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Alex Horvath / The Californian

16th Senate District candidate Leticia Perez appears at The Californian's editorial board meeting in the Dignity Health Studios Wednesday afternoon.

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Alex Horvath / The Californian

16th Senate District candidates Francisco Ramirez appears at The Californian's editorial board in the Dignity Health Studios Wednesday afternoon.

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Alex Horvath/ The Californian

Muhammad Arif, who is running for 16th Senate District, spoke to Robert Price in the Dignity Health Studios Wednesday afternoon.

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Michael Fagans / The Californian

Candidate for the 16th state Senate District seat, Republican Andy Vidak.

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Michael Fagans / The Californian

Candidate for the 16th state Senate District seat, Paulina Miranda of Fresno.

It's make-or-break time in the special election to replace former state Sen. Michael Rubio in the 16th Senate District seat.

With two weeks to go before the May 21 primary, the five candidates are working hard to increase turnout and capture as many of those votes as they can.

Three of the candidates for California's 16th Senate District seat spoke with The Californian's editorial board about immigration, high-speed rail and the race's big-spending, party-backed candidates on Wednesday.

Democrat Leticia Perez said she expects to win the seat in a head-to-head runoff against Republican Andy Vidak in July. She is the right candidate for Kern County and the district, she said.

"I am a valley girl raised with valley values," Perez said. "Kern needs to retain this seat. I'm in the best position to win this seat."

She said early vote-by-mail returns show her team has done a good job of getting Democratic voters to mail in their ballots.

"At this point we're ahead," she said. "These are better numbers than we could have expected."

The numbers, she argued, defy the conventional wisdom that Republican voters cast ballots more reliably than Democrats.

She acknowledged that, with two other Democrats in the race, not all of those vote-by-mail ballots have been cast for her.

But, she said, the "lion's share" will go to her.

She defended her support for legislation that would increase the minimum wage in the state.

Vidak has argued that the idea would strip funds out of business-owners' profits and ultimately cost people jobs.

"I understand there is a legitimate fear out there," Perez said.

But she believes that the people who earn higher wages would spend the additional money and boost the economy, improving everyone's financial situation.

Mohammad Arif, a Peace and Freedom candidate from Bakersfield, said he is an immigrant-rights organizer dedicated to helping the poor and disadvantaged have a voice in government.

"We need fear-free immigration," he said. "People with no criminal record or intent should be given a way to become citizens."

He said he supports the high-speed rail system but believes that, because of increasing costs for construction, perhaps it might be better to get a slower system in place and make it faster at another time.

Both he and Democrat Francisco Ramirez criticized Perez and Vidak for taking hundreds of thousands of campaign dollars from business, political and union interests.

The candidates who take big money turn their campaign over to the donors, Arif said.

"This is me running, not the money running," he said. "Even if you are a Democrat, vote for me and give me a chance."

Ramirez, who has taken to Facebook and Twitter to lob criticisms at Vidak and Perez, tried to promote himself as a middle-ground politician who would have power in Sacramento because he is running as a Democrat but embraces views that are far more Republican in tone.

"We know this is a special election. We know the Democrats want it. We know that the Republicans want it," Ramirez said. "It's called leverage. I won't go into detail, but that's how you make things run."

He said he opposes high-speed rail but would want the Valley to capture jobs if it is built.

"If we get it here, we need the people from the United States and California get those jobs," he told the editorial board.

Ramirez proposed a 10 percent, across-the-board tax cut for businesses, a reduction in the gas tax and promised to bring water and jobs to the San Joaquin Valley if elected -- by getting involved and lobbying the state water authorities to promote the valley's interests.

Watch videos of the candidates who appeared before the editorial board Wednesday and Thursday. Vidak declined to be videotaped.