Every year at this time The Californian looks back on the year just completed and the local events that shaped our present. It's logical, though, that we also look ahead at the local people poised to make a difference in the 12 months that lie ahead. Today, The Californian introduces — or, in some cases, reintroduces — a handful of individuals who have the energy, opportunity or platform to make meaningful noise in coming year. Herewith, we give you our list of People to Watch in 2019.
Who: Cynthia Zimmer
Job: Incoming Kern County District Attorney
Why she bears watching: Her priorities go beyond merely prosecuting crimes; the new DA wants to halt and reverse Sacramento liberals' efforts to decriminalize or reduce the penalties for many offenses.
For the first time in eight years, there will be a new top prosecutor in Kern County.
Cynthia Zimmer, elected to replace the retiring Lisa Green as district attorney, takes office Jan. 7.
Zimmer, 49, has said her top priority will be an immediate reduction of crime, most of which she said is gang-related. Next up is working to improve the protection of people in the smaller cities and rural areas outside of Bakersfield.
Her third priority will be to work with legislators and other prosecutors to "stop the destructive effects that our liberal (state) Legislature is having on law enforcement."
She said she wants to work with legislators to stop decriminalization of statutes, and will push for tougher laws.
Before her election win, Zimmer was a supervisor at the DA's office and oversaw and personally prosecuted a number of cases involving gang killings, among other high-profile crimes.
Who: TJ Cox
Job: Congressman for the 21st District
Why he bears watching: The newly elected Democrat has a background in health care, job creation and housing — areas of great need in his poverty-riddled district that he has promised to address.
The Fresno businessman and nonprofit founder surfed home on the tail end of the November blue wave that sent seven California Democrats to Congress in targeted districts that had been held by Republicans. In the case of TJ Cox, an engineer who created the Central Valley Fund, which raises money for projects located in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods throughout the Central Valley, it was by the skin of his teeth: Less than 1,000 votes against Rep. David Valadao, the incumbent from Hanford.
Cox goes to Washington intent on improving the dire health care situation in his 21st Congressional District, one of the poorest in the nation. The district includes Kings, Tulare and portions of Kern and Fresno counties.
Cox is the founder of the Central Valley New Market Tax Credit Fund, which helps direct federal investment to projects that promote areas including health, job creation and housing. Cox said his legislative priorities touch on those areas of focus, including protection of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid; job creation; and getting a DREAM Act passed.
Cox, as NBC News has reported, is one of three Asian-American and Pacific Islander freshmen representatives-elect who are scheduled to be sworn into Congress on Jan. 3. The three bring the total number of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders elected to Congress to 20, a new high, according to the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. Cox joins Democrat Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia as one of two members of Congress of Philippine descent.
Who: Dave Higdon and John-Paul “J.P.” Lake
Job: Managing partners of Kern Venture Group
Why they bear watching: Their organization will help finance as many as 20 startups in 2019 and plans to launch entrepreneurship programs elsewhere, including local schools, that could bear even more fruit.
The angel investor model of economic development has proved successful over and over in California and other parts of the country. Will it work in Kern, too?
Dave Higdon and John-Paul “J.P.” Lake head up a group of a dozen local investors who aim to find out: They have, together, contributed more than $1.5 million to Bakersfield-based Kern Venture Group. The angel investment group plans to begin distributing some of the money to as many as three local startups in late January.
Business proposals, many of them locally originated, have come in from industries including aerospace and defense, oil and gas, water monitoring technology, ag, consumer food products and retail. As many as 20 companies could receive first-round funding of up to $200,000 each.
The money’s just the beginning, say Higdon and Lake. They’re working with local schools, businesses and government leaders to introduce entrepreneurship training and competitions, maybe even small business incubators that, if all goes well, could begin to take root in 2019.
Who: Lynnette Zelezny
Job: President of CSU Bakersfield
Why she bears watching: CSUB's first female president inherits the reins of a growing university that sits at an academic, economic and cultural crossroads: Who and how does it want to serve in the next decade?
We met Lynnette Zelezny last March when she was named successor to CSUB President Horace Mitchell, who retired at the end of 2018 after more than a decade in that role. Zelezny, previously the provost and vice president for academic affairs at Fresno State, has a chance to remake the university in her image even as she seeks to further its achievements under Mitchell.
Zelezny, 62, officially began serving as the university's fifth president last summer. Now that she's acclimated, she will move full steam ahead on priorities such as increasing graduation rates and improving services for students.
Will she also strive to match CSUB's programs, and the profile it projects, with the economic needs and aspirations of the underachieving community it serves?
Who: Melissa Hurtado
Job: 14th District State Senator
Why she bears watching: The young, Democratic Latina is a virtual unknown who asked voters "to take a chance on me." And they did. Now she'll have to prove herself.
In an election upset that sent shockwaves across the four Central Valley counties that make up her district, Hurtado unseated Republican incumbent Andy Vidak in the November election. At age 30, she'll be the youngest female serving in the State Senate.
Prior to her win, Hurtado was a Sanger City Councilwoman and healthcare advocate who fought efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, cuts to community health clinics and attempts to defund the Children's Health Insurance Program. She promised voters to work on improving affordable housing, repairing roads, improving healthcare in the Central Valley and funding for valley fever research.
"I want the Kern County voters to know that I'd be the greatest advocate for them," Hurtado said on the campaign trail. We'll be watching for her to make that happen.
Who: Jose Gurrola
Job: Mayor of Arvin
Why he bears watching: Arvin may have a scant 21,000 residents, but its young mayor dreams big on behalf of the community — to the dismay of the Kern County oil industry and others concerned about his liberal bent.
From restricting new oil operations to allowing cannabis dispensaries, Arvin Mayor Jose Gurrola had an active 2018 pushing the political envelope in the small town southeast of Bakersfield.
Elected in 2016 at the age of 23 after having served on the city council for four years, Gurrola, a Democrat, has taken the reins at a time when Arvin is working to resolve a $1.8 million budget deficit city officials discovered in 2017 and are still paying off.
Gurrola led the effort to impose new zoning restrictions on oil activity within the city limits, prompting some in the industry to help finance three candidates for the city council who might push to undo the controversial ordinance behind those restrictions. But the top two voter-getters among the three who were elected are Gurrola supporters. So, for now, if that is a reliable gauge, Arvin still seems to be behind its mayor.
Gurrola, a law student at Kern County College of Law, may have ambitions beyond the Arvin mayor’s office. As he brings change to Arvin, he could be warming up for a bigger act.
Who: A.T. "Trem" Smith
Job: President and CEO of Berry Petroleum Co. LLC
Why he bears watching: Smith brings a no-nonsense, practical approach to an industry birthed on speculation and often burdened with debt, by operating strictly with existing financial resources.
The wandering son of local oilfields has returned with a new business strategy and renewed enthusiasm for Kern’s energy potential, and A.T. "Trem" Smith is showing the way.
Berry Petroleum Co. LLC moved its headquarters in 2008 from Bakersfield to Houston, where it was acquired by a company that went belly-up after the industry’s 2014 downturn.
A rebound ensued as it spun off amid bankruptcy proceedings and returned to Bakersfield with a new board and executive leadership. The company went public in July with shares trading on the Nasdaq Global Select Market under the symbol "BRY."
One big difference now, Smith says, is a pledge to fund operations strictly out of cash flow. Another promise stock analysts have been happy with is the company’s commitment to drill in established oilfields in western Kern, a focus that could bode well for local employment in 2019.
Who: Shannon LaBare
Job: Purveyor House
Why she bears watching: As a founder of Be in Bakersfield, a movement that celebrates Bakersfield as a place to live, thrive and innovate, LaBare hopes to end the brain drain that for years has compelled talented, local young people to take their skills and move away.
Shannon LaBare didn't mean to put down roots in Bakersfield. She moved to this city from Corona to attend CSUB, the college her Bakersfield-raised boyfriend, now husband, Scott, was attending. They were going to leave Bakersfield as a couple upon graduation.
But then a funny thing happened: She fell in love with the city — but it didn't stop there. LaBare, who runs a marketing firm called Purveyor House, decided more millennial professionals like herself needed to commit to Bakersfield, and commit to making it a better place. So she helped start Be in Bakersfield, which is really more of a movement than a marketing campaign.
"We wanted to change the conversation," she said. "We all believe it's a great place to live and work. We didn't want to perpetuate that mentality that you have to leave to be fulfilled."
Her team — four founding members and an extended team of four or five others — considered calling the campaign Back in Bakersfield.
"But it's really more about being here and being happy being Bakersfield," said LaBare, who turns 32 in a few days. "Be creative in Bakersfield. Be innovative in Bakersfield. Be collaborative in Bakersfield."
If Be in Bakersfield keeps gaining steam and more creative types decide to put down roots in the city of their birth, who knows what the business landscape might look like in a year, or 20?
Who: Stasie and Shai Bitton
Job: Owners of Cafe Smitten
Why they bear watching: Their coffeehouse is on the leading edge of development in so-called Eastchester, a formerly derelict area of downtown Bakersfield that millennial entrepreneurs seem intent on transforming. And now they're expanding.
Sometimes a business brings a surprising new energy to what had been an overlooked area. What happens when that energy spreads to an established neighborhood looking to add local authenticity?
Stasie and Shai Bitton, whose coffeehouse Cafe Smitten has become the embodiment of downtown’s newly hip Eastchester area, announced in mid-November they plan to open a second location this fall in a locally focused shopping center in southwest Bakersfield.
The Bittons note the space will be built to suit this time, and at the northwest corner of Ming Avenue and Buena Vista Road, it’ll be closer to home for a lot of Smitten’s existing customers.
The southwest location will feel a little different from the downtown cafe. Stasie said to expect more substantial fare, a broader wine and beer menu and a fuller restaurant experience.
Who: Asauni Rufus
Why he bears watching: The NFL just might be the next step for the Bakersfield High School product who led the Drillers to a state title and then starred at the University of Nevada.
Asauni Rufus is well known in local football circles, a former BHS standout who had a strong college career. Rufus just wrapped up his collegiate days on the gridiron at the University of Nevada, and the question now becomes what will follow?
He has all the intangibles to play in the National Football League — a smart defensive back, a solid leader who possesses high character and a strong work ethic.
He’s also an outstanding football player. Rufus was a star quarterback and defensive back at Bakersfield High who often took games over and led the Drillers to victories.
At Nevada, Rufus made 46 career starts and ranks third all-time in program history with 340 tackles. He also went out on a high note, guiding the Wolf Pack to an 8-5 record this season and a 16-13 victory over Arkansas State in the Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl.
Will he get selected this April in the 2019 NFL Draft? That's tough to predict. Will he get on a roster and possibly make an impact? That we wouldn't bet against.
If so, Rufus would join a healthy group of Bakersfield natives who have taken the field on the next level, a list that includes quarterbacks Derek Carr and Cody Kessler, defensive back D.J. Reed, and punter Matt Darr.
Who: Kylee Fahy
Why she bears watching: After just one season of junior college softball, the pitcher has set a standard for herself that will be hard to match — but she seems up to it. Can you say Olympics? Well, first things first.
Fahy, a former Liberty High star, put together a monster 2018 season at Bakersfield College, ranking first in the state in strikeouts (289), second in wins (30) and fifth in earned run average (1.40). She also was a star at the plate, batting .336, cracking a home run and driving in 23 runs. All this for a team that finished the season 33-11, won a conference championship with a 13-1 record and made a deep playoff run.
Her efforts could grant her a Division I scholarship after she completes her sophomore season this year.
Fahy is a tough competitor — she doesn’t let a bad at-bat carry over to the pitcher’s circle, or vice-versa. She’s also a fun person to be around off the field, smiling and personable.
The Renegades had a strong season last year under first-year coach Casey Goodman. Expect them to return to form in 2019, and for Fahy to carry a substantial load once again.