Kern County Supervisor Leticia Perez jumped Monday into what's shaping up to be a competitive race to fill Kern County's open state Senate seat.

"I am running for state Senate," the Democrat said in a statement. "I am honored by all of the people who have asked me to do so. I recognize that other good people will step forward. The public will be well-served by a healthy debate on the direction of our state."

She acknowledged that if she wins, she will be abandoning the 5th District seat on the Kern County Board of Supervisors that she assumed just three months ago, a seat that has been held by three different supervisors in the last 21/2 years.

Being called to replace her mentor in a special election for his vacant seat is a unique circumstance, Perez said, and places her in a position she never expected to be in.

"Now that it has presented itself, I need to step up to the plate and fill the seat that my constituents are absolutely telling me is critical to the valley," she said. "They want to see a qualified, passionate fighter for the valley."

On the Democratic side, Perez joins Alfred Benavides, a former Hanford Joint Union High School District trustee, and Shafter City Councilwoman Fran Florez.

Florez announced her bid Friday but elaborated Monday.

She told The Californian that her decision to run was made without the support of the state Democratic Party and that the party shouldn't dabble in the democratic process.

She said she talked to the state party about her candidacy. But she said she and Perez should be allowed to run if they so chose.

"I don't know why they can't let her run and me run," she said. "Let democracy work the way it should."

Perez said she welcomes all candidates.

"Anyone who is qualified and wants to step up and take the courageous act of running should do so," she said.

Asked if she has the statewide party's backing, Perez said she has support "throughout the state and the valley."

Florez and Perez enter a narrowing field of candidates for the seat vacated by state Sen. Michael Rubio, D-Shafter, last month for family reasons.

Florez said her core political team -- her family -- is mobilized and ready to go. That includes son Dean Florez, a former state Senate majority leader.

Kings County cherry farmer Andy Vidak, a Republican who gave Rep. Jim Costa a tough fight in 2010, has also committed to the race.

Other prominent names, including Kings County Supervisor and Democrat Richard Valle and former Fresno Mayor and Republican Alan Autry, dropped out of consideration over the weekend, according to the Fresno Bee.

Contacted Monday, Valle said he explored a run because Rubio's exit left a troubling void for the valley as serious issues were coming to the fore.

He has thrown his support behind Perez, saying she is the leader to handle those challenges.

Florez said she doesn't believe that having two strong Democrats in the primary would benefit Republicans.

Right now she is just focused on being successful in the May 21 special primary election and will deal with July's special general election once the top two vote recipients are decided.

"Let's do one election at a time," she said.

Perez also brushed away the internal party conflict.

"The only thing I'm concerned about is getting to every single voter in the valley that I can," she said.

A single candidate can win the seat in the primary if he or she claims more than 50 percent of the vote.

Florez acknowledged that a tough primary battle with fellow Democrat Pete Parra for the 30th Assembly District seat in 2010 strained her financial resources. But, she said, she defeated Parra handily and her campaign finance situation rebounded.

Republican David Valadao defeated Florez handily in the general election, claiming solid wins in Kings, Fresno and Tulare counties while Florez won in Kern County.

Florez has said that the makeup of the 16th Senate District is substantially different than that of the 30th Assembly District, and that gives her a better chance against a Republican.

Kern County Democratic Party Chair Candi Easter, who had been a vocal Perez supporter, struck a more moderate tone Monday in a post on the party's Web page.

"This is a very high energy time for us and I am hopeful that we can all keep a respectful attitude. When all is said and done, we must have a Democrat representing the 16th Senate District," she wrote.

"Much is at stake and we need to remember that after the primary, we must come together and support the choice of the district's voters."

Easter said in an interview the race is going to be intense.

"It's going to be hot and heavy from now until july," she said. "It's like speed dating" for the party and voters.

Huge amounts of money will be poured into the contest from both parties.

"No matter who our candidate is, we're going to be fighting for them," Easter said.