HANFORD — On Tuesday, for voters still trying to decide between 16th state Senate District candidates Andy Vidak and Leticia Perez, it boils down to two simple questions: Why choose him and not her? Or, to flip it around, why choose her and not him?
“You should vote for me because I’m a farmer and small businessman and not a politician,” Vidak said in a written statement. “I’m putting my life and my business on hold to run for this office because our Valley and California are way off track. My opponent has never worked in the private sector. She doesn’t have the experience necessary to represent us in Sacramento.”
“I am for better schools, the responsible use of fracking to extract oil and will lead the fight to get more water to our farms and families,” Perez said in a written statement. “Given the large number of urban legislators in Sacramento, it is imperative that we send someone who has the experience to represent the Valley and the relationships to deliver real results. Andy is lacking in both respects and has no record of public service.”
Since March, it’s been a long road and a few million dollars spent for Vidak, a Hanford cherry farmer, and Perez, a Kern County supervisor.
The special election came as a surprise after Michael Rubio abruptly resigned in February to take a lobbying job with Chevron. It left Republicans and Democrats scrambling to find viable candidates.
Republicans, eager to undermine Democratic supermajorities in both the Assembly and the Senate, quickly coalesced behind Vidak. It was his second time running for a major office. He gained popularity among San Joaquin Valley conservatives for nearly taking down Jim Costa in a congressional race in 2010.
It took a while before Democrats started lining up behind Perez, a newly elected Kern County politician who made history last year as the first Latina county supervisor in San Joaquin Valley history.
They had briefly considered other choices, such as former Assembly candidate Fran Florez and Kings County Supervisor Richard Valle. But they both bowed out to let the Democratic spotlight focus squarely on Perez.
Also entering the race were Riverdale businessman Francisco Ramirez, running as a Democrat against Perez; Democratic Fresno activist Paulina Miranda; and Peace and Freedom Party candidate Mohammad Arif from Bakersfield.
With virtually no campaign money, few took Ramirez, Miranda and Arif seriously. Nearly all eyes were on Vidak and Perez.
Vidak constantly talked of his business background, noting that Perez had never run a for-profit enterprise or managed a payroll. Perez countered with her track record of government service as a former aide to Rubio, a former Kern County planning commissioner, a former Kern County public defender and finally a Kern County supervisor.
Vidak casts himself as a Valley advocate who will make sure the region’s residents won’t get “left behind,” a common-sense politician who does the right thing without reference to party labels.
Perez calls herself a “moderate Democrat” who will “have a seat at the table” in Democrat-dominated Sacramento. She says that Vidak won’t because he’s in the minority party.
They’ve agreed on some issues, like seeking more water storage for the Valley and giving a green light to fracking, an oil drilling technique that could generate a new oil boom in the Valley.
But they have clashed on other topics such as the support Perez has given to a minimum wage increase and her thumbs-up to the state’s controversial high-speed rail project. Vidak says the minimum wage increase won’t create jobs, and he believes the rail project is wasteful and illegal.
The high-speed rail issue is a perfect snapshot of the interest groups that back each candidate. Farmers and agribusinesses strongly against it are lining up behind Vidak, while trade unions who badly want high-speed rail work are backing Perez.
Vidak nearly carried the day in the primary on May 21, getting 49.8 percent of the vote compared to 43.9 percent for Perez — just short of the 50 percent mark he needed to win outright. The other three candidates managed to win only 6 percent of the vote. Vidak initially looked like the winner and Perez even conceded, but votes counted after Election Day broke decisively for Perez to force Tuesday’s runoff.
As the campaign heads into the final stretch, the fight has taken a rougher turn, with accusations flying about negative campaigning on both sides.
But in the end, experts say, whichever party does a better job of getting the party faithful to vote will win.
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