The one Bakersfield City Council race showing any signs of competitiveness is for the Ward 2 seat, representing much of downtown. Three very different candidates are running: Terry Maxwell, who owns T.L. Maxwell's Restaurant and Bar; Elliott Kirschenmann, who works for a local real estate developer; and David Mensch, who teaches people with disabilities to use assistive technology.
Maxwell, 58, and his wife, Paula, opened their fine dining restaurant in 1999. The space, which has retained its Art Deco look and solid mahogany bar, changed hands and changed names several times in the 1990s before it became T.L. Maxwell's.
For the first few years, the restaurant struggled, Maxwell said. But the Maxwells stuck it out and things turned around. The restaurant does well now because it focuses on good food, attentive service and an unhurried atmosphere for patrons, he said.
"I believe a city has to run more like a business," Maxwell said, sitting at the bar Wednesday morning. "As a businessman, that's what I would bring to the table."
Maxwell calls himself "a free market guy." He doesn't oppose the city having invested money in downtown improvements and projects like Mill Creek Park, but questions whether certain projects could've been done differently, such as by putting the McMurtrey Aquatic Center closer to Mill Creek Park. And he believes the city providing a loan to help open the Padre Hotel was too much interference.
"They shouldn't have been involved," Maxwell said. "When the government intervenes for somebody who's going to compete with me, I don't think that's fair."
Maxwell said he believes the "best government is the government that's closest to the people ... the city government." That means the city should sometimes push back when the state and federal government intercedes. One example is air quality standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency, he said.
"Bakersfield lives in a bowl... We sit at the bottom of the San Joaquin Valley," he said. "There's only so much improvement we can have."
It's problematic when air quality standards, such as regulations on diesel trucks, impact business, he said.
"How good can we make the air quality here?" Maxwell said. "These are the examples of where our leaders should be demanding more answers," including city government leaders.
One of the biggest Ward 2 issues is the proposed widening of 24th Street between Highway 99 and roughly M Street, and the taking down of about two dozen houses to do so. Kirschenmann said he can't state his position on the project before he makes his public decision as a member of the Bakersfield Planning Commission.
But Maxwell has no such restriction and has been open about his opposition. He does think the plans to widen Rosedale Highway and build the Centennial Corridor project are needed, however.
The aim of the 24th Street project is to handle increased traffic flows expected as the city grows. Maxwell said he doesn't believe the city will grow at nearly the same rate as it has in the last 30 years, but also that widening the street won't make it any less congested.
The problem, he said, is that the intersections of 24th Street and Oak Street west of the city and M Street to the east create bottlenecks. The lights on the east side could be better coordinated, Maxwell said. The interchange with Oak Street should be improved and a bridge could be built over the Kern RIver instead to route northbound traffic off Oak Street and onto Highway 99, he said.
Maxwell said he would favor sending engineers back to the drawing board for the project: "I think it's ridiculous for us to be brought down to these two options."
Near T.L. Maxwell's and four floors up in the Haberfeld Building is Carosella Properties Inc., where Kirschenmann works for the three-man business. Against the wall in his sunny office are giant boards of drawings for Mustang Square, one of the properties Carosella Properties has built and still plans to add to.
Kirschenmann, 28, said he wanted to join the planning commission after his boss, Tom Carosella, faced a somewhat uphill battle getting the plans for Mustang Square through the commission initially.
"No one on the Planning Commission had taken a project from start to finish," Kirschenmann said. "I had that experience and wanted to lend it."
The city needs to move faster to accommodate new businesses, thereby generating more tax revenue for the city, he said. Had the Mustang Square project moved more quickly through city channels, he said, it might have gained another tenant. The project, at the corner of White Lane and Buena Vista Road, isn't yet filled with tenants, but that will have to wait until the economy picks up again, he said.
"They (the city) don't have the right view," he said. "We need to get these businesses up and running as fast as possible."
To that end, Kirschenmann said "gray areas" need to be eliminated from city codes that affect business development. He also points to ideas in other cities. Glendale, for example, sets up a "concierge service team" of staff from different city departments to guide major business projects through to being built.
"We need to refocus our vision of downtown, then roll out the red carpet for businesses that want to invest in the city," Kirschenmann said. Getting more trees planted downtown and making signs for parking, museums and other attractions downtown would help, he said. "We're on the precipice of more success."
Kirschenmann said he's involved in most phases of commercial property development at his job, from finding businesses to open new stores and restaurants in a property to negotiating the leases and checking on construction.
"If you look at what the city council does, I've got a lot of experience doing these same sorts of things," he said.
Kirschenmann said he was involved in upgrades to the heating and cooling and electrical systems of the federal building at 800 Truxtun Ave., which Carosella Properties owns. The retrofitting cut energy costs for the building by almost 40 percent, Kirschenmann said. Now that the city is looking at upgrades to save energy, such as with LED lights it's installed on a pilot program basis in city streetlights, Kirschenmann said he can lend his experience.
Kirschenmann said he also supports using city staff time and effort to develop more bike paths through the city.
"It's a quality of life issue," he said. "We're a big city. We need to grow up a bit,"
One area Kirschenmann and Maxwell differ most starkly in is what role the city should have in investing in and regulating private business. Unlike Maxwell, Kirschenmann said the city's loan that helped the Padre develop into a hotspot was money well spent, that the city is getting back through sales taxes.
"Those are the projects we need to encourage," Kirschenmann said.
Few likely could have predicted that David Mensch would someday run for public office.
But the Bakersfield man has been turning people's expectations upside down for most of his 52 years -- so his decision to run for the open Ward 2 seat may meld perfectly with his penchant for setting each new life goal higher than the last.
It was only last spring, for example, that Mensch and his teenage son, Zach, rode some 300 miles to Sacramento -- dad in his wheelchair and Zach on a bicycle--to raise money for the Kern Assistive Technology Center. That's where Mensch has worked for years to teach people with disabilities to read, write and communicate more effectively using technology.
Mensch teaches from experience. He was born with cerebral palsy, uses a motorized wheelchair to get around and has limited use of his hands. He prefers the immediacy and moral weight that comes with speaking in his own voice, despite the intense physical effort it requires and the difficulty some have understanding him.
But he's also well versed at using email, social media and a computer program that can turn words and phrases he selects on the screen into a synthesized voice.
Rather than tapping on a keyboard, Mensch uses a gray dot on his forehead to wirelessly point at and select what he needs from the screen. But it's a laborious process not all that conducive to holding a one-on-one conversation, much less a spirited discussion of complex issues faced by a governing board like the city council.
"People automatically think, 'He can't do that,'" he said. "But when people get to know me, it changes their point of view."
Mensch is aware he is a role model for many in the disabled community -- and he's fine with that. But his campaign is focused, he said, on his desire to serve the entire community, not just a component.
"The people of Bakersfield have been good to me," he said. "It's time for me to pay back."
His top priority is getting more police officers and firefighters on the street.
One step in that direction may include adding volunteer citizen patrols to the mix in Bakersfield, Mensch said. These volunteers would not actively engage in law enforcement, but would provide additional eyes and ears for sworn officers.
"I think the Bakersfield Police Department could benefit from a volunteer program," he said.
Mensch would also like to explore the possibility of contracting out more city jobs to the private sector.
"I don't know how it would work out," he acknowledged. "But it's an idea to look at."
He believes the city budget can be trimmed. "I think we could cut out a lot that we really don't need," he said.
Is his election a long shot? No doubt. But Mensch says he has a shot.
Over the years, he argued, he's demonstrated an ability to work with people, and yes, to compromise when it resulted in a benefit for the greater good.
"I think people that know me know what I stand for," he said.
"I will do my best to fulfill the job of city council for the people of Bakersfield."