Mark Abernathy, the most powerful and effective political consultant in Kern County for more than 30 years, died Saturday, leaving a larger-than-life gap in the county’s political universe.
Abernathy, 75, grew up on his family’s farm in Concord, Illinois, earned degrees in agriculture and biology from Western Illinois University and served as a U.S. Air Force captain and electronic warfare officer in Thailand during the Vietnam War.
The Republican got involved in politics while stationed in Sacramento after the war. He met Cathy Swajian in those political circles and began a partnership that has shaped local and state politics for decades through their Western Pacific Research business.
Swajian got a job working for then-state Assemblyman Bill Thomas, who represented Kern County. She married Abernathy and they moved to Bakersfield in 1981 after Thomas won a seat in Congress and hired her onto his staff.
Cathy Abernathy said her husband was shaped by his youth in a small community in the heart of Abe Lincoln country.
He learned to work hard, not complain and developed a passion for the values the United States was founded on.
His life was about faith, family, politics and St. Louis Cardinals baseball, she said.
And he sang country music.
The pair have two daughters, Margaret and Madeline.
There is no question about Abernathy’s immense impact on Kern County politics.
He powered scores of Republican candidates into office and built one of the most effective young Republican organizations in California.
Among a long list of his current clients and friends are U.S. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, state Sen. Jean Fuller, state Assemblyman Vince Fong, former state Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, Kern County Supervisors Mick Gleason and Zack Scrivner, Bakersfield Mayor Karen Goh and Bakersfield City Council members Ken Weir, Jacquie Sullivan and Bruce Freeman.
“He was almost the conductor of conservative politics in Kern County,” said Cal State Bakersfield political science professor Mark Martinez. “Everybody has always calibrated themselves to what Mark Abernathy was going to do. He was the elephant in the room, no pun intended.”
Contemporaries said Abernathy knew how to develop candidates, build a cadre of loyal operatives, fund and win campaigns.
And he won; over and over and over again.
“If you decided to run for office by his rules you were very successful,” Thomas said. “If you ran against one of his candidates you had to be very good and very resourceful and maybe even lucky.”
Former Kern County Supervisor and Democratic political consultant Gene Tackett remembers working on a Kern County supervisors’ campaign with Abernathy decades ago and watching him in action.
He knew how to work hard.
Tackett remembers Abernathy, on one election night, driving to an elderly voter’s home just before the polls closed to pick her up and take her to vote.
She was in her housecoat.
“That was what you have to do,” Tackett said. “And Mark was one of the best.”
McCarthy said Abernathy's attention to detail and absolute commitment to a race was what made him a winner.
A candidate would be laying in bed and it would be 1 o’clock in the morning and the phone would ring, he said. It would be Abernathy. A 45-minute conversation about a graphic design and color choice on a mailer would follow.
“He didn’t win all the time because it was easy. He worked hard at everything. He would fight all the way through the end of the race," even if it looked like a lost cause, McCarthy said.
But Abernathy didn't do all that to win. He did it because he believed the person would make the community and the country better, McCarthy said.
Abernathy also developed, over the years, a knack for finding and developing talented young conservatives, bringing them together and forging them into effective campaign staff before turning some of those young leaders into candidates.
“Young Republicans in Kern County are the best organized group in Kern County and I think we have to give Mark credit,” Tackett said.
McCarthy came up through the ranks with the assistance of Abernathy and Thomas. So did McCarthy’s long-term staffer, now Assemblyman Fong.
“I met Mark when I came back to Bakersfield in my freshman year in college to intern with Congressman Thomas,” Fong said. “He had a passion for the community and he believed that we needed to foster leaders that believed in the founding principles of this country.”
Grove remembers going in to be interviewed by Abernathy, for more than an hour, to see if he would take her on as a client for her successful 2010 run for the California Assembly.
Abernathy sat down in silence for “an uncomfortable” amount of time, she said, and then asked her the first of many questions.
“He said, ‘Where do your rights come from?’” she said.
“I said, ‘Excuse me?’”
“Where do your rights come from?” he asked again.
“I said, ‘from God,'” she said. “He said, ‘OK.’”
And the interview went on. Abernathy ran her campaign. And she won dramatically.
Cathy Abernathy said her husband had a habit of correcting people who got that first question wrong … talking nonstop for two hours.
He wanted to elect people who loved the freedoms provided by the United States and was looking for candidates who would help protect them, Grove said.
“He saw a real need for young people to be involved in politics,” said Supervisor Scrivner. And Abernathy pushed people to get involved in the Young Republicans.
It is where young people in Abernathy’s circle learned politics. It’s where Abernathy himself started, Scrivner said.
And he said Abernathy turned those trained young people into a deep, powerful bench of politically active volunteers, staffers and candidates.
And Abernathy won.
One of Abernathy’s proudest achievements, according to a short bio released by his family, was the 2002-03 recall campaign against Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and the subsequent election of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Abernathy worked on the recall with conservative advocate Ted Costa.
“The stuff that he did against Gray Davis and supporting Schwarzenegger” proves Abernathy was as influential as anyone in state politics, Martinez said. “He did not have to be in Sacramento or Washington to be considered a powerbroker — and that gives you an idea about his influence.”
Tackett said Abernathy’s key to victory was his hard work and “the best list of hardcore supporters for their candidates and issues.”
Martinez described Abernathy’s success a little differently.
“It was his Rolodex — the people he knew and the people he could lean on,” Martinez said.
A person who hired Abernathy got the full force of those connections behind them when they ran for office.
And opponents of his candidates had to deal with that force.
“There were people who decided to run without his blessing and their endorsements would disappear,” Martinez said. “He ran this thing really efficiently and he was on top of his game.”
Republican Kern County Supervisor Mike Maggard ran many of his campaigns independent of Abernathy, one of the few who was able to accomplish the feat successfully.
But Maggard said the two men found common ground over the years.
“If you look at the sum of all Mark’s professional efforts they were aimed at building a greater community and a better America,” Maggard said. “That was his chief and primary focus. We shared a love for our community and we came to find ways to help each other make this a better place to live.”
McCarthy said he still uses wisdom he learned from Abernathy.
“The candidate has to walk door-to-door. You have to listen,” he said. “But you never take it personal. You never give up.”
You might lose, at first, McCarthy said.
“But if you believe in the cause you will eventually educate, motivate and win.”
Grove described Abernathy as a hard worker who loved God, his church and the St. Louis Cardinals.
“He was funny. He was simple and down-to-earth,” Grove said. “He was just an amazing, brilliant man.”
Fong said Abernathy was defined by his love for the country, for his family and by an unparalleled work ethic.
“He was there before anyone came in and when we left at 9:30-10 o’clock at night he was still there taking care of what needed to get done,” Fong said. “He would stay with you and talk with you about anything as long as you gave the time. He loved talking about solutions and how to get those things passed. You could stay in his office for 30 minutes or you could stay in his office for four hours.”
Still, Abernathy never neglected his family.
“He certainly loved his wife and family. He brought them to the office.
"He never missed softball game. He never missed a school event. He was a very dedicated father and husband,” Fong said.
Martinez, a Democrat, and Abernathy didn’t always see eye-to-eye on things — a fact that landed them on local television news to debate issues.
But Martinez said Abernathy was always a pleasant person, even if he was unhappy with you.
“We could have our differences but he always said 'Hi.' He was always cordial to me,” Martinez said. “He had this Boy Scout personality to him. You found it hard to be really mad at him.”