Harley Pinson and David Couch are both businessmen. Both are conservative Republicans. Both favor major streamlining of Kern County government's often arcane operations.
Couch has experience in public office, and the inevitable baggage that comes with it. Pinson has no such background, and thus a lot of room to challenge Couch's record.
And that's where the sparring's been focused in the race to replace Ray Watson as 4th District Kern County supervisor.
Pinson, a longtime lawyer for the oil industry, called the county's system of more than 30 departments and multiple boards and committees unwieldy and in need of overhaul.
"To me that seems to be an unworkable system for budgetting and accountability," he said.
He said he's been interested in politics and public policy since he was a child and now, with his two children grown, he has the chance to run for the "first and last rung on the political ladder" that he is interested in climbing.
Couch, a financial adviser with Morgan Stanley, got involved in politics when friends encouraged him to challenge northwest Bakersfield City Councilman Kevin McDermott in 1998.
After winning, he entered office guns blazing, stirring up the Bakersfield City Council and pushing for reform. Couch said over the years he's learned to push for change from inside the organization, with diplomacy and advocacy.
He, too, sees challenges facing county government.
"The structure of county government is not conducive to really good constituent services," Couch said. "Part of that is the way all counties are set up."
He'd be interested in exploring whether the county should move toward a more centralized leadership model, similar to what Bakersfield's strong city manager position provides.
"Should we have a little bit stronger (County Administrative Officer)?" he said.
Currently, the CAO does not oversee county department heads, who instead report to the Board of Supervisors.
Pinson said part of his mission as a county supervisor would be to advocate on larger problems like illiteracy, teen pregnancy, education and gang prevention.
"The Board of Supervisors...as a whole cannot solve these issues." he said. But supervisors can "provide civic leadership" aimed at bringing people together to create a solution to larger problems.
The Couch-Pinson race will be decided June 5. Unlike in state races where the two candidates with the most votes go to a November runoff, local candidates who take more than half the votes in the primary win outright.
After 14 years on the City Council, Couch has a built-in campaign edge over Pinson. Pinson is focusing on that edge as he ramps up his campaign.
"My attitude is, 'I'm always one vote behind,'" he said.
In recent weeks he's taken rhetorical jabs at Couch for his past fundraising practices, business record and current campaign tactics.
"I'd say that my opponent is running a campaign that looks like he's running for a high school office," Pinson said in an interview with Californian Opinion Editor Robert Price on Californian Radio last week. "He's got people standing on the corner with 'Happy Valentine's Day from David Couch,' or 'Happy St. Patrick's Day from David Couch.'"
Pinson said his political signs will be out in the community soon, but he is focusing on substance, not flash.
"I'm approaching this with a respectful attitude about the people in the 4th District. I'm not trying to sell pizza by putting up signs on the corner and I'm not running a high school campaign," Pinson said on air.
He paints Couch as a career politician who doesn't need so much quirky public advertising.
"If you've been on the City Council for 14 years, you should already be well enough known," Pinson said.
Couch counters that he never assumes every voter knows who he is because, in his campaign experience, people don't always understand who represents them. A candidate needs to get the attention of voters, he said.
And just because he's served on the council, a part-time position, doesn't mean he doesn't come with long experience in the private sector, Couch said.
"I think it's invaluable to have had several years of experience in local government where you can see how things work," Couch said in his own radio interview with Price. "I have private sector experience, (I'm) still in the private sector, and I have some public sector experience. And I think that's invaluable, even if you are running a high school campaign."
Pinson has also focused on Couch's past support from public employee unions.
Couch unseated McDermott thanks to the strong support of public employee unions and a group of county residents who protested their annexation into the city of Bakersfield on McDermott's watch.
Pinson has vowed not to take any money from public employee unions during the current campaign. So has Couch.
But Pinson has hammered on the union connection, suggesting Couch's leadership is compromised because of the money he has taken from unions.
Public employee unions aren't bad, Pinson said. But when elected officials take campaign cash from those groups, Pinson argued, they can't be trusted to not cave in to union demands at the negotiating table.
What about campaign contributions from businesses with county contracts?
"(A business contract) is completely different because it's not paying out the public's money. In a negotiation with public employee unions, you're committing to pay other people's money, you're committing the taxpayer's money," Pinson said.
Pinson acknowledged that some of his business supporters have received major taxpayer-funded contracts from city, county and school governments.
But he refused to back down from the idea that union contributions compromise a candidate's objectivity while contributions from businesses do not.
Politicians who take union donations are "paying out the public's money," Pinson said. "Effectively, the unions are on both sides of the negotiating table."
How is that different from supervisors' responsibility to approve contracts with businesses?
The process by which union contracts and corporate contracts are approved is different, Pinson said, because the company bids for the job.
And he defended his decision to take corporate money.
Not all of the money he received from businesses was public, Pinson said, and the money won't guarantee that he will vote in support of the next contract the corporation bids for.
Also, he added, county money paid to corporations is different than money paid to county employeesbecause the county has received a direct benefit from its business spending.
Asked if he believes taxpayer money the county spends to pay employees provides no benefit to the public, Pinson paused for before answering in the negative.
NOT FOR SALE
Couch said he vowed to not take campaign contributions from unions during this campaign because he knew Pinson wanted to make something of it and he didn't want it to be the central issue of the contest.
It's normal for people to assume that officials will vote in the interests of their campaign donors, Couch said, but he's never operated that way.
"I've told everybody that's ever given me a campaign contribution, 'If you're looking for me to vote your way because you're going to hand me a check that's going to help me run my campaign, you don't need to make that contribution,'" Couch said. "I'm not going to make a decision based on some campaign contribution."
But, he said, "You cannot prove that. You can't argue the negative."
In the early 2000s, Couch was part of the council that unanimously approved pension benefit increases for city workers.
Those increases have been widely criticized as pension costs have exploded in part due to those higher benefits and the economic downturn.
However Couch points out that two years ago, he teamed up with Bakersfield City Councilmen Zack Scrivner, now a county supervisor, and Ken Weir to draft Measure D, a voter-approved initiative that reduced the value of pension benefits for newly hired city firefighters and police officers.
"I didn't do that to inoculate myself from that (union) issue," he said. "The unions were not happy with the measure, but I felt like it was the right thing to do."
Bryan Williams, president of the Kern County Young Republicans, said that group's endorsement of Pinson was influenced by his stance on the union issue and his lack of a record in public office.
The major focus of Young Republicans is "the growing impact of unions and public unions" on the nation and county, he said.
Public retirements and other benefits sap money from government that, Williams said, threatens the ability of government to provide basic services.
"It does involve the outlook for our future. We are the generation that is going to inherit this problem," he said.
Williams is a field representative for Scrivner.
He also said Pinson is "new blood" that will bring a fresh take on government to the county job.
Bakersfield City Councilman Russ Johnson said he hasn't announced his endorsement in the 4th District race.
Johnson, who worked for Supervisor Mike Maggard -- an ally of Couch when Maggard was on the Bakersfield City Council -- said he knows and has worked with both men.
But he said the serious nature of the county's struggles and challenges will need the skills of an experienced public servant.
"It's going to take someone with serious experience that knows how to pick up the ball and carry it and, when they hit a brick wall, how to get through it," he said.
Pinson is a great person, Johnson said, but Couch would be a good supervisor.