Many of the houses along Sunshine Avenue and Vine Drive just south of the Kern County Fairgrounds have Rudy Salas for State Assembly signs hanging on their fences -- it's where he grew up and where a lot of his family still lives.
On a recent afternoon, Salas, 35, walked up to the house where he lived with his family as a kid and where his grandmother still lives. The house was a lot smaller then and more modest, he said. Salas opened the gate and knocked on the door and soon was asked to take out the garbage.
He pointed out the house he, his sister and dad moved to later, the spot where he broke his arm jumping over a fence, the lot where he played baseball with neighborhood friends, the yard across the street that was, and still is, filled with broken-down cars.
"Obviously we still have some work to do here," he said as he walked by a block wall covered in black graffiti.
The neighborhood is in a county pocket, but Salas, as a Bakersfield city councilman, has undertaken those sorts of community improvements in his two years representing Ward 1, covering southeast Bakersfield.
Now he's hoping to carry out those efforts from Sacramento, on a larger scale and with more resources, he has said.
Salas, a Democrat, is running against Pedro Rios, a small businessman and former teacher from Delano, to represent the 32nd Assembly District. Both are Hispanic and speak Spanish fluently, both have served on their city councils.
But where Rios emphasizes his experiences teaching, farming and starting his own businesses, Salas lists his experience and connections in state government as one reason he'll be an effective legislator.
"It's kind of a rougher neighborhood that we grew up in," said Elizabeth Phelps, Salas' sister. Drug dealers and gangs, the South Side Bakers being the major one, congregated at one house down the street, now an empty lot. "When we were in bed at night, we'd hear the helicopters going around and see the spotlight going around," Phelps said.
Phelps and her brother lived with their dad after their parents split, and were largely responsible for cooking and cleaning for themselves and doing their homework after school while their dad worked late, she said. Sometimes they worked with him, building boxes for grapes. Money was often tight. They'd get $100 each to buy all their school clothes, shoes and coats for the year. Their grandparents, around the corner, would help. When there wasn't milk for breakfast cereal, they improvised, with coffee on their Cheerios, she said.
"Now we laugh," she said. "Who gives their kids coffee?"
Salas was serious about school and interested in politics early on, she said.
"He would always watch, to me, the boring stuff when we were kids, (like) the news," Phelps said. "He always knew who's president, who's vice president, even when we were young."
Salas played football and baseball with the other neighborhood kids, but as they all got older and headed toward high school, their paths diverged, Phelps said.
"When the boys would get into trouble, Rudy would just steer clear of that," Phelps said. "He was the smart one. ... Everybody knew that he was going to do something for himself."
Salas was the first person in their family to go to college, she said, and that encouraged her to do the same.
"We haven't exactly had everything handed to us when we were growing up," Phelps said. "We've always had the foundation of work, work, work. Work for what you got. ... "Now that we're older, (he knows) he's in a position to help people (and) bring business to our community."
Salas earned dual degrees in history and political science from UCLA in 2000, and immediately after had a short stint in Al Gore's office helping keep the then-vice president's financial records. After a handful of years at Cal State Bakersfield advising high school and incoming college students, he came back to government.
Salas worked for former Democratic state Sen. Dean Florez from 2004 to 2010, first as a legislative policy consultant, helping draft bills and shepherding them through the legislative process. He later was Florez's district director in Bakersfield, working on constituent concerns.
Salas already had some experience as a legislative aide to then-Democratic state Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh as part of a competitive fellowship program.
"We were very excited to get him," Florez remembered. "He was one of the few folks that kind of understood how this place worked. It takes some time to really understand the process ... (but) we never really had to train Rudy."
In Florez's office, Salas worked on Measure E, a voter-approved measure that if held up in court would block the spreading of treated sewage sludge on farmland in unincorporated Kern County.
"He was the number one person that led the assault, if you will, on sludge haulers that were coming in from Los Angeles," Florez said. "He was able to bring together Republicans and Democrats and Independents on that."
Florez said Salas was able to work with other parties, but also stands alone when he chooses to, especially where spending is concerned.
Salas wasn't shy about expressing his opinion, even if it differed from his boss', Florez said. Ironically, when Rios was a Delano city councilman and led the charge to raise Delano's sales tax in 2007, Florez lent his support. The proposed increase, which did pass, made Delano's sales tax the highest in Kern County at the time, but the city needed the extra revenue.
"I went out there and said, 'I love this guy (Rios)' ... We need more money in the sales tax to provide more services. And who walks up to me but my district director (Salas). (He said) 'That's a bad move. I oppose that.'"
"Pedro and I worked together to pass that ... and then Rudy was against it."
"Rudy is extremely cheap, and I mean that in a nice way," he said. "He hates to waste anything" and is probably reusing some of the campaign signs he had for the primary election now for the general election, Florez said. Indeed, walking through his former neighborhood in southeast Bakersfield, Salas pointed out signs posted for both periods of the campaign.
Florez said he and Salas completely differ on Proposition 30, Gov. Jerry Brown's signature push to raise taxes. Salas' opposition to it -- even when a Democratic governor is campaigning for it -- is indicative of the kind of legislator Salas would be, Florez said.
"People are going to be really surprised when he gets here. He's extremely frugally conservative" and not an "average tax-and-spend Democrat," Florez said. "He treats people's spare dollars like his own."
In 2010, Salas became the first Hispanic elected to the Bakersfield City Council. His Ward 1 seat representing southern Bakersfield had been held by African Americans over the last several decades. If he's elected to the Assembly, he'll be leaving halfway through his term, and the council will likely hold a special election to replace him.
On the council, he's started a handful of community initiatives such as "Kids Fire Safety Academies" to teach local kids and their parents about fire safety. He and City Councilman Russell Johnson started "trunk-or-treat," a Halloween event for kids in Planz Park.
David Collins, who started the South Oswell Neighborhood Watch, said Salas has pitched in often with neighborhood cleanups and community meetings.
"We recently had our copper wires in our streetlights stripped, in the spring, probably by people looking for fast, easy drug money," Collins said. "So we had no (working) streetlights on South Sterling (Road) or Zephyr (Lane). We couldn't get the city to do anything about that."
Salas got the city to add it to its to-do list and it was fixed, he said.
"Rudy has been very helpful to us," Collins said. "He's helped us with major problems where we got stuck with the city. The city isn't like Los Angeles (in size) ... but there's a lot of moving parts and sometimes you get lost."
Salas has intervened to clean up trash and graffiti, including in a vacant lot that's slated to become a small park, Collins said, and occasionally set up a sort of open-air office in city parks on weekends to talk with residents.
"He's been very effective," Collins said. "To have a councilman come out helps create morale. ... He's actually come out and participated. He's bent down and picked up trash like (the rest of) us."
Salas has already been talking with state legislators about reforming regulations he says are stunting job growth. The California Environmental Quality Act, for example, needs to be streamlined, he said. He's also met with large businesses to try and convince them to invest in the district and take advantage of the highway corridors.
Were he to win the Assembly seat, Salas would be joining the majority party in the state legislature. But his supporters said that doesn't mean he'll be a yes-man when he disagrees.
"Rudy is a valley Democrat, so some of his positions aren't the most liberal," said Milt Younger, a Bakersfield personal injury attorney who has been active in the Democratic Party in Kern County. He cited Salas' opposition to the state's high-speed rail plans.
Younger, too, highlighted Salas' independent streak -- though on an issue that pulled him more to the left. Last week, Salas and Councilwoman Sue Benham were the only ones to vote against a proposal to stop paying prevailing wages on city-funded projects.
"He's an obviously capable young man who's got a bright future. He'll go on the (state) Senate," Younger said.
"Rudy is ours. He's genuinely from the district that he's going to represent."