All in the families

In the early years of Sarah Reyes’ time in the Assembly, she was known as a rival to then-Assemblyman Dean Florez. By the end, she’d become a Florez ally–and seatmate to Florez’s new rival, Assemblywoman Nicole Parra, D-Hanford.

These days, Reyes is chief of staff to her own replacement. She’s also a likely 2010 opponent to Parra, as both will seek Florez’s Senate seat when he’s termed out, unless Florez’s mother, Fran Florez, decides to seek that seat instead of Parra’s 30th Assembly District seat.

Got all that? Because it could all change on February 5 if voters approve an initiative to change term limits.

It’s an old saw that many state legislators come up through local government, especially as term limits have increased the need for new talent. In the case of these Kern County Latino Democrats, they brought many of their local rivalries with them–and term limits seem to have assured that their battles would play out again and again.

Nearly a decade after coming to the Assembly, her first elected position, Reyes appears to have gone from being Dean Florez’s most bitter rival to being adopted by his political family.

“I have the same kind of relationship with Dean that I have with my younger brother,” Reyes said. “No one else gets to beat him up.”

Both Reyes and Florez were elected as Assembly freshmen in 1998. They were both Latino Democrats from adjoining districts, Reyes said, but said they were “cut from different cloth.” Their difference were largely a matter of style, she said, noting “I think the media makes more of these clashes than the members do.”

But their relationship warmed. Some of this change may have happened in 2000, when the United Farm Workers, a powerful force in their agriculture-heavy districts, staged sit-ins at both their offices when they opposed UFW-sponsored legislation. By the time Florez went over his Shafter-based Senate district in 2003, Reyes frequently served as Assembly floor jockey for his bills.

This change may be testament to Reyes’ pragmatism and flexibility–something on display when earlier this year she became a rare legislator who returned as a staffer. Juan Arambula, D-Fresno, asked her to come back as his chief of staff. She came on part-time in May while she transitioned out of her role as CEO of the Community Food Bank in Fresno, going full-time a few weeks later.

Such transitions may become more common in the term-limits era, Reyes said, because expertise is precious. But she said she would never have done it for anyone besides Arambula–and said that the reason it works is because she knows her role.

“Sometimes it’s hard for members to all of a sudden answer to someone else,” Reyes said. But she added: “There is only one Assemblyperson in this office.”
While Reyes has yet to declare for the far-off Senate race, she said she is likely to run. Parra, meanwhile, has not only announced, but also raised $175,000 so far this year. She’s spent $36,000–the vast majority of it plowed back into fund raising.

Parra said she’s fully expecting to face-off against her old seatmate from the 2003-04 session–and said she doesn’t expect many hard feelings between two professionals. The two spent many hours talking over votes, she said, especially on controversial issues like taxes and gay marriage.

“We both represented areas that are very conservative,” Parra said. “When you’re
a valley Democrat, sometimes you feel like you’re in the minority.”

And, yes, she fully expects that Dean Florez would endorse Reyes “in a heartbeat.” Then she adds: “I’ve beaten all of the candidates Dean has run against me.”

It’s a long list. In the 2002 Democratic primary, Florez backed Jim Crettol, a popular local farmer–whom Parra proceeded to wallop by a two-to-one margin. Florez later backed Republican Dean Gardner against Parra–and lost again.

Florez has repeatedly tried to portray Parra as a legislative lightweight, as they’ve clashed over air pollution and other issues. But in electoral politics, Parra’s shown herself to be “no wimp” and “battle-tested,” according to political consultant Allen Hoffenblum. A Reyes/Parra race would likely be close, he said, with perhaps a slight advantage going to Reyes.

The feud goes back a few years in Kern County history, with both Florez and Parra coming from established political families. In 2004, Florez backed young up-and-comer Michael Rubio in a successful bid to oust Parra’s father, Pete Parra, from his Kern County Supervisor’s seat.

He talked about urging his mother to run against Parra in the 2006 primary, but Fran Florez chose to stay on as mayor of Shafter. Next year, Fran Florez is likely to run for Parra’s seat when she’s termed out. If she does, Parra said, the Florez clan would then be facing the same intense electoral politics she’s had to deal with her whole career. Democrats have very slim
registration advantage in AD 30, and the GOP has targeted Parra’s seat every election.

One knock on Parra is that she has faced weak opponents. But she said the most recent one, retired highway patrolman Danny Gilmore, was by far the strongest. Gilmore is almost certain to be the GOP nominee again next year, she said.

“My best wishes go out to Fran Florez, because she’ll have a race,” Parra said.

But if voters approve the term-limits initiative next February 5, everything will change. The measure calls for an overall limit of 12 years, though members could serve it in either house, rather than being limited to six in the Assembly and eight in the Senate. If that happens, Parra will run for re-election, rather than biding her time for two years waiting for Florez to term out.

Then there’s always the chance Fran Florez could go for the Senate seat in 2010. Dean Florez plans to run for Lt. governor in 2010, providing John Garamendi doesn’t seek a second term. Reyes would gain the option of running for Assembly again.

So what is Hoffenblum’s fearless prediction of who will represent Senate District 16 after the 2010 election?

“I think it will be a Latino Democrat,” he said with a chuckle.

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