Bakersfield-area politicians are lining up to court San Gabriel Valley voters.
The unlikely, long-distance match is the legacy of legislative redistricting in 1982 that, among other things, formed the state’s sprawling 16th Senate District.
Reapportionment lumped together Altadena and northwest Pasadena with parts of San Bernardino, Kern and Kings counties, stretching nearly 200 miles from north to south forming one of the largest Senate districts in the state.
Sen. Walter Stiern (D-Bakersfield), 71, who represents the district and has been in the Senate since 1959, recently announced that he will not seek reelection. His decision has set the stage for what promises to be one of the most hotly contested Senate races in 1986.
Almost immediately after Stiern’s announcement, two conservative Republican Assemblymen--Don Rogers of Bakersfield and Phil Wyman of Tehachapi--said they are considering running for the seat.
On the Democratic side, Assemblyman Jim Costa of Fresno said that he is weighing whether to enter the contest but would have to move into the district in order to run. Costa’s Assembly district overlaps the 16th Senate District in Kings County.
Bakersfield lawyer Thomas Fallgatter, active in environmental and community affairs, has expressed an interest in seeking the Democratic nomination.
So far no candidate has emerged from the Los Angeles County portion of the district. “I haven’t heard word one about anyone even slightly considering that,” said Fran Wood, an organizer of the recently formed Democratic Club of Pasadena Foothills.
According to the secretary of state’s office, 55% of the district’s 292,500 registered voters are Democrats, 35% are Republicans and the remainder are divided among smaller parties and independents. But that registration spread is generally regarded as giving a Democrat only a marginal advantage.
As of March, 70% of 16th District voters lived in Kern County, mostly around Bakersfield. Of the remaining voters, 5% are in San Bernardino County around Barstow, 10% in Kings County and 15% in Los Angeles County.
And the 44,000 Los Angeles County voters, mostly in northwest Pasadena and Altadena, could swing the outcome of the 16th District contest.
“Yes, in a close race it could be very important,” Stiern acknowledged.
Democratic reapportionment strategists added those communities of predominantly black and Latino voters to Stiern’s district, in part to ensure that the district stays Democratic.
In fact, almost 70% of the 44,000 registered voters in the Los Angeles County portion of the district are Democrats. While most are in the San Gabriel Valley, some of the voters are in a sparsely populated section of the Antelope Valley that connects the bulk of the district to the Los Angeles area.
The center of the district is in Kern County, with its agricultural flavor and oil drilling interests and a decidedly conservative cast.
Stiern, a veterinarian, is regarded as reflecting that sentiment.
In announcing his retirement, Stiern said only that “it is time for me to step aside.”
In an interview last week, Stiern said age was a factor in his decision. “I felt that I’m 71 and we have to have a little younger person down there (in the district).” Among other things, Stiern said he plans to conduct research into animal diseases after he leaves office.
Stiern said he made his decision more than a year before the 1986 primary election so potential candidates would have plenty of time to consider running for his seat.
Because 16 of the 20 Senate seats up for grabs next year are held by Democrats, the GOP hopes to put a dent into the Democratic majority in the upper chamber. But Stiern said that he had not been pressured by the Democratic Senate leadership to run for another term to ensure that the seat would stay Democratic.
On the Republican side, the GOP hopes to avoid a bruising battle between Wyman and Rogers.
Rogers, 57, a geological consultant, was elected to the Assembly in 1978. The Democrats have unsuccessfully targeted Rogers for defeat in recent elections. Rogers was a leader in the successful 1982 Proposition 6 campaign to abolish the state’s inheritance and gift taxes.
Wyman, 40, a rancher and lawyer, also was elected to the Assembly in 1978. He has been active in nursing home reform.
Both Republicans say they are leaning toward running for the GOP nomination. But Wyman remarked, “I genuinely hope that Mr. Rogers and I can work something out . . . some accommodation can be reached.”
On the Democratic side, Fallgatter, 38, has formed a committee to determine if his candidacy can succeed.
Fallgatter has gained attention in recent years in the Bakersfield area as an environmental activist.
For instance, he has taken the City of Bakersfield and a developer to court to ensure public access to the Kern River.
Recently, Fallgatter has represented a group opposed to a plan to transport hazardous sludge from Fullerton’s McColl dump to a Buttonwillow disposal site 35 miles west of Bakersfield.
Fallgatter describes himself as a “pretty conservative Democrat” much in Stiern’s mold, but said that his style may be “more outspoken” than Stiern’s.
Fallgatter’s name is known among Republicans. His brother is a former Kern County Republican Central Committee chairman. His sister-in-law currently holds that position and his father is also on the central committee.
Stiern does not believe that Assemblyman Costa would enter the Democratic primary because the Fresno lawmaker would be viewed as a “carpetbagger.”
Costa, 33, won his seat in 1978. He is now chairman of the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee. In the past year, Costa has actively pushed bills to weaken local rent control ordinances.