They include a longtime local political aide who decided to step out from behind the scenes. A new city school district superintendent who has begun to make his mark — and make some waves. And a young runner who may be the next big standout at storied McFarland High School.
They are among our People to Watch for 2017.
ASSEMBLYMAN VINCE FONG
A freshman Republican in the Democratic-dominated California Assembly isn’t typically one to watch. But Vince Fong isn’t your typical freshman Republican in the California Assembly.
He’s got connections and experience — in spades.
Having served as district director for Kevin McCarthy the past 10 years (and having known him since he was a teenager), Fong has a direct line to none other than the U.S. House majority leader. In fact, the two have talked on the phone every other day since election night. And McCarthy, in turn, has a direct line to President-elect Donald Trump, for whom he was a GOP convention delegate.
And then there are the years Fong worked for former House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, including on trade and infrastructure policy.
No doubt it’s all part of why Fong, 37, was immediately tapped chief Republican whip of the Assembly, helping direct his caucus’ agenda.
“A lot of people go up there and try to find where their office is, where the bathroom is, and Vince is already going to be moving legislation,” McCarthy said.
Fong said he’s already working on bills to reform the California Environmental Quality Act to streamline construction of water storage projects, highways and bridges; prevent the filing of frivolous lawsuits against businesses; and strengthen legislative oversight over executive branch regulations.
Of course he won’t get anywhere without support from Democrats; Fong said he is reaching across the aisle.
“These issues are not partisan,” he said from his Bakersfield offices, the walls still bare and most of his staff still waiting to move in. “We all want a better business climate, we all need water, we all want government to be held accountable.”
Fong said he’s been blessed with a number of political mentors and listed what each has taught him:
Thomas: “You need to be the first one in the room and the last one to leave. Always be prepared.”
McCarthy: “He’s all about work hard, know the community, listen. His motto has been, “Have the courage to lead but the wisdom to listen.”
California Senate Republican Leader Jean Fuller: “Jean’s just a workhorse. She’s always prided herself on learning as much as possible and trying to make the best decisions with the information you have.”
Former Assemblywoman Shannon Grove: “Your community and your district always come first.”
Fong knows the community — he’s a native, having attended Sandrini Elementary, Thompson Junior High and West High schools. He earned his bachelor’s degree in political science from UCLA and his master’s degree in public affairs from Princeton.
His father, who immigrated from Hong Kong for college, is a pharmacist, his mother, who immigrated from China as a child, a homemaker. His older sister lives in San Diego, his little sister died of leukemia when she was 6 and he was 10.
“It’s clearly a life-changing event to see someone you care about, and someone who was as young as Kimberly was, go through that,” Fong said. “You mature faster, you see things you never expect a 10-year-old to see.”
He caught the political bug interning for Thomas the summer after his freshman year at UCLA and for the Ways and Means Committee during grad school.
When McCarthy was elected to the state Assembly in late 2002, Fong moved home to replace him as Thomas’ district director. Fong assumed the district directorship for McCarthy when he succeeded Thomas in Congress in 2007.
With Grove terming out, people approached Fong about seeking to replace her. At first he turned them down but changed his mind, saying he was increasingly disturbed by how policies in Sacramento were affecting the district.
Asked to describe himself politically, he said “conservative Republican" but then added:
“We all get elected to solve problems. And so we all have to be problem-solvers. I’d like to think I can take my conservative principles and outline solutions to any of the problems facing our community.”
— Christine Bedell
DEPUTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY JOHN ALLEN
John Allen kept busy this past year, attending dozens of court hearings regarding murder suspects, accused child molesters and others arrested on suspicion of committing crimes in Kern County.
As a prosecutor in the Kern County District Attorney's office, his days, and often nights and weekends, are full.
"You don't get a lot of sleep, especially when you're in trial," said Allen, 31.
This year marked Allen's first murder trial, and he secured a conviction in the case of Ruben Castro, who was found guilty in May of first-degree murder in the slaying of 34-year-old Andrea Russell.
"(Castro) was a rewarding experience," Allen said. "It was advocating for justice on behalf of a victim who I think was particularly vulnerable because she was a prostitute. The jury came back with a just verdict."
Allen also successfully prosecuted attempted murder, assault and child molestation cases, and in 2017 has a busy slate including another defendant charged with attempted murder, and the case of two former Delano High School employees, one charged with having sex with an underage girl, the other with being an accessory to the crime.
"You want to get the right results based on what the evidence shows," Allen said of his job. "You want to find the truth. Being a district attorney is a great thing because the job is to find the truth all the time."
Born in San Jose, Allen graduated from Santa Clara University School of Law and was hired by the District Attorney's office in 2011. He said he remains grateful to D.A. Lisa Green for giving him "the best opportunity" when she hired him.
— Jason Kotowski
BHS WRESTLER NAVONTE DEMISON
Navonte Demison made a name for himself in 2016, when the Bakersfield High wrestler won the 138-pound title at the CIF State Wrestling Championships at Rabobank Arena, then promptly ran into the stands to hug his mom with tears streaming down his face.
Then, the Arizona State-bound senior decided to play football for the first time since his freshman year. In doing so, Demison played a large role in helping the Drillers win a state-record 37th Central Section title — and putting his senior year on the mat on hold.
Now, eyes are on Demison to see if he can become a two-time state wrestling champion come March. He would be Kern County’s first back-to-back champ since Bakersfield’s Bryce Hammond in 2010-11 — even though football left Demison heavier and without as much practice time on the mat.
— Trevor Horn
INCOMING KERN COUNTY SUPERINTENDENT OF SCHOOLS MARY BARLOW
Mary Barlow has served in nearly every division of the Kern County Superintendent of Schools office since 2009. Starting this month, she’ll take over as superintendent, becoming the top education official in the county.
Barlow will be sworn in Jan. 10 upon the retirement of Christine Lizardi Frazier. Barlow, currently an associate superintendent, plans on defending her seat during the 2018 mid-term election, she said.
Barlow takes the position during rocky times for education. A teacher shortage is worsening, growing unfunded pension liabilities are increasingly chewing into district general funds, a minority achievement gap continues to outpace the state average, and state funding levels are just being restored to pre-2008 levels.
“When it comes to funding, this is not a good year for education,” Barlow said, addressing state funding and a recent announcement that CalPERS, the state public employees pension system, cut its earnings forecast, resulting in school districts paying a greater portion of pension contributions.
Chief among Barlow’s plans is to continue addressing the minority achievement gap in Kern County.
“We believe strongly in equity. We’re not competing against each other, we’re competing against ourselves, and we need to close the achievement gap at a much faster pace than the state of California because we have a greater gap,” Barlow said, outlining a variety of pilot programs with which KCSOS has been involved.
One partners the department with Harvard University. The other is a statewide collaborative developing ways to accelerate performance.
“We’re starting to see some movement, but we’ve got a great way to go,” Barlow said.
Barlow was hired in 2009 as deputy administrative officer of KCSOS’ Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, which provides districts across the state with help during financially trying times.
Later, she was promoted to associate superintendent and led the county through the transition to a new state funding model that returned control to local districts. Creating a system that would assist behemoth districts, like Bakersfield City, which enrolls 30,000 students, and rural districts, like Blake, which enrolls 14, posed challenges, Barlow said.
“It’s not easy. It’s a challenge and I think doing that, that’s kind of why people point to me as the next person who should follow Dr. Frazier, and I’m very humbled by that,” Barlow said.
“Everything i’ve done through my entire career is by collaborating with others, listening to others and better understanding the needs of the people that we serve, and I believe in my heart the most important thing we can be is servant leaders.”
— Harold Pierce
INCOMING KERN COUNTY ADMINISTRATIVE OFFICER RYAN ALSOP
Ryan Alsop won’t have time to ease into his new job as Kern county administrative officer when he starts on Jan. 3.
He’ll need to be moving at top speed on his first day on the fifth floor of the County Administrative Center on Truxtun Avenue.
The county faces one of its most severe financial crunches in decades and Alsop will need to be the face of the county’s solution to that problem.
Sharp drops in oil prices in 2015 and 2016 have slammed county tax revenues and gutted budgets that were already foundering after eight years of recession-triggered economic doldrums.
The current county plan calls for Kern County to delay payment of much of the roughly $60 million in revenue losses the county faced in the 2016-2017 fiscal year, spreading out cuts to county departments and services over the next three years.
In days Alsop takes control of the administrative office and its budget team — the architects of that plan.
Facing that reality, he said, is his first job.
“I’m going to be completely focused on the budget,” Alsop said. “I’m going to have to quickly get up to speed.”
He said he’s already spending time in Bakersfield, meeting with county department heads and other leaders to make the personal connections he’ll need to have in place on day one.
“The whole effort on the budget is going to be a team effort,” Alsop said.
It’s going to be critical to quickly build a solid communication system that can support that team effort.
“That’s among the most important aspects of any organization,” he said.
He plans to connect with the five members of the Kern County Board of Supervisors, who hired him, and look at the structure of the county team and build a strategic plan to move the county forward.
Supervisors have already created a sub-committee dedicated to thinking strategically about the county’s future and are committed to building a more lean, tough county operation.
And they have been remaking the structure of county government for years.
That has resulted in a lot more power for the CAO.
Retiring CAO John Nilon took control of the county’s personnel, board of trade, parks and recreation and IT functions during his tenure, moving critical county operations from supervisors’ direct influence into that of bureaucrats.
Alsop, who previously worked for Southland water districts and the County of Los Angeles, said he’s more familiar and comfortable with a strong executive in control of government.
“The CAO in Kern County is not running everything,” Alsop said. “But I thrive in those kinds of situations.”
He’s ready for the challenges he’ll face here, he said, and looking forward to them.
“This next year is going to be a real fun time for me,” he said. “There are some big challenges and I think I’m up to the challenges. Taking the county to the next level, raising the bar, really excites me.”
And for the Bakersfield native and Highland High School graduate, it will be a homecoming as well.
“My wife and I were raised here,” Alsop said.
They see this as a chance for their 13-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son (they have a 23-year-old daughter as well) to benefit from the Kern County experience that has served them well in adulthood, he said.
— James Burger
BCSD SUPERINTENDENT HARRY "DOC" ERVIN
Bakersfield City School District Superintendent Harry ‘Doc’ Ervin was hired last year to transform the state’s largest elementary district, one that has been beleaguered by low test scores, high truancy rates and poverty.
On top of that, roughly one in three of the district’s 30,000 students is an English-language learner.
Ervin, who was hired from a rural, 3,500-student district in Monterey County, ushered in a slew of changes in his first six months, including creating parent liaison positions at every campus, instituting a “universal access” model, breaking the district into four areas to be overseen by regional administrators, and assigning a team of staff members to check in on students who are absent more than three days in a row. It has so far shown marginal improvement.
“We will accelerate performance,” Ervin said during a State of the District address in October. “But it has to be a community effort.”
He's called on community partnerships, asking for volunteers to mentor at-risk kids.
He’s also set an ambitious goal of hiring hundreds of instructional aides for classroom support. So far, the district has hired about 70.
Ervin, who has built his career around transforming underperforming schools, has seen controversy at almost every job he’s tackled. That’s something he and his supporters say comes with performing transformational work in education.
Some of his ideas have gained detractors at BCSD.
Mass hiring of instructional aides is something that California Teachers Association Regional Uniserv staff member Phillip Brown called “absurd” and unrealistic.
“I get where he’s coming from,” Bakersfield Elementary Teachers Association President Steven Comstock said of Ervin’s plan, “but aides are less educated than substitutes and, as a parent, I don’t want that for my students.”
Ervin doesn’t see it that way. Instead, the aide program creates a pipeline of employees who may want to become teachers. If they do, it could be another way for BCSD to draw educators into the district amid a shortage that has disproportionately impacted the Central Valley.
“There’s 70 potential teachers there,” Ervin said last month. “We have to aim high.”
But union leaders worry how Ervin’s high expectations might impact teacher retention.
Comstock told The Californian in late October that he receives daily phone calls from teachers who claim to be “drowning” in the work Ervin is heaping on them.
“Workload issues will cause loss of teachers,” Comstock said, adding it would impact experienced teachers and not young first-year teachers who don’t know any differently.
Ervin declined to be interviewed for this story.
Although Ervin has consistently said it will take two to three years for the district to see academic results, the policies and programs the superintendent adopts this year lay the foundation for the future. It’s a critical year.
CSUB BASEBALL COACH JEREMY BEARD
Jeremy Beard took over as interim head coach on Dec. 16 when CSUB fired Bob Macaluso. In only his second head coaching job in his career, and first since 2002, Beard will try to return the Roadrunners to prominence in the Western Athletic Conference.
Two seasons ago, CSUB won the WAC Tournament to reach the NCAA Tournament, the school’s first such accomplishment in its Division I era. Then coach Bill Kernen, who helped found the program, retired.
Last season, Macaluso’s only year as head coach after he took over for Kernen, the Roadrunners disappointed and went 19-37 (12-14 WAC).
Improving CSUB’’s WAC numbers is essential for the Roadrunners to return to the elite of the WAC. CSUB scored the fifth-most runs in WAC play last season, had a 5.14 team earned run average (which was higher than the league average), had the fewest stolen bases in WAC play (15) and had the fourth-most errors (34).
Beard is inexperienced as a head coach, but if he can show improvement — particularly in the Roadrunners’ final record — he could land the job permanently.
— Jeff Evans
MCFARLAND HIGH SOPHOMORE DEDE SALCEDO
Dede Salcedo was a junior-level phenomenon in the track and field/cross country world before she ever put on a McFarland uniform.
A year-and-a-half later and she is still getting started.
Salcedo is the 2016 BVarsity Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year after winning her second consecutive Central Section Division II individual cross country championship in November at Woodward Park in Fresno.
That title followed a CIF State Track and Field Championship berth in the 3,200 meters and a section cross country D-II title, as a freshman in high school.
There are always high expectations at McFarland in both girls and boys cross country — remember the feature film "McFarland U.S.A" that captured the hearts of millions? — and Salcedo relishes the chance to become another great for the Cougars.
If the first two years in high school are any indication, she will be right up there with the best of them.
— Trevor Horn