The race for the 4th District seat of the Kern County Board of Supervisors has the potential to shake up the political dynamics of county government.
Following a lawsuit by the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund in spring of this year, supervisors were forced to redraw district lines to add an additional Latino-majority district.
Couch’s 4th District saw the most change, going from a predominantly white and Republican district to one that was predominantly Latino and Democratic.
The district picked up the communities of Shafter, McFarland and Delano, and lost Taft and Frazier Park.
Couch had been scheduled to face re-election in 2020, but because of the redistricting, he is up for election two years early.
Grace Vallejo, the mayor of Delano, emerged as a candidate after a group of mostly Latinos held an unofficial nomination meeting at Bill Lee’s Bamboo Chopsticks last spring.
They picked Vallejo and convinced a handful of other candidates not to run.
However, in August, Jose Gonzalez, president of the Greater Lamont Chamber of Commerce and a community banking manager at Self-Help Credit Union, threw his hat in the ring.
As the second Latino name on the ballot, his entry opened up the possibility that the Latino vote could be split, potentially allowing Couch to an opportunity to win.
In the campaign, the candidates have attempted to show the new residents of the 4th District that they will listen to the needs of the communities.
The residents of communities such as Lamont have been very vocal in their complaints that they have often been ignored by county resources.
Whoever resonates with these small communities may hold the key to the election.
The 4th District supervisor has a long history in local politics. He served on the Bakersfield City Council for 14 years before being elected to the Board of Supervisors in 2012.
“Once you get (public service) in your blood, it’s hard to get rid of,” Couch said. “You really have to enjoy solving problems because every single day a new problem comes along, and I kind of enjoy that.”
In an interview with The Californian, he said providing resources to the small, often ignored communities in his district would be a priority.
He recently backed up the claim by instituting an economic opportunity zone for the area of Lamont.
Couch does not support either of the two marijuana ballot measures, nor does he support the county sales tax measure.
He hopes his experience will put him over the edge in this election.
“I think most voters in the 4th District are going to come to the conclusion that they need to vote for someone who has experience, who has done this job because it’s a complicated job,” he said. “Whatever they look like, whoever they are, I think they’ll come to that conclusion.”
Vallejo began her life in a family of farmworkers who traveled throughout the Central Valley with the crops. She is now the mayor of the farming town Delano, a position she has held for 14 years.
“You have to love the people you represent,” she said. “I wanted to bring to Delano what the people deserve. ... There’s so many like Delano and they deserve what we’ve been bringing to our constituents.”
She said redistricting would allow the small communities of the district the opportunity to have a stronger voice, because before, the constituents were either represented by somebody who lived in Ridgecrest or Bakersfield.
In an interview with The Californian, she put herself forward as the person who could best bring a voice to those people.
“I think we need to start remembering that every community has a diverse group of people,” she said. “True, the majority may be Latino, but it’s still individuals that all want the same thing; better quality of life, jobs, places to shop, places to bring up their children.”
She said she would let the voters decide on the county sales tax measure and the marijuana measures.
Gonzalez is the wild card in the 4th District race. As a community leader in Lamont, he could attract much of the vote from that community.
Like the other candidates, Gonzalez hopes the small communities will see him as the man who can bring them solutions to their issues.
“I’ve been serving these communities for the last 20 years. And I know that these communities have been neglected, and they need some one to be vocal and be out there, pushing for their issues to be resolved,” he said.
In veiled criticisms, he took shots at the Couch for not taking the time to visit the neglected communities in the 4th District, and he said that as a supervisor he would be different.
“If it means time out of my day to find resources for them, that’s what I do,” he said. “(Candidates) get elected to do a job. If community members are coming and saying the job is not getting done, then you have to find a candidate that is willing to do the job.”
He is in favor of the sales tax measure as long as it increases community engagement with law enforcement. He said he did not have enough information on the marijuana measures to support them.
This story has been edited to reflect that Shafter was added to the 4th District.