Andrae Gonzales, a rising star among local Democrats, surged to a lead against incumbent City Councilman Terry Maxwell in their race to preside over Ward 2, which encompasses the city's downtown and oldest neighborhoods.

Wednesday morning, Gonzales, a trustee on the Bakersfield City School District Board of Education, led with 53.6 percent of the vote. Maxwell was in second with 35.4 percent, and dark-horse candidate Kevin Blanton trailed with 10.7 percent. The difference between Gonzales and Maxwell was 1,410 votes.

"We’ve worked so hard," Gonzales said Tuesday evening at the new downtown restaurant Cafe Smitten, where he and his supporters had gathered. "My team of volunteers and I have worked tremendously hard every single day since February. Knocking on doors, talking to voters, and listening to people, hearing their concerns and hopes for their community and for Bakersfield."

Maxwell, just a few blocks west at his own restaurant, T.L. Maxwell's, was surprised though he said he was not deeply concerned.

"It's still so early. I'm behind by only 600 votes, and this doesn't reflect any of the absentee ballots. The last time I ran, I was ahead by 123 votes but as time went on, the absentee ballots came in and I wound up with a lead of 500 votes or something like that."

Voters could not have asked for a starker choice in the Ward 2 race, which has pit two front-runners of different backgrounds, temperament and vision against each other.

Maxwell is a white baby boomer not afraid to go it alone on principle, winning friends and making enemies in the process. The small-business owner is a married father and grandfather who lives in a comfortable middle-class home in Westchester.

He was elected to the council in 2012 following an unsuccessful run for the same seat four years before.

Gonzales, an unmarried Latino millennial who rents in Old Town Kern, operates a nonprofit that helps the retired and disabled manage their finances. His ascent in local politics began in 2010 with his election to the school board when he was just 28.

Maxwell sees Gonzales' youth as a disadvantage and trumpeted his own experience Tuesday evening, adding that the city's problems require a businessman's approach.

"I've been doing this for four years," Maxwell said, "and you can see what I've accomplished: We took on the aggressive homeless panhandling ordinance and we've banned spice and bath salts, there's the medical marijuana issue. Over the last four years, I've been in your paper a couple of hundred times. Andrae is a school trustee. How many times has he been in your paper?"

On the major issues confronting Ward 2 and the city — traffic and crime — the top candidates' differences only deepen.

Maxwell, 62, is among the most vocal opponents of two long-in-the-works road initiatives designed to ease the city’s gridlock: the widening of 24th Street from west of Highway 99 to east of M Street and the construction of the Centennial Corridor, linking Highway 58 with the Westside Parkway.

The city councilman prefers an alternate plan, which would run farther to the north, to alleviate congestion and believes the widening project will harm the integrity of the neighborhoods that straddle 24th Street.

Gonzales, 34, takes a different view.

“I support both of those projects,” he told The Californian when he announced his candidacy in February. “If I were a city councilman, I would serve as a broker between city staff and residents in order to find a solution that works for everyone. I think that’s what it means to be a leader and that’s what I would do.”

Chief among Maxwell’s priorities is an ambitious call to hire 100 additional police officers over five years despite the city’s uncertain fiscal outlook. The latest budget, approved in June, cut general fund spending by $4.1 million, eliminated 14 vacant positions and forecast zero percent sales tax growth.

Maxwell’s plan, which would cost the city $40 million over five years, could lead to “widespread” layoffs and cuts to other services, according to a City Hall analysis.

Gonzales does not support Maxwell’s plan. Instead, he said he would pursue federal grants to put officers in targeted areas.

If elected, Gonzales said he would focus on continuing to revitalize Old Town Kern and downtown and work to attract another anchor business like the Padre Hotel.

He’d also like to continue the process of branding downtown into different districts, possibly including an antiques district; ensure Ward 2 neighborhoods are represented as a route for the bullet train; and continue to fight crime.

Running a distant third in the race was Kevin Blanton, 59. The retired correctional officer entered the Ward 2 race after falling short in a crowded primary race of 25 candidates to succeed outgoing Bakersfield Mayor Harvey Hall.

Blanton, whose top priority was trying to land a veterans hospital in the city, was realistic about his long-shot candidacy against his two better-known rivals in an October interview with The Californian:

“I’m going to give it a good shot. If not, when I get done I plan on volunteering for some of the other Republicans.”

A Gonzales win would continue a recent generational shift on the council. At 34, Gonzales would't even be the youngest council member; that distinction goes to another Democrat, Willie Rivera, who became the youngest person ever elected to the City Council with his 2013 win of Ward 1 win at age 22.

Chris Parlier was barely 50 when he was elected in 2013 to lead Ward 7, and Jeff Tkac, 53, leads incumbent councilman Harold Hanson in the Ward 5 race.
 
— TBC Media's Laura Liera contributed to this report
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