On a very hot recent Tuesday morning, Pedro Rios and two campaign volunteers walked through downtown Wasco carrying "Pedro Rios State Assembly" signs to drop off at local businesses. Most places already had the placards up, but Rios stopped to chat anyhow, switching from Spanish in Adolfo's Beauty Salon and Jalisco's Western Shop to English with Pastor Danny Scott at the Free Will Baptist Church.
"A lot of these folks -- I'm very familiar to them," Rios, 39, said. "Kern County is where the battleground is, and both sides know it."
Rios, a Republican, is running for the 32nd Assembly District seat against Democratic Bakersfield City Councilman Rudy Salas in one of the state's most competitive Assembly races. His primary win over Republican Kern County Supervisor and Navy veteran Jon McQuiston surprised many, and in part was due to strong support in Kings County, he said.
His background as a teacher in Wasco and councilman, mayor and small businessman in Delano make him a familiar face in those places, but getting the same recognition in Bakersfield, where Salas is better known, is more of a challenge.
But Rios is also an optimist and tireless, many who know him said.
Longtime friend Carlos Ortiz saw his work on the Delano City Council, where Rios served from 2000 to 2008.
"He's always optimistic about things in life, always sees the goodness in people," Ortiz said. "(He has) no ego. He's a very humble person."
Rios also has strong convictions and religious faith, Ortiz said. Rios was instrumental in getting "In God We Trust" posted in the Delano City Council chambers.
"He just blew me away, because I'd never seen someone so persistent," Ortiz said. "He talked about that the Founding Fathers used that terminology in order to create this new country."
Rojelio "Roger" Sanchez encouraged Rios to run for the council 12 years ago.
"He's been very productive in the city of Delano," Sanchez said, noting he initiated prayers being said before council meetings and helped get trees planted.
"I thought he was very knowledgeable, very intelligent, and he's very upfront with his convictions." Sanchez said. "That's what we need, people that are energetic, optimistic. ... He is able to give people that drive. Especially people that don't have work, he's able to motivate them and see that ... the American dream is still alive."
His campaign pitch
"The biggest thing, of course, is jobs," Scott, the Wasco pastor, told Rios on the morning Rios walked through the town. "We got to get this thing turned around."
Jobs and small business are themes Rios frequently mentions on the campaign trail. "The overregulation and taxation ... it's choking that entrepreneurial spirit," he told Scott.
Rios said he opposes Gov. Jerry Brown's proposal to raise taxes and the state's high-speed rail plan, calling it "an expensive mess" that will damage farms. Over-regulation is pushing businesses out of the state and putting pressure on farmers, Rios said. He cites AB 32, aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions, as weighing disproportionately on California versus neighboring states and says it will make the three trucks he owns for his businesses obsolete in a few years in the state.
Salas has worked for former Vice President Al Gore and former state Sen. Dean Florez, and has said his connections will help him be an effective legislator. In contrast, Rios points to his local experience -- on the Delano City Council and as a teacher and small businessman -- as a reason he would be a better representative.
Rios is starting two businesses in Delano -- renting bees to farmers for pollination and cleaning portable toilets that farm workers use. He also started and later sold what is still the only driving school in Delano and tried to farm tomatoes and other produce in Argentina before a frost finished off his crops.
"That's how you really understand the people that you're representing," Rios said of his ventures. "You think twice before you pass legislation that's going to hurt business -- You're one of them."
After canvassing in Wasco that recent day, Rios suited up in a white beekeeper jumpsuit, hat and gloves outside Stratford, a tiny town about 30 miles west of Tulare. He crossed the empty road to a stand of four big eucalyptus trees where about 40 hives stood in the shade.
C.R. Sadler, a veteran beekeeper, is teaching Rios the trade. Sadler pulled out a big square frame crawling with bees and pointed out the queen.
Rios is still learning, he said, and hasn't rented his bees out yet to farmers. He bought used hives and bees, but lost about a third of his bees over the winter. Rios said he and Sadler could go into business together once the election is over.
"My dream is to become a very successful businessman," he said. "I don't believe I have found my niche."
Path to citizenship
Rios was born in a village called El Rincon in Sinaloa, Mexico, and emigrated with his uncle to the United States when he was 9. He grew up in Delano.
Sixth grade was the highest level of education available in El Rincon, Rios said of his emigration from Mexico.
"One of the things about Latin America is, if you're poor, it's hard to break out of that," he said.
Rios earned a history degree from Cal State Bakersfield, joined the California Army National Guard and later became a U.S. citizen. After deciding to not pursue an Army officer career, he turned to business and education. He taught social studies at Wasco High and at-risk students at Earlimart Day School and for the San Joaquin County Office of Education.
He often brings up his multi-faceted background as a testament to him being an "everyman" who can understand the perspectives of small business owners, farmers and educators. Several people interviewed for this article picked up on that theme.
And many people who have worked with Rios or volunteered for his campaign say he's a genuine person. But whether his sincerity and optimism will get him to the state legislature remains to be seen.
Rios called former Assemblyman Danny Gilmore, R-Hanford, for advice when he decided to run for the Assembly. After an hour on the phone, Rios had a headache.
Gilmore warned Rios to expect negative attacks, and there have been some. In August, Salas' campaign released an ad describing the dangers of selling alcohol to teenagers and noted Rios pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for that offense in 1994.
Rios called the ad "bogus" and said he made "an honest mistake" while working as a convenience store clerk.
Rios hasn't responded to the negative ads in kind, but doesn't lack the assertiveness he may need as a member of the minority party in the Assembly, Gilmore and others said.
"He would be a great fit in the Republican caucus up there," Gilmore said, citing Rios' background as an immigrant and that he's bilingual.
"This guy has gone out and worked for a living," he said. "He'll have the savvy to reach across the aisle and develop some friendships with some people up there."
McQuiston had major endorsements, from the California Republican Party and Rep. Kevin McCarthy, during the primary, but local Republicans have since coalesced around Rios. At a recent fundraiser at Woolgrowers, GOP Assembly members David Valadao and Shannon Grove and McCarthy, plus a handful of former and current Bakersfield officials, were part of the crowd of more than 100 there to rally around Rios.
"I've been impressed with him since the first day I met him" several years ago, McCarthy said. "Look at everything he's been able to overcome. He'll be in the minority (in the state Assembly), but I think he'll be able to work with both (sides) and will be effective."