In the days leading up to the 31st Assembly District’s 2004 election, then-Assembly Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield made a prediction: “Someday, this will be our seat.”
That day may never come.
There was a special election Tuesday to fill the unexpired term of Fresno Democrat Henry T. Perea, who resigned a year early to take a job with the pharmaceutical industry, and it appears all but certain that Kingsburg Democrat Joaquin Arambula will win the race. Just before midnight, his main opponent, Fresno Republican Clint Olivier, conceded.
Republicans always like their chances in special elections, which historically have low turnouts. Because of that, the GOP saw this as its best chance to steal the seat away from the rival Democrats, who have held it for 40 years.
Never miss a local story.
With all precincts reporting but some absentee and provisional ballots still to be counted, however, Arambula, an emergency room physician, had 52 percent of the vote to 42 percent for Olivier, a Fresno City Council member. Caruthers Democrat Ted Miller, an engineer and the third person in the race, had 5.7 percent of the vote.
Tomorrow is a new day. I’m excited to head to Sacramento and be a representative for the Valley.
Joaquin Arambula, who appears to have won Tuesday’s special election
Though Arambula holds a 10-percentage point lead over Olivier, he had to win more than 50 percent of the vote Tuesday to avoid a June 7 runoff. Olivier would have to win an almost impossible number of the remaining ballots to force Arambula below that threshold.
“Tomorrow is a new day,” Arambula said. “I’m excited to head to Sacramento and be a representative for the Valley. I truly intend to be a public servant. Someone who listens more than I talk, and I’m excited about the possibilities for where we can go.”
Olivier remained optimistic early in the evening even as initial returns put Arambula well ahead in the race – and above the 50 percent needed to avoid the runoff. As more ballots were counted, Arambula’s lead held, and Olivier eventually conceded after the Fresno County Elections office finished counting for the night.
“Obviously things didn’t go as we had hoped,” he said. “I’m proud of my campaign team and I’m especially thankful to the thousands of people who voted for change Tuesday.”
Arambula’s victory, however, means he will serve only eight months in office, which is the remaining time left in Perea’s final term. Next comes part two of the election, which will be a primary in June between the same three men, and then a November runoff between the top two finishers in the race, which likely will be another clash between Arambula and Olivier. The winner of that showdown will represent the district for two years beginning in December.
“We do have to win in November,” Arambula said. “It’s going to be exciting. I’m supported by all the momentum we’ve gotten so far, and really encouraged that we were able to break 50 percent in this election.”
The election was high-profile and expensive as Republicans pushed hard to put the seat in the GOP column, the same way they had done during a 2013 special election in the 14th state Senate District, which overlaps part of the 31st Assembly District. In that district, Hanford Republican Andy Vidak won in a special election and then held the seat in 2014 for a full term after Bakersfield Democrat Michael Rubio resigned early to take a job with Chevron. Democrats, in the meantime, have always viewed the 31st Assembly seat as theirs. Currently, 47.2 percent of voters are Democrats, 28.5 percent Republican and 19.9 percent are registered with no political party.
Obviously things didn’t go as we had hoped. I’m proud of my campaign team and I’m especially thankful to the thousands of people who voted for change Tuesday.
Clint Olivier, Fresno City Council member, who placed second in Tuesday’s election
Underscoring the seat’s importance to the Democratic Party: Newly minted Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon campaigned with Arambula twice and was in town Tuesday. He did not want to suffer a humiliating defeat as he takes over as the Assembly’s leader.
Heading into Tuesday’s election, Democrats had posted 19 consecutive wins in the 31st District stretching back to 1976. Now Arambula looks to have made it 20 straight. Fresno County Clerk Brandi Orth has until April 14 to certify the election, then Arambula can be sworn in. When he takes office, Arambula will be the 10th youngest of 80 Assembly members, falling between Republican Leader Chad Mayes and Bakersfield Democrat Rudy Salas, according to legislative historian Alex Vassar.
The closest Republicans have come to winning the 31st District in the past two decades was that 2004 election when McCarthy, now Republican majority leader in Congress, made his prediction. In that election, Kerman farmer Paul Betancourt raised more than $1 million, but lost to Arambula’s father, Juan, who went on to hold the seat from 2004 to 2010.
Democrats were well aware of the political realities of special elections, and responded accordingly. Arambula has raised more than $930,000 for the special election, including more than $405,000 from the state Democratic Party. Olivier in turn raised close to $500,000, with the state Republican Party chipping in more than $254,000 of that total.
That huge campaign war chest afforded Arambula the perks of a first-class campaign, with a major amount of resources at his disposal. That included not just money for campaign commercials and mail pieces, but also the ability to marshal hundreds of campaign volunteers – and put them up in local hotels – who walked precincts and manned phone banks.
None of that includes third-party organizations, which weighed in heavily in the race – especially for Arambula.
As of last Thursday, 10 different independent groups had spent more than $700,000 to help Arambula, according to an analysis by the California Target Book, which studies elective races. Of that total, $410,042 supported Arambula and $298,416 opposed Olivier. Independent spending to help Olivier, by comparison, was less than $21,000.
The seat opened up after Perea resigned his Assembly seat a year early to take a job with the pharmaceutical industry. That prompted the need for the special election to fill the remainder of his term, which will end in December.
Before Perea made his surprise announcement in December, Arambula and Olivier were already gearing up to face each other later this year for the full two-year term. A week after Perea’s resignation became official on Dec. 31, Gov. Jerry Brown called Tuesday’s special election, and Arambula and Olivier, along with Miller, were forced into a frenzied, three month election sprint.
31st Assembly District