Dan Walters

Dan Walters: First 2016 campaign duel looms in Fresno

In this 2015 Fresno Bee file photo, then-Assemblyman Henry Perea, left, whispers to Joaquin Arambula, who hopes to succeed his fellow Democrat in an April 5 special election.
In this 2015 Fresno Bee file photo, then-Assemblyman Henry Perea, left, whispers to Joaquin Arambula, who hopes to succeed his fellow Democrat in an April 5 special election.

This election year’s first California contest will occur next month in the San Joaquin Valley – and may be one of 2016’s most revealing.

Democratic Assemblyman Henry Perea unexpectedly resigned to take a drug industry job, and an April 5 special election will begin the process of choosing a successor.

On paper, it appears that Democrats should continue their 40-year hold on the 31st Assembly District, which covers about half of Fresno County.

Democratic voters outnumber Republicans by nearly 20 percentage points, and two-thirds of its population is Latino, both factors favoring Democrat Joaquin Arambula, a physician whose father, Juan, was Perea’s predecessor.

But special elections aren’t won on paper. Everything points to an extremely low level of voting that, Democratic leaders fear, could allow Republican Clint Olivier, a Fresno city councilman, to slip into the seat.

Under special-election rules, if any candidate receives more than 50 percent in the first round of voting, there’s no runoff.

The presence of a second, albeit little known, Democrat on the ballot, Caruthers engineer Ted Miller, makes that possibility even greater, since he would likely pull at least a few votes from Arambula.

Arambula made a misstep last week when he refused to appear in the race’s first scheduled debate if Miller – who had complained about being excluded – participated, forcing the debate to be canceled. Arambula later said he won’t duck future debates.

Democratic leaders and medical groups have been pumping tons of money into Arambula’s campaign, so he will have that advantage.

However, turnout, rather than money or any specific issue differences, is the key. If Democrats can’t get their voters to the polls, or have them cast mail ballots, in sufficient numbers, Republicans could claim the first win of the year.

The situation is not dissimilar to what happened three years ago in another heavily Democratic, heavily Latino legislative district south of Fresno when another Democratic legislator resigned for a corporate job. Republican rancher Andy Vidak captured the seat in a low-turnout special election and then held onto it for a full term in 2014.

The district has just 170,770 registered voters, among the lowest of any Assembly district. In 2014’s primary, won by Perea against virtually no opposition, just 15 percent of its voters cast ballots, 10 percentage points lower than the record-low statewide turnout in that election.

Special-election voting is notoriously scant, so it would not be surprising if the April 5 turnout is around 10 percent, thus giving Republicans a real chance to grab the seat outright.

Whether Olivier could hold it, however, is uncertain. Even were he to win, he and Arambula could face each other again in the June primary and the top two finishers, regardless of the vote, would duel again in November. But running as an incumbent could be, as Vidak found, an enormous advantage.

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