Republican side, it appears that Vidak — who in 2010 came close to ousting Fresno Democrat Jim Costa from Congress — won’t have any competition from within his own party.

Andy Vidak

It means he’ll likely do well in the May 21 primary election. He might even win. But if, as expected, none of the candidates win a majority of the votes, the top two will advance to a run-off July 23.

The special election to replace Rubio will be for the 16th Senate District as it was between 2002 and 2012. Next year, the person in the seat must run again under newly drawn boundaries. That is the 14th state Senate District. The two districts are 88% the same.

Kings supervisor Valle decides against Senate run

Kings County Supervisor Richard Valle said he will not seek election to the state Senate.

Valle, a Democrat, issued a statement late Sunday:

“Over the past two weeks, I’ve heard from a number of people from throughout the Valley encouraging me to run for the recently vacated State Senate District 16 seat. I am truly humbled by the outpouring of support. I have given it honest consideration but have decided not to run. There is a lot left to be done in Kings County and I want to focus my work here and where I can spend time with my family. I greatly appreciate everyone’s support and want to say thank you.”

The Senate seat became vacant when Michael Rubio of Bakersfield, a Democrat, suddenly resigned last month to take a job with Chevron in Sacramento. A special election is scheduled for May 21 with a July 23 runoff, if needed.

The district includes parts of Kern, Fresno and Tulare counties and all of Kings County.  Political Data Inc., which collects voter information, said registration in the 16th Senate District was 50.7% Democratic and 28.6% as of Feb. 22.

Autry decides against running for Rubio’s Senate seat this year, but may run in 2014

After thinking it over for a day, former Fresno Mayor Alan Autry has decided not to seek the state Senate seat vacated by Bakersfield Democrat Michael Rubio.

Autry, 60, said he is too busy right now between television shows and working on a mentoring program for troubled youths that he started six months ago.

But, he said in an interview today, his decision applies only to the May 21 special election that will temporarily fill the seat that came open when Rubio abruptly resigned on Feb. 22. Whoever wins that contest must stand for re-election next year – when Rubio’s term would have been up – and Autry said he will give serious consideration to running then.

“In 2014 I will take a serious look at this because I do want to help the state,” Autry said.

Autry, a Republican, said he had been approached by state Senate GOP leaders who told him their polling showed he could win the seat, even though the district is solidly Democratic.

Senate leaders were hoping Autry would run in the special election, which would be for the 16th Senate District as it was between 2002 and 2012. Political Data Inc., which collects voter information, said registration in the district was 50.7% Democratic and 28.6% Republican as of Feb. 22.

Because turnout is typically low in special elections, Republicans feel they have a good chance to take the district away from the Democrats.

But next year, the person in the seat must run again under newly drawn boundaries. That is the 14th state Senate District. The two districts are 88% the same, but Republicans say it would be tougher for them to take the seat because it would be a general election.

GOP leaders felt Autry, well known locally because of his Hollywood career and two terms of Fresno’s mayor, was the best person to win both this year and next.

On Friday, Senate Republican leader Bob Huff, former Assembly Republican Leader Mike Villines and state Sen. Tom Berryhill made their pitch to Autry at a north Fresno Starbucks.

Autry said going into the meeting he was leaning against running, but Huff, Villines and Berryhill made some good points. He said he would think it over.

Word of Autry’s potential run sent local Republican leaders into opposite camps.

Former Fresno City Council Member Jerry Duncan, for instance, enthusiastically backed Autry and said he would make a great senator. But businessman Tal Cloud took the opposite viewpoint, and even authored a memo on Fresno’s borrowing during Autry’s mayoral terms. His conclusion: the city’s current financial troubles rest right at Autry’s feet.

Autry has kept mostly a low profile since leaving the mayor’s office. He hosted a weekday talk radio show for a little more than two years, leaving the air in December 2010 to return to acting and making movies.

This year, Autry has appeared in two episodes of the CW Network show “Hart of Dixie,” and Autry said today that he has been asked back for next season. In addition, Autry said he is filming a show locally called “Choices.” But his biggest current project, he said, is the mentoring program he started for youths at Fresno County’s juvenile hall.

Autry’s decision likely clears the way on the Republican side for Hanford cherry farmer Andy Vidak, who a week ago said he would run and who has been busy raising money.

In addition to Vidak, Shafter City Council Member Fran Florez – a Democrat – said Friday via Twitter that she is running. Florez is the mother of Dean Florez, who held the Senate seat before Rubio.

Besides Vidak and Florez, the only other person to say he is running is Democrat Alfred Benavides, a former Hanford Joint Union High School District trustee. But Francisco Ramirez Jr. and Fresno resident John Estrada have pulled campaign papers, according to the Fresno County elections website. Neither Ramirez nor Estrada list a political party – though Estrada has been a Democrat in the past.

Other names mentioned include Bakersfield Democrat Leticia Perez, a former Rubio aide and newly elected Kern County supervisor, and Kings County Supervisor Richard Valle, also a Democrat. On the Republican side, Kerman Mayor Gary Yep has said he’s looking at a run.

Perez, who is well liked by Democratic leaders, is expected to make a decision on a run next week.

Hazardous waste landfill leaders meet with Kettleman City

Hazardous waste landfill leaders met with folks in nearby Kettleman City this week about plans to renew a state operating permit. Kettleman activists continued to oppose it.

Since 2008, the activists, led by El Pueblo Parra el Aire y Agua Limpio, have slowed the landfill’s efforts, sparking a government investigation of birth defects. Investigators found no link between the landfill and Kettleman health problems.

The Kettleman City meeting this week was required as part of the process to get the permit renewal.

Such a renewal would usually be simple — it was in 2003 —  but  Waste Management Inc., owner and operator of the landfill, needs to expand. There’s almost no room left now for hazardous waste.

So the landfill’s future relies on expansion approval of at least four major government agencies, which are moving cautiously.

The four agencies are the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, state Department of Toxic Substances Control, the state Water Resources Control Board and the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.

Waste Management is hoping for the expansion approval sometime this year. The state operating permit expires in June, but the company can continue to operate as long as its renewal application is received before the June expiration.

Meanwhile, activists say they will fight every step of the way. They say there is a connection to continuing cases of childhood cancer and mortality in Kettleman City.

Activists, led by resident Maricela Mares Alatorre, say they suspect there are simply too many environmental risks around Kettleman — including pesticides, diesel exhaust, contaminated drinking water and oilfield operations.

But no government agency tracks all the sources at once. In a story last month, The Fresno Bee featured Kettleman City’s multiple risks.

Sunshine will help power Hanford’s sewage plant

Chevron Energy Solutions designed and installed a new solar-power system at Hanford’s wastewater treatment plant.

Hanford is dedicating a new solar power system on Tuesday that is expected to save the city millions of dollars in electricity costs at its wastewater treatment plant in the coming years.

Chevron Energy Solutions designed and installed the 1-megawatt system, which has solar panels mounted at ground level. Chevron will also operate and maintain the photovoltaic panels, which convert sunlight directly into electricity.

A megawatt, by the way, is one million watts. A 1-megawatt plant can produce enough power to meet the electricity needs of about 300 homes.

The city expects that solar power will reduce its electricity purchases by about 50% at the treatment plant — about $7 million over the life of the system.

Mayor Sue Sorensen said in a written statement that Hanford’s future “is brighter because of this project and the vision of sustainability that it helps fulfill.”

In September, Chevron Energy Solutions and Kings County announced the completion of a three-stage, eight-year program of energy efficiency improvements and solar-power construction at county buildings in Hanford, Armona, Corcoran, Kettleman City, Lemoore, Stratford and two county parks. The solar component of the program included putting solar panels on parking shade structures at the Kings County Government Center in Hanford and the county library in downtown Hanford.

Fresno County updates its vote count; little is changed in races

Fresno County on Friday did its first vote-count update since Tuesday’s election, and not much has changed.

Everybody who was leading on election night is still leading, and no challengers have significantly closed any gaps.

For instance, on election night Republican challenger Mitt Romney had 50.72% of the vote and President Barack Obama was at 47.13%. Now, Romney is at 50.37% and Obama at 47.45%. That means Obama has shaved about two-thirds of a percentage point off of Romney’s initial lead.

Fresno County counted 19,000 absentee ballots and has 78,000 still to count. Of those, around 54,000 are absentee, and the rest provisional.

“It’s going to take us days,” Fresno County Clerk Brandi Orth said.

In Tulare County, around 20,000 absentee and 10,000 provisional ballots remain to be counted, and in Kings, it is 1,500 provisional ballots.

Madera County doesn’t do updates until it completes its count, but Clerk Rebecca Martinez said Friday that around 4850 ballots remain to be counted. Almost half are provisional, with the rest absentee ballots.

The race to watch in Madera County is the District 3 supervisorial race to replace incumbent Ronn Dominici, who chose not to seek re-election after 12 years on the board.

On election night, just eight votes separated Madera City Council Member Gary Svanda and businessman Rick Farinelli, with Svanda holding the slight lead.

Martinez said District 3 has 1,041 absentee ballots and 545 provisional ballots to count.

Political Notebook: Is the 21st Congressional District competitive? The evidence is conflicting

UPDATE: On Wednesday, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee weighed in on the 21st Congressional District race for the first time.

The DCCC said it was doing a robocall on behalf of Democrat John Hernandez. The gist of the call: Vote for Hernandez because he would be the first Mexican American congressman from the district, where two-thirds of the voting-age population is Hispanic.

Here’s part of the script, which features “Maria from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.” The call says Hernandez, “unlike his Republican opponent” David Valadao, “supports the DREAM Act,” which would allow illegal immigrants under 30 who entered the U.S. before age 16 and have lived here for five years without committing a serious crime to be eligible for legal residency.

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The evidence continues to mount that Hanford Republican David Valadao won’t roll to an easy win over Fresno Democrat John Hernandez in the newly drawn 21st Congressional District.

A few weeks ago, that was the assumption. The race, just about everyone thought, was a done deal. Hardly anyone was paying attention.

Then came an article in the National Journal — a nonpartisan magazine that covers national politics and policy — that quoted a Republican saying private polling was moving “the wrong way” for Valadao.

On Friday, a group known as Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies said it had put together a television ad attacking Hernandez, and was spending more than $600,000 to buy air time.

Now, political watchers from the Valley to Washington D.C. are wondering if the race is truly competitive, or if Valadao just needs to shore up his lead.

“I think Republicans are worried that if Valadao doesn’t define himself, the person with the Hispanic surname may have an actual advantage,” says Kyle Kondik, communications director at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, which tracks federal races.

Like so many other political prognosticators, the Center for Politics’ Crystal Ball e-magazine long ago stopped considering the race competitive. But now Kondik says it “may be moving back on to the table,” though still rated as “likely Republican.”

Among Hernandez’s advantages are a nearly 15-percentage-point voter registration advantage, and a huge Hispanic electorate. Hernandez has vowed to get those voters to the polls.

In addition, President Barack Obama won the district in 2008, and Gov. Jerry Brown did as well in 2010.

But Hernandez’s disadvantages are huge. For starters, he really doesn’t have any money. He raised just $53,000 between July 1 and September 30, has just $17,700 in his account — and $40,000 in unpaid bills. His campaign has constantly been in debt.

In addition, while the Republicans seem to be pushing the panic button, Hernandez’s own Democratic Party — or any of its political allies — isn’t helping with any money at all.

This comes at the same time it is pouring hundreds of thousands into a Stanislaus County-based congressional race involving another Hernandez — former astronaut Jose Hernandez, a Democrat who is challenging incumbent Republican Jeff Denham in what is shaping up to be a very close race.

Valadao, in the meantime, has almost $800,000 in his account, and he plans to run television commercials through the November 6 general election. Coupled with more than $600,000 in ads from Crossroads GPS, and that adds up to a double-barreled onslaught of anti-Hernandez and pro-Valadao campaign advertising.

The Valadao campaign is also touting an internal poll that shows him with a 20-percentage-point lead — 53% to 33% — and 14% saying either they are undecided or will vote for neither. However, it is unknown how the questions on the race were asked.

In some ways, the Hernandez-Valadao clash has similarities to the 2010 race between incumbent Democrat Jim Costa and Republican challenger Andy Vidak.

That race was largely quiet — until mid-September. In the final seven weeks, Vidak went toe-to-toe with Costa in what turned out to be a very competitive race.

The common thread is the territory. Costa’s district at that time was largely the same as the area that is now part of the 21st District.

Costa is now gone, thanks to a redistricting that put him in a new district that runs from Fresno to the north. But could history be repeating itself in a chunk of his old westside Valley stamping grounds?

Dry storm suddenly got wet for Kings County

The storm Thursday unexpectedly hammered Kings County and dropped hail on parts of Kern County, said private meteorologist Steve Johnson.

He said he got reports that part of Highway 33 were closed due to flooding.

The storm had been “starved” for moisture until late Thursday when the remnants of a tropical cyclone were drawn into it.

“It changed within about a 12-hour window,” he said. “It happens sometimes in October.”

Johnson, who issues a report for several customers, also said there will be a gradual warmup over the weekend. He predicts temperatures will remain warm until Oct. 20 when a cooling trend will begin.