Former Fresno Mayor Alan Autry, who has been out of office and off the political radar for four years, is now seriously considering a run for the state Senate seat vacated by Bakersfield Democrat Michael Rubio.
The potential candidacy of the 60-year-old Republican has Sacramento's legislative GOP leaders excited. They feel he is the only person with the political clout to run in a solidly Democratic seat and deliver it into Republican hands.
And that's not just on a short-term basis.
Rubio's abrupt resignation on Feb. 22 set up a special election, which Gov. Jerry Brown has scheduled for May 21. Because it is a special election -- typically a low-turnout election -- Republicans are optimistic they can win.
Political Data Inc., which collects voter information, said registration in the 16th Senate District was 50.7% Democratic and 28.6% Republican as of Feb. 22.
The special election winner must stand for re-election next year. GOP leaders think Autry, well known locally because of his Hollywood career, is the only person who can win both this year and next, when Democrats -- who hold a sizable voter-registration advantage -- would be more likely to flex their political muscle.
If Autry wants to run, he must decide by March 29. Hanford Republican Andy Vidak already says he will run in the special election, and Shafter City Council Member Fran Florez said Friday via Twitter that she is running. Florez is the mother of Dean Florez, who held the Senate seat before Rubio.
Autry didn't return phone calls seeking comment.
Vidak said Autry's plans won't affect his.
"If he does announce, I am in all the way," Vidak said. "I'm not backing down."
Vidak, a cherry farmer who put up a spirited but unsuccessful 2010 congressional challenge to incumbent Rep. Jim Costa, said he's been busy -- and successful -- at raising money.
"We're just pounding," he said. "I'm not a rookie this time. I know how to hit the phones."
Besides Vidak and Florez, the only other person to say he is running is Democrat Alfred Benavides, a former Hanford Joint Union High School District trustee. But Francisco Ramirez Jr. and Fresno resident John Estrada have pulled campaign papers, according to the Fresno County elections website. Neither Ramirez nor Estrada list a political party -- though Estrada has been a Democrat in the past.
Other names mentioned include Bakersfield Democrat Leticia Perez, a former Rubio aide and newly elected Kern County supervisor, and Kings County Supervisor Richard Valle, also a Democrat. On the Republican side, Kerman Mayor Gary Yep -- in addition to Vidak and Autry -- has said he's looking at a run.
Autry's interest miffed some from his own party.
"His record is not a true conservative," said Republican businessman Tal Cloud. "His work ethic was so low (as Fresno's mayor) that some of us Republicans don't care for him. And his (support for) high-speed rail and what he's done to the city financially are not conservative."
Cloud -- who thinks Vidak has earned the right to run -- has already put together a memo on Fresno's borrowing during Autry's mayoral terms, and his conclusion is that the city's current financial troubles rest right at Autry's feet.
Still, Autry's supporters say his positives outweigh his negatives, and a major upside is his electability. In short, Sacramento's Senate Republican leadership wants to win, period, and its research shows Autry can deliver victory.
Senate Republicans also like that Riverdale -- where Autry grew up and where he often said he would go as mayor to seek inspiration in its cotton fields -- is in the district.
It was in 2000 that Autry, an actor best known as the character "Bubba" in the television series "In The Heat Of The Night," came out of nowhere to defeat the favorite, former Mayor Dan Whitehurst, by more than 20 percentage points.
Four years later -- after waffling about whether to seek re-election -- Autry rolled to a second-term victory almost by acclimation, winning more than 72% of the vote against five little-known and underfunded candidates.
Autry has kept mostly a low profile since leaving the mayor's office. He hosted a weekday talk radio show for a little more than two years, leaving the air in December 2010 to return to acting and making movies.
This year, Autry has appeared in two episodes of the CW Network show "Hart of Dixie," according to the website IMDB.com.