Mick Gleason's easy charisma, Boston twang, personal story and a healthy helping of self-confidence have carried the retired Navy pilot and administrator through the first round of the race for the 1st District seat on the Kern County Board of Supervisors.
He now faces Roy Ashburn, one of Kern County's most successful elected officials, in the Nov. 6 final round.
Gleason collected twice more votes than Ashburn in the June primary, but 45 percent of that support came from Ridgecrest, where Gleason has strong connections to the community and where he commanded China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station -- the community's economic engine.
Gleason's support was weak in the eclectic Kern River Valley and he faces a staunch challenge in heavily Hispanic Delano and McFarland, a more than two-hour drive away from his home turf.
Bakersfield went his way.
But with the votes of the race's six other primary candidates up for grabs, the race is anyone's to win.
Gleason, 57, was one of seven children born to an accountant and homemaker and raised in Haverhill, Mass. He "squeaked" out a degree in business administration from the University of Notre Dame in 1976, while pursuing a minor in having fun, as Gleason writes in the biography on his campaign website.
"I had a great time for those (four) years...way too good a time. Trust me when I tell you, I spent a lot more time having fun than studying," Gleason wrote.
After a few jobs and a short trip to Europe in 1978, Gleason married his now-wife, Robynn, they had their first of three sons and he reported to Pensacola, Fla., for U.S. Navy boot camp.
Gleason became a naval aviator and flew 53 combat missions from the USS Ranger in Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
The Navy phased out the Intruder in the late 1990s and Gleason earned a master's degree in aeronautical engineering before taking a series of administrative jobs that were capped by his selection as the commanding officer at China Lake in 2004.
He retired in 2008 and took a full-time job with defense contractor General Dynamics; he's a part-time consultant for the company now.
Gleason's Ridgecrest campaign office is still mostly bare. A few pieces of office furniture sit surrounded by leaning stacks of campaign signs emblazoned with the image of an A-6 Intruder against a backdrop of mountains.
Gleason seems fresh as he swings a chair around to join Robynn and a guest at an office desk. He wears a blue "Pick Mick" ball cap and leans back in the chair, tipping it on two legs and kicking his feet up onto the desk as he talks about the rigors of campaigning.
"It's difficult because of the number of events I have to go to and the distance I have to travel," Gleason said.
When he gets to an event, it requires him to "bring his A game" and take a very active role in what's going on, rather than doing what he says comes naturally to him in new environments: observing, listening and learning.
"It's energy for me that I have to dig deep and find," Gleason said. "It's a mental, physical, intellectual and emotional effort."
Gleason said he ran for supervisor because he is passionate about making a difference and believes he has what it takes to bring positive change to Kern County.
"Our country is going the wrong direction. It's time for all of us to engage the process wherever we can. We all need to put our oars in the water," he said.
Gleason said he has three key campaign issues, starting with the desire to promote a business-friendly government that is smaller in size and scope and where county leaders work to reduce regulation on private industry.
"Government is a support system for business," he said.
He also promises to be a very vocal and visible leader: "People in my district need to be aggressively and actively represented. I want to build bridges and help people find solutions."
His third campaign "plank," he said, is to support educational systems that will help Kern County youth leave high school able to determine for themselves what they want in life and how they can get there.
At the county level, Gleason said, that means supporting after-school programs, supporting the library system and creating opportunities for kids to grow.
Despite the challenges of the race, he said, the experience has been good.
"We're glad we're participating in this little part of Americana," he said.
Those who know him in Ridgecrest say Gleason is a problem-solver with a knack for connecting with community groups.
Mark Swett, a chemist at China Lake, said Gleason backed development of a missile that outperformed the Tomahawk long-range cruise missile at a cheaper price. While that weapon was never built, the Tomahawk manufacturer eventually redesigned its product and dropped its price and is incorporating some of his work into their design, Swett said.
Sitting in a banquet room at the Heritage Inn in Ridgecrest after a meeting of the Ridgecrest Rotary Club, Swett also remembers Gleason's leadership on the base.
He acted quickly and decisively when there was a problem, but never unilaterally, Swett said. Gleason always sought out people from the other side of a conflict and really heard them out first, Swett said.
He said people can look to Gleason's involvement in the China Lake Alliance, a group committed to convincing Congress to designate Inyokern the site of a research and design facility that would help integrate unmanned aerial vehicles and systems into commercial airspace.
Swett said that with another round of budget cuts aimed at the military, Gleason's efforts could create a new industrial base for the area.
Ridgecrest insurance salesman Gary Charlon sees Gleason's contributions to Ridgecrest from outside the base.
Charlon said the city has had a longtime struggle with leaders at China Lake "trying to get them to understand that it was a partnership between the community and the base."
When Gleason took the top job, Charlon said, he didn't even have a chance to suggest he start building relationships with the people of Ridgecrest. Before he knew it, Gleason was a member of a slew of local organizations.
Career politicians often make decisions without looking ahead and figuring out the possible unintended consequences, he said.
"I believe (Gleason) will take a look at the unintended consequences," Charlon said. "He believes he can help and make things better."
Ashburn has been touting his ability, after 12 years representing the 1st District in the 1980s and '90s and subsequent 16 years in the California Legislature, to hit the ground running as the new supervisor.
Even Gleason's supporters acknowledge that while he knows the needs of Ridgecrest and the military, he would need to gain practical experience with some of the other issues in the diverse 1st District.
"He's got a steep learning curve with the oil industry and agriculture," Swett said.
He said Gleason has already shown the ability to handle such situations, pointing to Gleason's efforts to make peace between farmers and other water users who are fighting over access to water in the Indian Wells Valley.
"The Ridgecrest area is in an overdraft supply on its water," Swett said. "We're mining the water."
People are angry over the water taken out of the basin to grow alfalfa and pistachio crops.
Gleason was lambasted by people in Inyokern over the issue, Swett said, and immediately came up with the idea of creating a nonprofit agency to operate as a venue for both sides to seek consensus.
"He is a very fast understudy," Swett said.
Chip Holloway, Ridgecrest's mayor pro-tem and one of Gleason's opponents in the June primary, agrees.
"Can Mick get up to speed? Sure. Everybody has a first year," said Holloway, who has endorsed Ashburn.
But that is a critical difference between Ashburn and Gleason, he said -- Ashburn doesn't need to get up to speed.
"I consider Mick and Roy both friends. I consider Mick a hero for his service," Holloway said. But "you've got to bring Roy back for his experience."
But Swett said Ashburn hasn't even engaged in the water dispute.
Ridgecrest, Holloway said, needs Gleason to focus his own considerable experience in fighting for new industry and growth in the desert community, not be supervisor.
"For me the best thing for Ridgecrest is to have Mick to remain in his role as a leader of the China Lake Alliance," Holloway said. "(His) ability to advocate for China Lake as a supervisor is diminished."
But Charlon and others say Gleason's outsider's status is exactly why he's better for the job.
Tom Wiknich, who worked on the base and now owns a gun shop in Ridgecrest, said Gleason's get-things-done attitude and charisma will carry him through.
"I see Mick having a little bit of an advantage because he's not a career politician," Wiknich said. "He's going into politics for sincere reasons. We need his experience in figuring out how to run the county in an efficient way."
Observers say Gleason hurt his chances of winning, even in Ridgecrest, by hiring Bakersfield political consultant Mark Abernathy to run his campaign.
"Mick was advised before he ran to run as his own man," Holloway said. "Mick's words to me were, 'Abernathy wins races.'"
People were turned off, Holloway said, when another Abernathy candidate, Pedro Rios, and his supporters launched what some saw as underhanded attacks against the man Gleason and Ashburn want to replace -- 16-year Kern County Supervisor Jon McQuiston.
In June, Rios knocked McQuiston out of the primary contest to represent the 32nd Assembly District. During the campaign, Holloway said, Rios' campaign and its supporters characterized McQuiston as having spent his career on the public payroll.
Folks in the 1st District are fond of McQuiston, a longtime Ridgecrest resident who also is ex-military and has fought to protect east Kern's military bases from federal funding cuts, Holloway said.
"Mick Gleason was part of a group that actively went against Jon McQuiston," Holloway said. "I think it was from his campaign, not necessarily Mick personally."
Ridgecrest Mayor Ronald Carter, Holloway and two of the three other Ridgecrest City Council members have endorsed Ashburn.
Gleason said he is running as his own man and the idea that Abernathy is a problem for him is a red herring.
Gleason said he doesn't believe the animosity Holloway mentions is widespread.
"There may be a small sphere of influence around Chip" that believe it, Gleason said. "I had zero impact on Jon's campaign. I think there are opponents who are grabbing that Abernathy bat and beating me over the head with it."