By Adela Aguirre
Community members learned a little more about candidates running for the hotly contested District Four county supervisor seat Aug. 24 during a town hall meeting hosted in Delano.
County Supervisor David Couch sat down with his challengers — Delano Mayor Grace Vallejo, and Greater Lamont Chamber of Commerce President Jose Gonzales — during a forum hosted by Community Leadership Alliance for Democracy Kern, or CLAD-K.
During 30 second responses, candidates touched up on a broad range of topics, including marijuana laws, sexual assault, the #MeToo movement and immigration. They also discussed what they would do in their first 100 days to improve quality of life for those living in disenfranchised parts of the county represented in District 4, which spans from Arvin through southwest Bakersfield and into the northern reaches of the county, capturing Delano, Wasco and Shafter.
The District Four race became one of the most closely-watched contests this year after voting areas were redrawn following a lawsuit the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund waged against Kern County. A federal judge ruled that districts illegally diluted the voting power of communities of interest and ordered lines to be redrawn before the November election.
Couch — who had long represented an area with the highest percentage of white Republicans, had his district redrawn to include the highest percentage of Latinos. He suddenly became the most vulnerable supervisor on the dais — but it didn’t show during the forum.
Instead, it was Vallejo who was targeted in her own hometown.
When asked about the #BlackLivesMatter movement, Vallejo answered that “all lives matter.” The meeting turned raucous.
Juan Diego Hernandez, a 19-year-old Delano resident who asked the question, yelled and screamed at Vallejo before being escorted out of the room. “You are missing the point of Black Lives Matter,” he shouted, pointing his finger at Vallejo. “That’s how much it means to you, it means nothing at all.”
All candidates talked about how they would improve conditions in Lamont. The lack of sidewalks and excessive flooding in Lamont would be one Vallejo’s priorities in her first 100 days in office if elected, she said.
While addressing infrastructural issues in Lamont would be expensive, Couch said the county has a plan in place and ideas in the works to address those problems.
Gonzalez said he would go to the community and see what they want, then work to make it happen.
When the forum was opened up to the public, questions varied from jobs and gang violence, to views about marijuana dispensaries. It put Couch — who voted to ban dispensaries across Kern County this year — into the spotlight.
“The reason I voted for that [the ban on dispensaries] was the state is supposed to be ready for this . . . and they’re not even close to being ready- and when they are, we’re going to take another look at that,” Couch said.
Vallejo is taking a more lenient stance on marijuana dispensaries, explaining that it has to take into account public safety. “Just like we regulate alcohol and cigarettes, we need to be prepared, because the voters are going to make that decision,” Vallejo said.
Gonzales took a similar stance.
“I think we need to be more educated and find ways to find solutions and how to regulate this, because one of the biggest difficulties is how are we going to protect our kids around this,” Gonzales said.
After the forum, community members said there wasn’t a clear winner, but that Gonzales appeared inexperienced, and at least one expressed disappointment in Vallejo’s statements regarding #BlackLivesMatter.
Hector Jimenez, 18, said he was disappointed that the issue he was most concerned about wasn’t mentioned by candidates: the need to declare Kern a sanctuary county.
“The biggest issue I’ve seen in Kern County is the fear that’s been plaguing our city. I feel like that could be addressed by putting pressure on the sheriff to make Kern County the sanctuary county that it is and needs to be,” Jimenez said.
He expressed concerns about all the candidates. Although Vallejo did “a good job,” he said, her comment about #BlackLivesMatter “triggered a lot of people.” He felt he could no longer support her afterward. Meanwhile, Couch has been underperforming, Jimenez said, and Gonzalez seems to be “making stuff up as he goes.”
Suzanne Villaruz, a 59-year-old lifelong Delano resident, said the reinforced what she expected.
“Mr. Couch was very conservative, Grace [Vallejo] has got lots of experience, and Mr. Gonzalez feels he could do everything because he’s a good guy,” Villaruz said. “His lack of experience really has shown through.”