When Phil Larson narrowly won election to the Fresno County Board of Supervisors District 1 seat in 2002, the district was more rural than urban. Today, the district has more city of Fresno voters than county and includes parts of Fresno's northwest side, Mendota, Firebaugh, San Joaquin and Kerman along with 11 Fresno County unincorporated communities.
After serving three terms on the board, Larson is retiring. Five candidates want to take his place: Fresno City Council Member Blong Xiong, Kerman Mayor Gary Yep, former Mendota City Council Member John Flores, Kerman Unified School District trustee Brian Pacheco and Washington Union School District teacher Frank Maldonado.
Pacheco has Larson's endorsement and significant money from agricultural leaders. He has raised in excess of $350,000, according to the candidates' financial statements. Yep, the only Republican, has support from local business interests, and Xiong has union support as well as vast support from the Hmong community. Altogether, the three candidates have raised about $725,000 for the election.
Flores has about $5,700 in donations. Maldonado did not list any donors.
Pacheco, 46, a fourth-generation family farmer, has the endorsement of Larson as well as Assembly Member Jim Patterson and Supervisors Judy Case McNairy and Debbie Poochigian, all conservative Republicans.
He manages a 1,300-cow dairy and oversees a farm that grows grapes, almonds, alfalfa, corn silage and winter forage.
Pacheco is a board member of the Kerman Unified School District and Community Regional Medical Center.
Other than his studies at the University of California at Davis, Pacheco has lived in Kerman his entire life.
His first job after college was working from 1988-91 for Democrat Jim Costa, then a member of the California Assembly, handling water and agricultural issues.
Even though his staunch supporters include conservative Republicans, he said party affiliation doesn't matter to him.
"I believe people are tired of partisan politics and all the negativity that goes on with one side or the other," Pacheco said.
In recent months, supervisors have rejected changes to Williamson Act criteria that would have set new limits on farmland eligibility for lower tax rates. Pacheco said he would weed out abusers if fraud is discovered.
The county's marijuana cultivation ban, he said, was "a step in the right direction."
Pacheco said he would insist that any proposed development must have a source of water.
Pacheco, who has large donations from agriculture, has $261,000 in his bank account, according to campaign statements from last month combined with late contributions.
Xiong, who failed in his bid for Congress two years ago, wants to become the first Hmong member of the Fresno County Board of Supervisors.
The former Fresno City Council president thinks the new, more urban district is favorable to his candidacy, but he is taking nothing for granted.
"I am the most qualified candidate," he said. "I am the only guy who has governed 500,000 people, the only person who has dealt with a budget even close to the county budget, the only person who has dealt with regional planning. I am the only one ready to step into the role of governing 1 million people."
Xiong said his name initially was difficult to get out to voters when he first entered politics, but now he believes he is known well throughout the county.
People may not always agree with him, he said, but they know his decisions are always transparent.
Xiong said the county's challenges are jobs, improving education, water, future growth plans and land use. In addition, efficiency must be improved in bed use at the Fresno County Jail.
Public health and the contract with Community Regional Medical Center are a looming financial dilemma.
In recent weeks, Xiong has gotten large union contributions. His largest was $20,000 from ThinkTank Learning Inc., owned by Bay Area entrepreneur Steven Ma. Xiong has about $70,000 in the bank.
Gary Yep has served as mayor of Kerman for the past four years, winning election to separate two-year terms.
He is president of Valley Food Center in Kerman, a lawyer and a former sports agent.
Yep, 49, cites his business sense and career as a businessman as the reason to vote for him.
"I see all the roadblocks government can put in front of business," he said. "Nobody on the Board of Supervisors has a business thought process."
Yep said farming drives the local economy, so when farmers aren't planting because of a drought or other reasons it affects everyone — from farmworkers to businesses like Valley Food Center.
In his time on the Kerman City Council, the city's bond rating was upgraded and the city has socked away a $2.2 million surplus. The city nearly doubled the size of its water treatment facility and built a solar array plant at its wastewater treatment plant to cut municipal power bills.
"We have businesses ready to come in," Yep said.
He said county supervisors should allow farmland — even some that is not in cultivation — to remain in the Williamson Act tax reduction program.
And, Yep said he supports the supervisors' ban on medical marijuana cultivation.
Yep has a cross-section of business interests supporting his campaign, including agriculture and food companies. His largest donation was $100,000 from Valley Food Center and $5,000 from Fresno businessman Robert Smittcamp. Yep's campaign account has about $139,000 left.
A Mendota pastor, Flores, 52, was a Mendota City Council member for eight years when the city re-established its police department.
Flores has lived in Mendota most of his life. But he was a farmworker from the age of 12, and his family followed the crop-growing seasons from Texas to the Imperial Valley, Kern County and Fresno County, he said.
He said the city embarked on parks improvements and improving accessibility for the disabled around the city during his time on the council.
Small cities, Flores said, have to be financially conservative because they have so little money.
"When you make a financial mistake everyone feels it and everyone knows it," he said.
Today, the only issue that matters for Mendota is water.
"There is no plan B for these communities if the water gets turned off," Flores said. "In five years there will be no District 1 because people will leave."
More economic opportunities are a must for Mendota and western Fresno County, he said.
"Can we afford things or not?" he said.
Flores had an ending campaign balance of $5,725 in March, according to financial statements, but he knows it's not much when compared with his opponents.
"We have $2,000 or $3,000 in the bank," he said. "We know we are fighting these quarter million-dollar machines."
Maldonado, 60, has lived in Easton his whole life. In his 30s, he made a transition from construction, dairy and farm labor work and earned a teaching credential.
He has taught math and vocational education classes at Washington Union High School for 23 years and is president of the Washington Unified School District teachers union. He also has coached wrestling, baseball and football. He coaches construction class now and thinks vocational education is an overlooked but valuable facet of education.
Maldonado said he is running because people must become involved in helping their communities. He was discouraged when Phil Larson ran unopposed in 2006.
"To me, it just doesn't sit right," he said. "People complain about a lot of things and then someone runs unopposed. ... More people need to get out there and become involved and not think that it's only for people who have the backing."
Maldonado said he is concerned about marijuana cultivation, which county supervisors banned.
"It's right in front of you. It's right in front of you and sometimes when you're driving you can smell it," he said. "There is too much easy access to it."
He said the new law helps sheriff's patrol deputies by ensuring they can take action when it's found.
Maldonado has not reported any donations to his campaign.
DISTRICT 1 CANDIDATES
Education: Tranquillity High School, briefly attended Master's Seminary, Panorama City
Family: Married, four children
Education: 1972, Washington Union High School; 1975, A.A. Degree, Fresno City College; 1990, B.A., California State University, Fresno; 1995, teaching credential, Fresno Pacific University
Family: Married, five children.
Education: B.S. in Ag Economics, University of California at Davis
Family: Married, three children.
Education: B.S., Marian College; MBA, National University
Occupation: (Prior) deputy director, Fresno Center for New Americans
Occupation: President, Valley Food Center, Kerman
Education: Juris Doctorate/MBA, University of San Francisco School of Law/McLaren School of Business; Bachelor of Science, Marketing, San Diego State University; Associate of Science, Marketing & Real Estate, Fresno City College
Family: Married, two children
KEY ELECTION DATES
May 5: First day to vote by mail (also the day most sample ballots are mailed)
May 19: Last day to register to vote
May 27: Last day to request a vote-by-mail ballot by mail
June 3: Primary Election Day
Nov. 4: General Election Day
Fresno County: 2221 Kern St., Fresno; details: fblinks.com/fcvote or (559) 600-VOTE (8683)
Tulare County: 5951 S. Mooney Blvd., Visalia; details: fblinks.com/tcvote or (559) 624-7300
Kings County: 1400 W. Lacey Blvd., Hanford; details: fblinks.com/kcvote or (559) 582-3211, ext. 4401
Madera County: 200 W. Fourth St., Madera; details: fblinks.com/madvote or (559) 675-7720
Merced County: 2222 M St., Merced; details: fblinks.com/mervote or (209) 385-7541
Mariposa County: 4982 10th St., Mariposa; details: fblinks.com/marvote or (209) 966-2007
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6166, firstname.lastname@example.org or @beebenjamin Twitter.