SACRAMENTO -- The Republican race to replace Mike Villines in the Assembly is a calm but competitive affair featuring a doctor, a farmer and a well-known Clovis City Council member.
At stake in the June 8th primary is the inside track for the 29th District seat, a GOP stronghold covering eastern Fresno County and Madera whose representative is often a go-to politician for Valley business groups seeking influence in Sacramento.
The only Democrat running is Michael Esswein, 21, a senior care provider from Clovis.
All the GOP candidates call themselves anti-tax conservatives. Villines, a Clovis Republican who terms out this year, made similar promises. But as GOP leader he voted for temporary tax hikes to help close a gaping budget hole, saying it was the only way to avoid permanent taxes pushed by Democrats who control the Legislature.
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His move drew criticism from conservative activists, and still casts a shadow over this year's race. He has not issued an endorsement, and all the candidates say they oppose his tax vote.
Only one candidate, Madera farmer Don McKinney, supports the $11 billion water bond that Villines voted to put on November's ballot. Some fiscal conservatives criticize the borrowing. McKinney said if it fails, "history tells me that nobody wants to take up that [water] issue for another five to 10 years, and we simply can't wait that long."
Bob Whalen, a Clovis City Council member, criticized the bond's cost, saying "it comes at the worst possible time for our state's economy."
Linda Halderman, a doctor and state Senate aide, said she is skeptical that money will go to dams, a longtime Valley wish. Supporters say language gives preference to a proposed dam at Temperance Flat, but ironclad guarantees were omitted in a compromise with Democrats.
The race so far has been rather tame with no heated rhetoric or negative campaigning. Whalen's family and Halderman even went to the Clovis rodeo together.
As of late, Halderman has made the biggest fundraising splash. She entered the race in mid-February, reported rasing $80,282 as of late March and has reeled in several big contributions since then.
Whalen, a longtime public official, would seem positioned for a good showing. But he has lost some key endorsements to other candidates -- including nods for Halderman from the Fresno and Clovis chambers of commerce. Whalen's fundraising has been underwhelming. He reported just $7,302 cash on hand as of the latest reporting period in late March after raising $27,300 during the year.
McKinney, 61, a longtime farmer and cattle rancher from Madera, has the credentials to appeal to the all-important agriculture vote, but must introduce himself to Fresno voters. He reported raising $28,134 as of late March, plus a personal loan of $99,000.
Halderman, 41, moved to the Valley 10 years ago to enroll in the Fresno-based general surgery training program run by the University of California at San Francisco. She later opened a practice in Selma, specializing in breast cancer treatment and serving mostly Medi-Cal patients. But she closed her doors in late 2007, saying that reimbursement rates were too low to keep her business afloat.
In 2008 she took a job as a policy aide for state Sen. Sam Aanestad, a staunchly conservative Republican from Northern California.
Halderman, who still practices medicine part time, said she got into the race because "my state -- and particularly my home, my Valley -- is in trouble and I think I can make a difference."
She opposes the recently passed federal health-care overhaul, comparing it to Medi-Cal, which she blasted as unaccountable and overly bureaucratic.
Still, Halderman said health-care legislation would not be her immediate focus. "My priority is to get people back to work," she said in an interview. Her platform includes pushing for an accounting of expected job losses for every state regulation enacted.
Whalen points to his opposition to a proposed sales tax in Clovis as proof that he would live up to his anti-tax promise. In 2009, he was the only City Council member to oppose Measure A, which would have added a penny to the city's sales tax. The measure lost, forcing the city to find more than $10 million in budget savings through layoffs and other cuts.
"Most families were having to make cuts, and government should not be immune to these tough times," he said. In the Legislature, he says he would push to cut state worker pay and pensions by 10%.
A 45-year-old father of two, Whalen has prosecuted sex crimes and child-abuse cases for the Fresno County District Attorney's Office for the past 11 years. If elected, he'd have to give up that job as well as his city council seat -- and take a pay cut. State lawmakers make $95,291, compared with the combined salary of $125,000 Whalen said he makes in his two local government jobs.
"My wife and I talk about that a lot, and frankly we think this is a more significant way for me to impact the future of the state," he said.
McKinney, 61, who grew up on a cattle ranch east of Madera, farms 40 acres of almonds west of Madera.
He is a past chairman of the Agricultural Council of California, a trade group that lobbies state agencies for pro-farming policies. He's running because "it was kind of now or never. I've always had a feel for public service, and want to serve." He says he's prepared to "make some really tough decisions" on balancing the state's budget. One of his ideas is to get the state out of the county fair business.
The state owns most county fairgrounds, including in Madera and Tulare counties, but not in Fresno, which is owned by the county. McKinney said fair land could be sold for solid profits because "a lot of it is prime retail space."