Political Fix (20 December, 2018)

Evette Bakke likes Kern County

In my December 6 Political Fix I misconstrued a comment made by campaign manager Evette Bakke during an election party. When the subject of updates were discussed she said, “Oh, we don’t like Kern.”

She did not mean that she didn’t like the candidates or the voters. She meant that she did not appreciate how notoriously slow Kern County Registrar of Voters was in updating their election returns.

She said Fresno had their act together and Tulare County has had a few hiccups but is always improving and generally does a good job. But the Kern Registrar of Voters doesn’t seem to be concerned with the fact that they don’t get their results out in a timely manner.

I assumed on election night that Ms. Bakke was referring to the voters because it was the Kern County voters that knocked Warren Gubler out of the Assembly District 26 race during the June primary, and it was Kern County that had just defeated State Senator Andy Vidak.

While I apologized to Ms. Bakke I am glad I misunderstood. It made me take a second look at Kern County and their impact on Kings County. That impact is emblematic of what is going on all over California.

The large and most populated counties dictate who governs the smaller counties. Whereas the small counties have always known this, the rest of us haven’t cared – until now.

Kings County got used to being in charge of their destiny with State Senator Andy Vidak and Congressman David Valadao, so for them, it was an unwelcome shot in the arm of reality. Kings has now joined the ranks of the many counties in California who don’t have local representation in Sacramento or Washington DC.

Such counties are, Modoc, Inyo, Plumas, Shasta, Sierra, Siskiyou, Del Norte, Sonoma, Mendocino, Mariposa, Tuolumne, Calaveras, and that is just to name a few.

California has 58 counties and I used to assume that with 80 assembly members there would be a representative from each county in Sacramento. But with only 3000 souls in Sierra County and 10 million in Los Angeles County, one can see how that math doesn’t work.

While Sierra County has no one in the assembly, Los Angeles County has several. That might be a driving force behind the struggle to form the State of Jefferson, made up of Northern California counties and Southern Oregon. If that happened, the unpopulated and mostly conservative counties up north would finally get representation.

Back to Kings County, another galling aspect is that their residents are decidedly Republican. But Southern Kern, which makes up a large part of every Kings County electoral district, i.e., assembly, state senate and congressional, is decidedly Democrat.

In every election Republicans will be out-voted.

So not only does Kings County not have a local representative in Washington or Sacramento, they are being lead by Democrats and probably will be for a very long time.

What puts the “special” in special elections?

After taking a critical look at two special elections I was shocked to see how easy it was to sidestep Democracy.

One special election was a pending recall effort in Lemoore against City Council Member Holly Blair. The other was a successful recall in Hanford against Council Member Francisco Ramirez in January. The end result was that neither special election represented the people.

And that might be the point.

An under-the-radar recall effort against Ms. Blair has been in the works since July. But neither the Lemoore Leader nor the Hanford Sentinel has reported on the recall since August 23.

Ms. Blair is allegedly the only Latina ever elected to the Lemoore City Council. It was the lack of Hispanic representation that lead to Lemoore’s being forced to change from at-large elections to district elections in April of this year. Lemoore is 40% Hispanic.

Ms. Blair was elected in 2016 and has since raised the ire of her fellow city council members and the city manager. During a July meeting Ms. Blair accused Lemoore Chief of Police Darrell Smith of police misconduct and City Manager Nathan Olson and the police chief of lying to her on several occasions.

The result was Ms. Blair being censured by the city council and a recall effort organized by Mayor Ray Madrigal supporters.

The reason for the censure and recall was that Ms. Blair’s “behavior was unbecoming of a council member.” A spokesperson for the recall committee, Ashley Terrell, said Blair did not represent the values of Lemoore and that the city deserves better representation.

The recall was certified August 1 and a crew of 50 volunteers began collecting signatures to force a special election.

But the recall effort immediately raised red flags. The city clerk, Janie Venegas, claimed the recall should be at-large, and even hired a law firm, Lazano Smith out of Fresno, to sue Ms. Blair. Ms. Blair, who represents District E, sued back saying the recall should take place in her district.

Ms. Venegas claimed that because Ms. Blair was elected at-large she should be recalled in an at-large special election.

The Law Offices of Melo and Sarsfield, representing Ms. Blair, disagreed.

First, they point out that Lemoore’s city ordinance says that any city council election after November of 2018 must be held by district. Second, only registered voters from Ms. Blair’s district can sign the petitions to recall. Melo and Sarsfield pointed out that most of the signatures on the Notice of Intent to Recall were not in District E. Third, Ms. Venegas never clarified if the replacement candidates would also be at-large or would be from District E.

Fourth, the reason why at-large elections are going the way of the dinosaur is because, “off-year special elections notoriously suppress minority turnout,” as stated in Ms. Blair’s suit.

Blair said in a statement to the Hanford Sentinel that her district is happy with her representation. She said the constituents in her district “are often the most marginalized in our community.”

The bottom line is that the recall organizers knew they had a better chance of throwing Ms. Blair off the city council if they conducted an at-large special election rather than challenge her in her own district. And their efforts weren’t being challenged by the media, city council, or citizens.

And that is the problem with special elections. There is little oversight, little public scrutiny, and very low voter turnout, making them easy to manipulate. Low voter turn-out skews the election results towards the status quo, or the establishment, and sidelines those on the margins.

Hanford had its own special election early this year that seemed to follow the same playbook.

Hanford City Council Member Francisco Ramirez representing District D was recalled in January, but he then won his seat back in the November general election. This November he beat Dianne Sharp fairly decisively by 5.6%. That is the same margin by which Congressman Devin Nunes beat challenger Andrew Janz.

So how did Mr. Ramirez get recalled and reelected the in the same year?

While the special election was in his district, the money ($25,000) and the people gathering the signatures were mostly from outside his district. Add that to the fact the recall was assigned a January 23rd election date, a sure fire recipe for low voter turnout, and the status quo got exactly what they wanted.

Mr. Ramirez was voted out of office and a member from the Hanford establishment, Ms. Sharp, took his place.

Ms. Sharp won her council seat with 139 votes. I don’t mean by a margin of 139 votes. I mean she took her seat on the dais after only garnering a total of 139 votes out of a district of 3500 registered voters.

This isn’t a commentary on Ms. Sharp’s job as a council member. She probably represented her district with competence and is an asset to Hanford. But how is it possible that Ms. Sharp can take a seat at the dais when only 4% of the registered voters cast their ballot for her? Four percent would be a resounding defeat in any normal election.

After his November victory Mr. Ramirez was considered the “comeback kid.” But he is not a comeback kid at all. District D always wanted him to be their representative.

Will the same happen to Ms. Blair in her recall that was also headed for a January special election?

Looks like we will never know.

The deadline to hand in the signatures to City Clerk, Ms. Venegas, came and went without a word.

Mr. Sarsfield said, “A recall against Ms. Blair, instigated by Ray’s supporters was organized, money was spent, and doors were knocked upon.  After months of efforts, the organizers simply failed to turn in any signatures whatsoever.”

He continued, “The signatures were due on Thursday, Nov. 29. No explanation has ever been offered by the Recall proponents or the City Clerk as to where are the signatures that were collected. I personally contacted the Hanford Sentinel and let them know it failed and they acknowledged my email.  Same thing with the Lemoore Leader.”

The media may not have taken the effort to report on the recall effort, but the Lemoore City Council did take the time to put discussing Ms. Blair’s censure on the council’s December 18 agenda. But that discussion was held without Mayor Madrigal as he was surprisingly swept out of office in the November general election.

The moral of the story is, the more people who vote, the more representative our Democracy.

But if you want a certain outcome – call a special election.

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