The change in Kern County’s political districts triggered by the settlement of a federal lawsuit could create havoc in county politics this year.
Three supervisorial districts will be up for re-election in November 2018, including the vastly altered Fourth District now held by Supervisor David Couch.
But political observers caution that demographics are not always a clear predictor of who will win an election in the Wild West politics of the Southern San Joaquin Valley.
David Couch has been on the Kern County Board of Supervisors since 2013, representing a district that had the highest population of white Republicans in all of the five districts.
Now he will represent a district where 68 percent of its citizen voting age population is Latino.
On paper Couch loses that district.
His conservative history, including a May 2017 stance in support of a proposal to declare Kern County a non-sanctuary for illegal immigrants, played well in his old district which included southwest Bakersfield, Frazier Park, Pine Mountain Club and Taft.
But it’s likely to hurt him in his new district.
Further back there is more ammunition for opponents.
In July of 2007 Couch, then a Bakersfield City Council member, proposed three resolutions that he characterized as symbolic anti-illegal immigration policies.
He called for the city to declare that English was the official language of Bakersfield and that Bakersfield would not be a "sanctuary city” for illegal immigrants.
The final resolution would have instructed city staff to look for city services that could be cut off to illegal immigrants.
Couch acknowledged at the time that there probably weren’t any such services.
All three resolutions were shot down by a majority of Couch’s fellow council members.
But the ideas stirred a firestorm of opposition from Latino leaders.
And they could cost Couch now.
“Whoever's going to run against him, they just have to slam him over the head with that,” said Cal State Bakersfield Political Science Department Chair Mark Martinez.
Names of a number of possible opponents for Couch have already bubbled up into the conversation.
Delano City Council member Joe Aguirre said this week he’s already committed to putting his name on the ballot.
He said a group of community leaders from the northwestern Kern County communities including Delano, McFarland and Shafter have been talking about who would represent a new Latino-majority district.
“We’ve been networking for quite some time now,” he said. “I have received their support as a candidate for supervisor for the District.”
Emilio Huerta, who ran against David Valadao, R-Hanford for the 21st Congressional District in 2016, is another name people have been wondering about.
He dropped out of this year’s 21st Congressional District race and shifted his focus to a grassroots candidate development effort.
And he’s been non-commital about a run for the Fourth District Supervisors’ seat.
Then there is Jose Gurrola, the young, politically savvy mayor of Arvin on the other end of the new Fourth District.
He isn’t committing to a run. But he isn’t ruling it out either.
Gurrola said he’s still evaluating the decision.
“I’m focused on delivering for the people of Arvin,” he said.
But if there’s an opportunity to take care of Arvin and expand the work he’s been doing there to other parts of the county, Gurrola said, he’ll definitely consider that chance.
Aguirre said it will be critical for Latino leaders to band together behind a candidate for the seat.
“I don’t want to appear fragmented. That’s what got us here today,” he said, referring to how old Kern County Supervisorial District lines split Kern County’s northwestern Latino communities in half.
But Couch could win in November, political observers say.
Kent Price, a political science professor from Cal State Bakersfield, said that the winner-take-all nature of the November election could create an opportunity for Couch.
If there are a host of candidates on the ballot from the widely-spread Latino communities they could split the vote and allow Couch to win with a relatively small percentage of the vote, he said.
“Nobody needs to get a (majority) of the vote. That helps the incumbent. All they have to do is walk in on name recognition,” Price said. “We have seen where people vote against their ethnic interest all the time.”
Price pointed out that a state Senate, Assembly and Congressional district all have a similar swath of Kern County communities in their boundaries.
But two of those three districts are held by white Republicans.
And there are other factors in Couch’s favor, Price said.
One is that Couch has extensive support and financial connections in the heart of Kern County’s political power – southwest Bakersfield.
“They can’t underestimate Couch’s political prowess and his ability to raise money county-wide,” Price said.
And, he said, Latino voters have notoriously underperformed their political potential, refusing to vote and diluting their own impact on the county’s political infrastructure.
But Price said at least one additional Supervisorial district could see some serious changes as a result of the new map.
Supervisor Mick Gleason’s 1st District has scooped up substantial portions of southwest Bakersfield including the Seven Oaks neighborhoods.
Previously the largest political population in the First District was in Delano. But poor voter turnout in the north Kern County community dictated that the city of Ridgecrest in the northeastern corner of the county held the true political power.
Voters in southwest Bakersfield, however, are very active.
And there are quite a lot of them.
Bakersfield will be the political center of the 1st Supervisorial District, Price said.
“Now (Gleason’s) got to figure out how to represent the most affluent and politically powerful part of Bakersfield,” he said.
Bakersfield and Ridgecrest are very, very different places.
“The problems that he has been dealing with are not the same. I would suspect that district comes into play because of the difference in the communities,” Price said.
Gleasons’ affiliation with Bakersfield Republican leaders like Kevin McCarthy, Vince Fong, Jean Fuller and Shannon Grove could protect him.
But, once he’s retired, it’s likely Ridgecrest will be represented by someone from Bakersfield.
Eastside residents who have fought hard for two districts may be surprised.
“Now they’re going to have to live with a representative from Bakersfield. I don’t know how fast that happens. But it makes political sense to think that way,” Price said. “Bakersfield is still the stronghold.”
Ultimately, however, the final word on any race is who is running for it, Price said.
A good candidate can defy the odds and the demographics.
Couch said he plans to do his job for the new portion of his district.
“I don’t think there’s any magic formula,” Couch said.
When he took over the 4th District he had never represented the mountain communities of Pine Mountain Club and Frazier Park or spent much time in Taft.
“We went there and talked to people and listened to their issues and got to work on them,” Couch said.
He said he’ll do the same in the new areas he represents.
“I think the Fourth District as it is now has a lot of challenges. But those are opportunities to make changes,” Couch said.