Kern County supervisor candidate Roy Ashburn won the backing of a phalanx of powerhouse political figures — including former Congressman Bill Thomas — in a bit of a political shocker Thursday.
But Mick Gleason, Ashburn’s opponent, dismissed the endorsements as irrelevant, and Ashburn as a “career politician” who is not a true conservative.
Thomas, maybe the most powerful politician in Kern County history, was joined at Thursday’s event by outgoing 1st District Supervisor Jon McQuiston; former Bakersfield Mayor and Supervisor Mary K. Shell; current Bakersfield City Councilman and Supervisor-elect David Couch; and former Supervisors Barbara Patrick and Steve Perez. All are Republicans.
Although he’s left Congress, Thomas noted that he occasionally goes before TV cameras to comment on issues of the day. But he suggested Thursday’s endorsement required a larger commitment.
“There comes a time in certain races when you have to do more than talk back to a television camera,” Thomas said during the event at the Bell Tower Club in Bakersfield. “I’m here to support Roy Ashburn for 1st District supervisor.”
Ashburn is running against Gleason, a political newcomer and former commanding officer at China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station. Ashburn has spent most of his adult life in politics, serving as 1st District supervisor and then in the state Assembly and Senate.
Thomas, who acted as master of ceremonies of sorts at the press conference, said there are concrete reasons this year’s election is of particular importance.
It’s the first time in 100 years, he said, that the Kern County Board of Supervisors would be taking on three new members, making Ashburn’s experience in representing the district that much more critical.
He and others highlighted the 1st District’s geographical and economic diversity, taking in Ridgecrest, the naval weapons station at China Lake, the Kern River Valley and part of the San Joaquin Valley.
McQuiston, who has represented the district for 16 years, said cities and counties are going to continue to be expected to “do more with less.
“There are moments in time when experience really matters,” he said. “This is one of those moments.
“I think Roy Ashburn is the right candidate at the right time for the right reasons.”
Shell recalled Ashburn’s energy and commitment during the dozen years he served on the board.
“He seemed to be everywhere,” she said. “I think he put more miles on his car than anyone in Kern County.”
Ashburn noted that he’s also received endorsements from former Supervisors Don Maben, Trice Harvey and Pete Parra, as well as several mayors and city council members in cities inside and outside the district.
“I’m running ... because I love the people of Kern County,” Ashburn said. “I know the 1st District very well and I know our county faces challenges both in the short term and the long term.”
Some observers were stunned to see Thomas take such a public stand in favor of Ashburn’s candidacy.
In his remarks, Thomas referred to his longtime relationship with Ashburn, including their “ups and downs” over the years. Asked about it later, Thomas declined to detail that history, saying he lives in the present, not the past.
But Mark Salvaggio, a retired Bakersfield city councilman who has remained active in local political circles, viewed the alliance between Thomas and Ashburn as a significant departure.
“Today former Congressman Bill Thomas broke political ranks with his longtime political consultant Mark Abernathy,” Salvaggio said in an email. “Thomas publicly endorsed Roy Ashburn over Abernathy's client Mick Gleason for 1st District supervisor.”
Abernathy, a longtime local political consultant who heads Western Pacific Research, has a long association with Thomas.
Salvaggio argued the endorsements “speak well of Roy Ashburn's experience, abilities and independent streak. Ashburn now has a big political leg up in this important race.”
Thursday’s developments also “signify the public being ‘fed up’ (by) another Mark Abernathy power grab,” he continued. “People want their representatives to be accountable to the people instead of being controlled by a slick political operative.”
When asked if his endorsement marked a split with Abernathy, Thomas took to task a Californian editor, saying the newspaper had a long history of incorrectly characterizing the two as running a political “machine” in town.
In particular, Thomas said the newspaper has repeatedly inserted such “boilerplate” language into stories without asking him whether such a political force really exists and how it operates.
When The Californian responded by saying it was asking the question now, Thomas wouldn’t go there. He said he was supporting Ashburn, not opposing anything or anybody.
Gleason said he called Ashburn on Thursday to congratulate him.
“He seemed to think it was a big deal,” Gleason said of the endorsements. “Personally, I don’t think it’s relevant.”
First, Gleason said, he’s never met half the people who endorsed Ashburn, so it’s not surprising he didn’t receive their endorsements.
Second, endorsements are not going to win this election, he said. Focusing on business and staunchly conservative approach to governance is what voters want.
Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, who has endorsed Gleason’s candidacy, said it should come as no surprise that Ashburn has amassed a large group of allies over his long political career.
But that’s not what’s important to voters who are looking for fresh ideas from candidates, she said.
Grove noted that conservatives have not forgotten Ashburn’s key state Senate vote in 2009 approving a state budget that included tax increases.
Gleason said he’d rather focus on his own positions rather than focusing on Ashburn’s “failures.”
“History speaks for itself,” he said. “People are well aware of Roy’s background, his voting record.”
— Government editor Christine Bedell contributed to this report