A 32nd Assembly District forum was short on surprises Thursday on the Central Valley's key issues -- including water, high-speed rail and the minimum wage -- but revealed a few clues to future strategies for the race's three candidates.
Less than six weeks remain before the June 3 primary pitting incumbent Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield, against Republican hopefuls Romeo Agbalog and Pedro Rios.
As the incumbent in a Democratic-heavy district, Salas has the advantage and is not expected to suffer from new state primary rules that send only the top two performers on to the general election.
Faced with a crowd of about 50 at the Richard Prado Senior Center in east Bakersfield, the 16-month assemblyman and former Bakersfield City Council representative leaned heavily on his work in the state house -- making sure to mention the $15 million in Proposition 39 funds he secured for job training last year.
In a drought year, Salas is the joint author of Assembly Bill 2686, a $9.25 billion proposal including $3 billion for water storage and $1 billion for safe drinking water. It is the only one of seven water bond proposals in the legislature to have found bipartisan support, Salas said.
Agbalog, a Delano Union School District trustee and staffer for state Sen. Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield, wasn't buying.
"The one thing I'm apprehensive about is the money for San Joaquin River Delta restoration, the salmon. Salmon hasn't been seen in those streams for 60 years," Agbalog said, recommending Senate Bill 927 from state Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford. Vidak has said his bond has found support on both sides of the aisle.
"I think we want to negotiate from a stronger position and I think Senator Vidak's bill is a stronger point," Agbalog added, voicing an idea which might be heard again.
All three men staunchly opposed the state's controversial high-speed rail project, with Agbalog noting the bullet train's billions could be spent better elsewhere.
Rios, who lost to Salas in 2012, said lawmakers should focus the state's resources on a genuine crisis: the drought.
Salas, the first Latino on the Bakersfield City Council, pointed out he voted against high-speed rail during his time representing Ward 1.
The men's histories came into clear focus during a discussion of minimum wage. Agbalog and Rios opposed increasing it, saying it would do more long-term harm to employers than short-term good for employees.
Rios, who was criticized two years ago for not revealing his own journey to the U.S from Mexico and road to citizenship, was up front about that part of his life.
"I came illegally as did my brothers, in search of opportunity. America gave (us) that opportunity," said Rios, a teacher and farmer who emigrated at age 9, then gained legal status through then-President Ronald Reagan's 1986 amnesty program.
"I would oppose a raise, because in the end it does not help. It hurts everybody including the consumer," Rios continued.
Agbalog said "arbitrary" minimum wage raise would lead directly to layoffs.
Salas countered that head-on, explaining why he supported Assembly Bill 10 increasing the minimum wage to $9 July 1 and to $10 on Jan. 1, 2016.
"What this does, it seemed positive for our economy and for our folks here," Salas said, sharing stories from constituents who said they'd spend disposable income if they had it. "You see that reinvestment in our own economy -- it actually spurs economic growth."
The forum, which lasted nearly an hour, was preceded by a half-hour warm-up from officials with the Outlets at Tejon, who revealed Fossil and Columbia Sportswear Co. will have stores in the new mall whose planned opening is Aug. 7.