Five candidates are vying to replace Michael Rubio as state senator for California's 16th District. Two of those candidates have the credentials, connections and means to win the May 21 special election and serve with effectiveness. And that, for the most part, is where the similarities between Tulare County grower Andy Vidak and Kern County Supervisor Leticia Perez end.
Perez, a Democrat, has made a career of public service, with stints as an attorney in the Kern County Public Defender's Office, as an aide to then-Supervisor Rubio and now, for the past four and a half months, in Rubio's old job as 5th District supervisor. She has relatively little experience in the private sector.
Vidak, a Republican, represents the flip side: He has never held elective office and has never worked for an elected official. His most valuable experience in the political world was his 2010 campaign for Congress against Democrat Jim Costa of Fresno. Costa won, but by a much closer margin (51.8 percent to 48.2 percent) than most anyone expected. Vidak seems to have come out of that yearlong immersion a more confident and well-rounded candidate.
Both Vidak and Perez know and understand the Central Valley, albeit from different vantage points and life experiences. In a close call, we'll take Vidak's perspective as a leader of the 16th District's most important industry: agriculture. His positions on water, taxation and regulation are the positions that those who drive the economy of Tulare, Kings and Kern counties (and, to a lesser extent, Fresno County) will substantially agree with.
Perez has cast herself as a "Valleycrat" -- a Democrat who, on many issues, would place higher priority on the conservative values of her district than with the Democratic leadership. Her Democratic predecessors in the Legislature, particularly Dean Florez and Nicole Parra, were able to do that. (Rubio, who abruptly resigned Feb. 22, halfway into his first term, had set that course as well.) Perez seems cut from a similarly pragmatic cloth.
But she has unfinished business elsewhere. In January, Perez officially began representing the 5th District, probably Kern County's poorest and least visible area -- and then, a mere nine weeks later, announced her candidacy for Rubio's old 16th District seat. It's hardly her fault that the Democratic-held Senate seat, vital to her party's tenuous hold on a supermajority, came open suddenly and unexpectedly, and it's hardly her fault that Kern County's Democratic bench is the thinnest it's been in many years. But her obligation to her supervisorial district has to mean something. And the fact is, her ability to influence and directly affect the lives of her constituents is greater as a member of the five-person Board of Supervisors than as a lawmaker in the 40-member state Senate.
It would be easy to discount Vidak's chances of being effective given the other party's thorough command of the Legislature, but Vidak correctly points out that California's Democratic governor has shown himself to be a common-sense executive not afraid to buck his party on matters such as water conveyance, CEQA reform and business retention. "He's going to need somebody like me," Vidak recently said of Gov. Jerry Brown. "There are going to be enough of us in the middle. I'm not going to be one of those crazy right-wing guys."
We'll hold him to that.
The five-way race, which fills out with Democrat Paulina Miranda, Democrat-in-name-only Francisco Ramirez and Peace and Freedom candidate Mohammad Arif, is probably too crowded for a single candidate to win the requisite 50 percent plus one on May 21. The runoff isn't until July 23, so voters will have plenty of time to further evaluate the two who survive the primary. But from here, now, the choice is Vidak.