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Casey Christie / The Californian

Leticia Perez when she filed paperwork at the Kern County Elections Division office in Bakersfield with Carolyn Sandlin, elections specialist.

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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

Shafter City Councilwoman Fran Florez dropped her candidacy for the vacant 16th Senate District seat Wednesday.

Fran Florez dropped out of the 16th Senate District race Wednesday, avoiding an intra-party battle with Kern County Supervisor Leticia Perez that could have imperiled Democrats’ chances of keeping the seat.

The decision came just hours before the California Democratic Party endorsed Perez, a move expected to open the state party’s financial floodgates for her.

And, political analyst Allan Hoffenblum said, Florez’s exit will give Perez the lead in the May 21 special primary election race, where she will face Kings County Republican Andy Vidak and possibly other less well-known candidates.

“She certainly has to be heavily favored. It’s all but a heavily favored Democratic district,” said Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book.

Perez said she was thrilled and humbled to have the support of the party and said she would work hard to win the seat.

Vidak campaign official Tim Orman said the race isn’t really about who he’s running against.

“Andy’s running on what he brings to the table and the conversation he wants to have with voters,” Orman said.

Florez said in a statement she was frustrated that the state party was about to endorse her rival in the primary and not allow local Democrats to fight for the seat independently.

But she said she couldn’t stay in the race knowing it might compromise Democrats’ chances to hold the post recently vacated by Michael Rubio.

“In 2010, I ran against another Democrat (Pete Parra), and the Democratic Party let us fight that battle without picking a side,” Florez wrote. “That election taught me that while I won the battle, the Democrats lost the war. Our local residents were divided and in frustration (and) did not come out to vote in the next general election because they felt that their favorite Democrat lost.

“Ultimately, this cost our party a seat in the Legislature, and we spent a significant amount of time and effort reuniting as Democrats. Division and infighting are two of the largest threats to our party — and based on my years of experience, I have no doubt that this is exactly what will happen in this special election,” she wrote.

That left the field wide open for Perez, who re-claimed the right to run for the 16th District seat Wednesday morning when she re-registered to vote at a new rental home on 18th Street in downtown Bakersfield.

Her previous home on Alta Vista Drive in east Bakersfield sits just outside the 16th District boundaries, and a debate over elections rules had thrown her eligibility into question.

“I admire Fran’s leadership and her vision for Democrats throughout the valley,” Perez said in reaction to Florez’s pull-out Wednesday afternoon. “This is going to be a tough race, and unity is going to be important. It’s important that we keep this seat for the best public servants in the valley.”

Hoffenblum said Perez’s primary weakness is that she won her Kern County Board of Supervisors seat less than a year ago and has only served since December. Perez’s Democratic supporters have expressed frustration at the quick move. But Hoffenblum said that liability may be less damaging for Perez in a head-to-head match-up with Vidak.

“Are (Democrats) going to want a hard-core conservative representing them?” he asked rhetorically.

Perez will need to move quickly to catch up with Vidak, a Hanford farmer who raised $112,400 between March 14 and March 26, according to his filings with the California Secretary of State’s office. Much of the money came from farmers in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

Perez had $20,500 Wednesday, according to her filings. Florez listed no contributions.

Tim Orman, of the Vidak campaign, said it will be working to raise as much money as it can in coming weeks.

“Andy’s a great person. He’s doing this not because he needs a job but because he feels he’s right for the district,” Orman said.

The California Republican Party has not yet endorsed Vidak, he said.

Perez, too, expects to receive the money needed to put up a strong fight.

“This race will be fully funded,” she said. “What’s important is that we can effectively deliver our message to the district.”

Florez decried state party involvement, including the support for Perez from the Senate Democratic Caucus, even as she backed out of the race.

“Over the past two days, I have spent many hours calling my most loyal supporters — they have told me, in person, that they are torn between personal loyalty and the wishes of the Democratic leadership,” Florez wrote. “I see a clear victory for Democrats in the making, and I am pointing us in the direction of ‘unity.’”

Perez said she appreciated Florez’s focus.

“I look forward to working with Fran,” Perez said. “I am really impressed with her record and her willingness to unify folks in the valley.”