Kyle Carter and Karen Goh are two of the most well-known names in Bakersfield, but they are two very different people.
Carter, 59, was born in Bakersfield to a family of builders, the best-known of whom was his late uncle and mentor, Curt Carter. In a 41-year career, he estimates his companies built 5,000 houses — more than double the production of all his relatives combined.
He’s been known to open public remarks with a witticism, gets to the point by getting around to it, and regularly wears a pair of matte, tan cowboy boots.
Goh, 60, was born in India and spent her early childhood in London, moving to Bakersfield in 1962 when her parents came to lead what is now Garden Community Church. She returned from a 14-year New York publishing career in 2005 to lead nonprofit Garden Pathways.
She often speaks quickly, and is known for a wardrobe of business suits punctuated by scarves.
But one thing they have in common, observers say, is that they’re both playing it safe in this year’s race for Bakersfield mayor.
THE MAN FROM THE NORTHWEST
Carter was born in 1959 at Bakersfield Memorial Hospital into a family of nine builders.
He graduated from North High School in 1975 and, having wanted to build houses since age 5, went to work for his uncle, Curt, as a framer. Curt Carter was well on his own way by then to populating the Olive Drive area with houses he built, starting with land bought from future Orange County developer Randall E. Presley.
His nephew had to go back to school to become a carpenter, and passing math classes at Bakersfield College showed him the value of higher education and the practical applications for what he previously considered an abstract skill.
Carter went on to form 20 companies and build everything from swimming pools and starter houses to second and third homes and custom one-offs.
His most famous company, Kyle Carter Homes, topped $100 million in revenue, started two houses a day and employed about 300 people before he sold it and three others — Kyle Carter Real Estate, Kyle Carter Mortgage and Kern Escrow — to the San Diego-based Corky McMillin Cos. in 2003.
The sale price wasn’t disclosed, but Carter has frequently mentioned that $100 million annual revenue benchmark in campaign events as one that only about 1 percent of U.S. companies ever reach.
Divorced once, his second wife is Kim McAbee Carter, longtime singer for Buck Owens and the Buckaroos. He has four adult daughters ranging in age from their mid-20s to their early 30s.
McAbee Carter describes her husband as her hero and says she’s “beyond thrilled that he wants to share what he does with the community.”
ANNEXATIONS AND WATER
Like Goh, Carter has name-checked as priorities the familiar themes of creating jobs, safer streets and better education. A member of the Bakersfield Homeless Center board, he would continue the partnership spearheaded by longtime Mayor Harvey L. Hall, hiring BHC clients to clean area highways.
But he’s also an avowed proponent of boosting Bakersfield’s power and standing within the state by annexing some of its many so-called “islands” of unincorporated Kern County land that are surrounded by or near city limits.
“If we can take and annex in 140,000 people, we can go from No. 9 and we can be bumping right against No. 5. I’ve checked it out. The people are already here,” Carter said in an interview June 7, the night of the primary.
He’s also designed a mobile mulcher truck he says will cost $50,000 to produce, but with a crew of six will be able to clean all of Bakersfield’s freeways in a week — about one-third the time the cycle currently takes.
“I don’t want to be four years down the road apologizing for not getting anything done. That would be the biggest tragedy of all. I’m not going to kick the can down the road. I’m going to get something done,” Carter said.
His wife and supporters agree he’ll make things happen.
“I appreciate when a businessman goes out and wants to do public services. People are going for him because he’s an astute businessman,” said Fred Porter, of Porter and Associates, who has known Carter for about 30 years.
Carter’s wife of 15 years said she doesn’t know Goh well but finds a distinction in how the two work with large groups of people.
“Bringing people together is one thing, but you’ve got to be able to get people to make a decision based on the bigger picture. Kyle sees a bigger picture,” McAbee Carter said.
Attorney Clayton Campbell, a founding partner at law firm Campbell Whitten, said he’s known Carter for years and attends a weekly early-morning Bible study group at Carter’s home.
Campbell praises him for retaining ownership of Kyle Carter Warranty Service to maintain houses his company had built, even after selling Kyle Carter Homes: “Everybody who knows him knows that he cares very much about his customers.”
The mayoral election, Campbell said, amounts to a “snapshot” of the presidential election.
“It just doesn’t seem to me that Bakersfield is the type of place where the most polished politician is the favorite. Not to say that polish is a bad thing or that Kyle is completely without polish. His personality is just Bakersfield,” Campbell said.
‘WHERE IS KAREN GOH TODAY?’
Goh introduced herself Aug. 30 to a packed room of mostly high school students as “an ordinary person who’s had an extraordinary life,” a theme she’s returned to periodically at public events.
The 1973 Bakersfield High School graduate earned a bachelor’s degree in music at USC. She was teaching music at Bakersfield Christian Life Schools when, at a music conference, she attracted the attention of a representative of what’s now The McGraw-Hill Cos.
Hired as a West Coast per diem consultant for MacMillan Publishers, now part of McGraw-Hill, Goh was invited to its New York headquarters on a temporary assignment to work on a music textbook. Once there, she rose to managing editor and held three vice presidential positions at the Fortune 500 company. In her final years with McGraw-Hill, from 2000 to 2003, she was in charge of all of the company’s publishing operations.
Upon her return, she became executive director of Garden Pathways, which provides early childhood and arts education for kids, and mentoring for youth and adults. Since 2013, she’s been its CEO.
Some of her supporters remember first seeing her after her return — and seeing her, and seeing her.
“The joke is, ‘Where is Karen Goh today?’” Goh said in an interview, turning as she sometimes does to self-deprecating humor.
This summer, she’s been seen at events as varied as a pie-eating contest, a chicken wing festival and an international drum corps competition. Friends and boosters say she’s been functioning for years as a second mayor to Hall, whose fourth four-year term will end Jan. 3.
“She’s been doing the job all along without the title,” said Sheryl Barbich, of Barbich Consulting, who supported Carter in his successful 2014 run for Kern Community College District trustee but now backs Goh.
“He truly has name recognition for having built houses. But the name recognition for having built houses is different from being on the ground helping people for as long as you’ve been in the community, or back in the community,” Barbich said.
WHY BE MAYOR
Two words Goh uses frequently to describe the role of mayor, as she sees it, are “collaborate” and “collaboration.”
“It’s that opportunity to bring people together from diverse groups, diverse perspectives. Bring the experts in and find solutions,” Goh said.
At forums and debates, she also highlights her work on the Kern County Board of Supervisors, helping convince companies like Caterpillar and Dollar General to open in Kern.
“As mayor, what you can do is to continue to encourage a business-friendly environment. That, then, creates those opportunities for jobs. ... A mayor can be one that fosters an environment in which those kinds of things take place,” Goh said.
Her depth of experience in business development, in government services and in “persistent long-term community involvement,” she added, distinguish her from Carter.
Candi Easter, former longtime chairwoman of the Kern County Democratic Party and friend to Leticia Perez, who took Goh’s Kern County supervisor post from her in the 2012 election, confirmed the supervisors do have a substantial degree of influence over bringing employers to Kern.
Easter said being asked to recall Goh’s time on the board prompted her to “lean more toward” voting for the candidate.
“I think she does have some experience dealing with big corporations and promoting, at least, the county,” Easter said.
GOALS IF ELECTED
Growing jobs is high on Goh’s list of what she’d like to accomplish in four years.
“Jobs, a safer community and ... educational opportunities for young people, but working together. ... What I want to create is a city that’s even better than what we currently have today. None of those things that I have said can one person do alone,” she said.
Former Kern County Supervisor Ray Watson said he urged Goh to seek appointment to the board in 2010 “because of her energy and the fact that she’s demonstrated on the board and (at) Garden Pathways that she was a tireless worker on behalf of the community.”
Her time on the board, he said, reaffirmed his sense of who she was.
“I think they’re both very good people, I just think Karen has demonstrated the fact that she can do it and has done it,” Watson said.
NO STANDOUT CANDIDATE ... YET
Mark Martinez, a political science professor at Cal State Bakersfield, said he’s heard more specifics from Carter than Goh — but doesn’t think either candidate has yet delivered a fully articulated vision for the Bakersfield of the future.
Watson’s comparison — “both very good people” — is echoed by others who have been watching the mayoral contest since the primary, when Goh and Carter were part of a historically large field of 25 candidates.
Martinez said the candidates appear to be making a clear choice to not stand out, and the race will be decided by “whoever breaks out first or whoever makes a big mistake.”
With less than two months before the election, he said time is running out to take a stance on an issue — LGBTQ rights, undocumented workers or Kern County libraries — that could put either over the top.
The loser “is going to kick themselves and say, ‘Why didn’t I embrace this? I could have gotten votes,’” Martinez said. “The library issue, that’s 20,000 votes.”
Miranda Lomeli-O’Reilly, co-founder of Advocates for Library Enhancement, the group that backed Measure F, said the group reached out to Goh and Carter for support ahead of the June 7 primary — and got none.
Unlike outlying areas, Bakersfield has multiple county libraries, making it possible during a fiscal crisis like what Kern is now experiencing that libraries here would be closed first, Lomeli-O’Reilly said.
She questioned how that would look for a newly minted mayor and said: “How would we feel about that? How would that look on their resume as mayor?”
Rob England, president of the Kern, Inyo and Mono Counties Central Labor Council, said the group interviewed both candidates but wound up making an open endorsement — leaving the choice up to its member unions.
“In this one, both candidates presented themselves well but neither had — I shouldn’t say groundbreaking — neither shined brighter than the other,” England said.
CAMPAIGNING BY THE BOOK
Goh’s mayoral campaign, like Carter’s, has run relatively straightforwardly in contrast to 2012 when Goh squared off against Perez for supervisor.
Several who signed her nominating papers were told they were signing petitions to end California’s three-strikes sentencing law.
In a recent interview, Goh said when she heard about this, she tried to contact the people who circulated the petitions and had mentioned the three-strikes law, as well as the people who signed with that understanding — but was unable to find any of them.
Later in the 2012 race, Goh’s campaign bought space on a slate mailer produced by a for-profit group called Democratic Voters Choice, which produced a mailer endorsing her and 4th District supervisorial contender David Couch — both Republicans.
In a recent interview, she emphasized it was paying for advertising and said there had been no intention to confuse voters.
Earlier this month, three sets of Goh campaign signs were placed in front of Carter signs in an apparent attempt to deliberately block them, but Martinez downplayed the significance.
At a candidates’ forum in May, Goh demurred on whether as mayor she’d march in an LGBTQ parade, eventually saying the issue was something she still had to “continue to process.” Carter didn’t attend.
Whitney Weddell, chairwoman of Bakersfield LGBTQ, said the community isn’t “terribly impressed” with either, and there’s been talk on social media of mounting a campaign to write in the name of another resident for mayor.
“For public purposes, they look a lot alike. Very conservative, very right-wing, very religious. Our inclination is to not vote for either one,” Weddell said.
Goh said recently that if elected, she would make decisions on a “case-by-case basis” on whether to attend events to which she was invited.
She said: “I believe in the truth of the Bible including love one another. I also believe in the U.S. Constitution including the 14th Amendment. I intend to be mayor for everyone, respect everyone and protect the rights of everyone.”
A SAFE RACE SO FAR
Elsewhere in the community, both candidates have inspired strong opinions — and realistic assessments of the race.
Mark Salvaggio, a former longtime Bakersfield city councilman and a recent former field representative for Kern County Supervisor David Couch, is unimpressed with Goh and has endorsed Carter.
“If you want a ribbon cutter, if you want somebody to chair the meeting, she’ll be a great ribbon cutter and I think she’ll do an OK job of running a meeting, but I see Kyle (Carter) as the better candidate. I see him as one who does not merely want to cut ribbons or chair a City Council meeting,” Salvaggio said, adding: “I think the position of mayor can be a lot more important than it’s been historically if you have the right person there.”
But tell that to Goh donor Kent Halley, who with his wife, Christine, gave Goh $1,000 in June, and admires her “strong moral compass.”
“We’re a bit of a California Bible belt. I think it’s one thing that differentiates Bakersfield in the valley towns,” Halley said. “She’s spent her life trying to help the people who struggle to help themselves. That should be a core value of the community, that we don’t forget the people who are less fortunate.”
This race could ultimately be about as close as the June 7 primary, says political consultant Gene Tackett, a Carter supporter.
“They’re fighting over a third of the vote,” Tackett said, referring to the 35.17 percent of voters who picked neither candidate in the primary. He thinks high Democratic turnout could benefit Carter but said: “They’re both Republicans in a Republican town. It’s just going to be a three-month sprint on who does the best job of convincing voters to vote for them.”