For 35 years, the most direct path to elective office in Kern County went through Mark Abernathy. He was the talent scout with the keenest eye. The guru. The kingmaker.
He was the political consultant most every Republican candidate, at one time or another, wanted on their side. If not Abernathy, someone with his connections, his playbook, his success rate.
And, of course, no such person existed.
When Abernathy died Saturday at 75 — his family announced it as a brief illness — Central Valley conservatism lost one of its most decorated players.
What happens to local politics without him?
Answer: a scramble of historic proportions.
"Within an hour (of the news of Abernathy's death)," veteran political consultant Kim Schaefer said, "I had a thousand text messages. I think everyone is wondering what this means, what will happen. Nobody knows, but some things will definitely change."
Fresno-based consultant Joel Olsson, whose clients include state Sen. Andy Vidak of Hanford, experienced the same statewide buzz.
"I got a lot of phone calls," he said. "People are talking about the void this leaves. ... Around the state this guy was known, good, bad and indifferent. With him gone, and that's unfortunate, people are going to make a move. A lot of young people have just been waiting for him to retire. It'll take time, but they'll start to move in."
Bakersfield consultant Fernando Jara aptly summed it up. "The passing of Mark Abernathy is not a small happening," he said. "It will produce a seismic shift in the Central Valley."
Some observers asked that their names not be associated with some or all of their comments for fear of upsetting other clients or driving away prospective ones. But everyone knew Abernathy and everyone seemed to respect him, if begrudgingly in some cases.
One called Abernathy the "operational arm" of the Bill Thomas-Kevin McCarthy "machine." That's a word that got tossed around a lot for many years, to the irritation of some, including Thomas, the now-retired House Ways and Means Committee chair who was Abernathy's first major star. But a machine it was, in many ways.
Abernathy tried to position Western Pacific Research, the political consulting firm he owned with his wife Cathy, as the only viable alternative for serious candidates, and he had success doing so. Some, like county supervisors Mike Maggard and David Couch, built solid operations without him, but they were exceptions.
Local Republican candidates declined Abernathy's services at no small risk. If an upcoming politician chose not hire Western Pacific Research, he or she could be reasonably certain Abernathy would recruit another candidate for that same office — someone who would hire him.
And for years Abernathy delivered. He exploited opponents' weaknesses, knew how to properly time negative advertising and wasn't afraid to play rough.
"He was a street brawler," Olsson said.
The Abernathys acted as hands-on stewards of their ever-developing mini-empire, running or otherwise supporting promising candidates through school boards, planning commissions and city councils. Some were former Bakersfield College students of Bill Thomas' and some were Abernathy hires or interns.
The organization eventually splintered, in part as McCarthy became more powerful and independent and began to develop his own farm system, most notably in the person of state Assemblyman Vince Fong, a longtime district representative who was originally hired by Thomas.
But Abernathy was so influential that, even diminished, he was still the first consultant on every lip.
Western Pacific Research isn't going away; Cathy Abernathy is as experienced and knowledgeable as any consultant in the valley. She is a known quantity, too, having appeared on local television for major political events such as national elections.
But the hounds have been loosed. Kern County demographics are changing; local voter registration numbers have been slipping away from Republicans ever so gradually over the past few years as nonaffiliated voters, and to a lesser extent Democrats, have gained strength.
Activism among women is gaining momentum. The MALDEF suit against Kern County threatens the status quo of the Republican-dominated county board of supervisors.
And now there's a vacancy for strategist-guru.
"Everyone is starting to lick their chops," Jara said. "We're seeing a substantial shift in the power structure. Without Mark and his connections to industry and political leaders, things are suddenly wide open."
"It will be interesting to see how the void is filled now," Schaefer said. "He was definitely a king maker."
Indeed he was, the likes of whom we won't see again anytime soon. But brace yourself, Kern County, because a few people, both established and new, may well try.
Robert Price's column appears Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @stubblebuzz. The opinions expressed are his own.