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Rod Thornburg / Special to The Californian

At a forum sponsored by the Kern County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, incumbent Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield, answers one of his questions while Republican candidates Romeo Agbalog, middle, and Pedro Rios, end, who are running against him, wait to answer theirs. They are all seeking the 32nd Assembly District seat.

The biggest question in the 32nd Assembly District race isn't who will triumph in the primary -- it's who will run second.

The district includes all of Kings County and more than a third of southwestern Kern County. It's heavily Latino and nearly one in two registered voters in it is a Democrat.

In other words, Assemblyman Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield -- the city's first Latino councilman until he went to Sacramento -- should be a mortal lock to finish in the top two on June 3.

The same can't be said for his two Republican opponents.

Pedro Rios is a farmer and teacher who took a hard fall to Salas in a nasty 2012 race. Romeo Agbalog, who works for state Sen. Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield, is a Delano Union School District trustee with growing political connections.

New state primary rules send only the top two vote-getters -- regardless of party -- to the general election, so one of these men will have to lose.


General campaign finance reports released in March revealed a serious imbalance in the race, with Agbalog reporting $4,000 in contributions, Rios receiving $4,100 from Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield -- and Salas sitting on a war chest of $442,857.

The incumbent assemblyman continues to far outpace his competition. Since March 27, the last reporting deadline, Salas has received $98,900 in contributions.

Donors include fellow legislators, labor unions, Native American tribes, Anheuser-Busch, utilities holding company Sempra Energy, Tejon Ranch, Bakersfield Mayor Harvey Hall and his ambulance company, and Tesoro Companies, an oil refinery.

Agbalog -- whose boss co-hosted a fundraiser for him March 9 with former Congressman Bill Thomas, R-Bakersfield, as keynote speaker -- is in second place.

He has raised $49,000 since March 27, from donors including the Kern County Prosecutors Association's political action committee, Grimmway Farms owner Barbara Grimm Marshall, and Connie Conway for Senate 2018.

Conway, R-Visalia, is the Assembly Republican leader and co-hosted Agbalog's fundraiser.

In third place is Rios, whose March 13 fundraiser featured presidential scion Michael Reagan.

Rios has raised $32,300 since March 27, from donors including Matt Pandol, manager of Pandol Farms in Delano, Sal and Cynthia Giumarra, partners in Giumarra Vineyards of Bakersfield, and W. Reyneveld Construction in Bakersfield.

The company's namesake, William Reyneveld, owned the historic Bakersfield Brewing Co. near downtown, demolished in December.


Oil and agriculture are top industries in Kern and Kings counties, so it's not surprising the state's drought emergency, its ongoing debate over hydraulic fracturing, and its high-speed rail project are among this race's top issues.

Salas is a joint author of Assembly Bill 2686, a $9.25 billion proposal including $3 billion for water storage and $1 billion for safe drinking water. His bill emphasizes water storage, which Agbalog and Rios also said is a crucial component.

"The issue is not clean water. The issue is do we have the water, and right now we don't," Rios said, voicing a common theme among candidates -- that the state would by definition have more water to use if it could increase storage capacity.

At a recent candidates' forum, Agbalog recommended Senate Bill 927 from state Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford, another of the seven proposed water bonds currently in the legislature.

Agbalog came out against a San Joaquin River Delta restoration that would help the salmon -- but Salas pointed out that any bond the legislature approves will have compromises like salmon restoration.

"We have to get this passed for voters throughout the entire state. This has been a very delicate kind of balance and dance between the needs for the entire state," Salas said. "There's some parts of the bond that other parts of the state don't like, like storage. But guess what, this bond has storage in it and they're willing to come and support it."

The high-speed rail project has much for candidates to dislike.

Agbalog and Rios have said flatly they oppose it -- with Agbalog saying voters "were sold a bad bill of goods."

"I think the state needs to reprioritize here," Agbalog told about 50 people at a recent candidates forum in east Bakersfield. "I think for a fraction of the cost of the high-speed rail, we can reinvest in water infrastructure, schools and roads."

Salas, by contrast, has said little about his position on high-speed rail. At the forum, he said, "I always tell people I have a voting record on it," pointing out he voted against bringing the bullet train into downtown Bakersfield while on the Bakersfield City Council.

In an interview he said he hasn't seen anything that would change his mind.

"I know there's a currently pending lawsuit, so we need to see what happens with the lawsuit and go from there," Salas said. "I'm just trying to see what the courts are going to say."

The Kings County Board of Supervisors and two Kings County residents are suing the California High-Speed Rail Authority, arguing its plan does not match promises made to voters when they approved the sale of $10 billion in bonds for the train in 2008.

On fracking, a controversial but highly effective oil-field technique, the candidates also largely agree.

If they'd been in office, Rios and Agbalog have said, they would have voted against Senate Bill 4, the first-ever state fracking regulation bill approved last year.

"If we can produce it here and if we can produce revenue and jobs and that's going to enhance it, I say let's go for it," Rios said recently of Kern County oil production.

Salas said he abstained from voting on SB 4 because he didn't think the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources had time to complete its work on the issue.

"I wanted to let them get all their ducks in a row first. They actually are now letting out all the permits and that's actually because I held a meeting in my office," Salas said in an interview.

He said that meeting included John Laird, secretary of the state Natural Resources Agency, and several oil companies, and that, as a result, SB 4-induced paperwork delays are going away.


The beginning of this race has been as warm and cordial as the end of the 2012 Rios-Salas contest was cold and mean-spirited.

In 2012, a Salas ad insinuated Rios was a teacher who got "busted and convicted for providing alcohol to minors," and a Salas campaign adviser accused Rios of opposing the DREAM Act, aimed at giving permanent residency to certain illegal immigrants who came to the United States as minors.

Rios fired back then, pointing out the alcohol incident happened in 1994 when he worked as a cashier in a Delano convenience store -- four years before he earned his teaching credential.

He pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge in connection with the incident in 1994.

Rios, who came here illegally as a child but subsequently became a citizen, has said he did not oppose the DREAM Act.

This time around, Rios said there's no beef with Salas or Agbalog -- but after the primary, the race's tenor could change.

"On my part I have no plans on attacking Romeo," Rios said. "(W)hether it's me or Romeo that goes on to face Salas, it's not going to be pretty."