Vince Fong faces a legal hurdle in his run for Congress. Who is the Bakersfield Assemblyman endorsed by Trump?

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Assemblyman Vince Fong, R-Bakersfield, is Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s chosen successor, with the retired congressman lending his formidable fundraising benefits to the Assemblyman’s ascent. And earlier this week, the Bakersfield native grabbed the support of former President Donald Trump in California’s reddest district, one where voters picked the Republican over President Joe Biden in 2020 by almost 25 percentage points.

But who is the Bakersfield Republican leading the race for McCarthy’s seat?

In the once-crowded field — which has seen several contenders drop out this month — Fong is the only who has represented a majority of Kern County, which has the largest portion of voters in the safely-Republican California’s 20th Congressional District.

But a legal challenge to his campaign that could erase Fong’s candidacy looms large over his attempt to succeed McCarthy, his former boss. Fong’s leading GOP opponent in California’s 20th, Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux, has picked up several key endorsements but remains far behind in polls.

Since early in his congressional campaign, Fong, 44, has said his priorities transitioning from the Legislature to Congress are “defending the Central Valley’s water and energy resources, securing the border and getting our fiscal house in order.”

“When I first ran for the Assembly, I felt that Sacramento had a gigantic bullseye on our region,” Fong said in an interview. “We had tremendous water challenges. We had Sacramento politicians that were trying to take away our ability to produce affordable, reliable energy. You look at our challenges in public safety.”

Those issues — key to the San Joaquin Valley where the economy largely relies on agriculture and oil — will likely be prime at the hour-long candidate debate at 7 p.m. tonight in Bakersfield, hosted by KGET and KGPE.

Fong, Boudreaux and Democrats Marisa Wood and Andy Morales will participate in the debate, which will be televised locally and streamed.

Whether Fong mainly targets Boudreaux or Wood, the leading Democrat, will indicate how comfortable he feels for the March primaries — a Republican could more safely win the general election if they face a Democrat in the deeply-red district, and attacking Wood could help consolidate the blue vote. To advance from the primary, a candidate must be one of the top two vote-getters, regardless of party.

Who is Vince Fong?

Fong represents the 32nd Assembly District, covering parts of Kern and Tulare counties, including the town where Boudreaux, 56, lives. The Assemblyman was elected in 2016, having served for almost a decade as district director to McCarthy, then the House Majority Leader.

Fong’s deep local ties and community participation could help elevate him to his former boss’s role, said Cole Rojewski, a consultant who previously worked for San Joaquin Joaquin Republican Reps. Devin Nunes and David Valadao, R-Hanford, and is a friend of Fong’s.

“Vince is his own person. He takes things he learned from every job, including working for Speaker McCarthy,” Rojewski said. “I think Vince takes a different approach (than McCarthy) to things at times, and sometimes takes the same approach.”

Fong has always been a “very Kern County guy,” said Tal Eslick, a consultant who has known Fong since they were in their early 20s: Eslick then worked as district director for former Congressman Nunes while Fong was the same for McCarthy.

“One of the more thoughtful people that I’ve interacted with in politics,” Eslick said about Fong in an interview, “I think broadly viewed as a trustworthy guy.”

Eslick paused, “It’s hard to work in this business for a long time and keep that reputation unless it’s true.”

Fong started in politics as an aide to McCarthy’s predecessor, former Republican Rep. Bill Thomas.

“I’m a conservative. I am. That is my philosophy. Those principles, I believe, are the best way to solve the problems and challenges facing our country. And so I will advocate for solutions based on those principles. That will never change,” Fong said. “But at the end of the day, if anyone wants to come together, comes to me, and wants to solve a problem, we need to do that, and I’ll listen to them and I’ll advocate for our residents.”

Like McCarthy, Fong was born and raised in Bakersfield. He attended West High School before going on to earn an undergraduate degree in political science from the University of California, Los Angeles, and a master’s in public affairs from Princeton University.

However as a young kid, holding political office seemed unlikely for Fong.

“I had a terrible stutter growing up, I had to overcome that,” Fong said. “I was probably scared to death to speak in front of a group of people, let alone a class. I’ve had teachers and mentors of mine that saw things in me that I didn’t see in myself.”

He said the San Joaquin Valley’s diverse issues pulled him into wanting to use his voice for those around him.

“Our state has a laundry list of crises,” Fong said. “You look at what’s going on in our forests and the need for investing in managing our forests; dealing with the homelessness crisis, ensuring that we invest in proper mental health resources and ensuring that we have a skilled workforce in place when it comes to keeping our hospitals open.”

The Kern County congressional lineage, said Eslick, who is no longer a registered Republican, that ties Fong and McCarthy together is a “pretty consistent, conservative sort of approach, I think with a with a healthy bit of pragmatism when it’s appropriate. But not in a way that’s off-putting or sort of nasty, which at times has made it less comfortable probably during some of the Tea Party era or certain aspects of the more recent sort of Trump approach to the party.”

Progressive criticism of Fong in Sacramento could be an asset, said Eslick, particularly in this deep red seat where people heavily rely on oil for jobs and driving long distances for work, and are frustrated with Gov. Gavin Newsom.

“You kind of get both sides of it, right?” Eslick said. “You get the consumer side, you also get the jobs, the resulting impact of mostly California state policy that is kind of targeting that industry and has been for a while.”

What’s happening in the races to succeed McCarthy?

There are two elections for California’s 20th, which includes parts of Kern, Kings, Tulare and Fresno Counties. The first primary on March 5 is for a full two-year term to begin January 2025; the top two vote-getters in this race will advance to a Nov. 5 general election.

The second primary on March 19 is a special election to finish the remainder of McCarthy’s term, which ends Jan. 3 2025. McCarthy resigned at the end of 2023 after a tumultuous ousting as Speaker of the House.

If one candidate gets a majority of the votes in the March 19 primary, they win outright. If not, the top two vote-getters advance to a run-off on May 21. The winner will be sworn in swiftly, as the seat remains vacant in the interim.

Historically the same candidate has won both a special and general election for a seat if they chose to run in each. Given that the special election is two weeks after the regularly-scheduled one, and is likely to see low voter turnout, name recognition will be the main decider.

An Emerson College Polling survey released at the end of January had more than a quarter of respondents voting for Fong. Boudreaux and Wood, a Bakersfield school teacher who challenged McCarthy in 2022, each had about 11%. More than a third of respondents said they were undecided.

Fong’s experience might set him apart. Boudreaux has served as Tulare County Sheriff for a decade, having served in law enforcement for 37 years, but not worked for a congressional office or served in the Legislature.

“The one thing that Vince brings that maybe others might not have as much exposure on are issues as a whole in the Valley,” said Rojewski. “He’s represented the Valley starting back with Bill Thomas and McCarthy, now being an Assemblyman. He has experience with nearly every issue, whether that’s water or agriculture issues or immigration.”

Boudreaux has racked up many influential endorsements too, including several Trump allies and that of influential Kern County figures State Sen. Shannon Grove and Sheriff Donny Youngblood.

Still, the greater hurdle for Fong in advancing to the November general election could come from California’s chief elections official, Secretary of State Shirley Weber. The challenge only concerns Fong’s run for the full two-year term.

What is the legal challenge to Fong’s campaign?

The legal chaos surrounding Fong’s campaign started with McCarthy’s tumultuous exit from Congress.

McCarthy was ousted as Speaker of the House, a role he long coveted and held for nine months of 2023, in October. For two months, McCarthy remained publicly ambiguous and downplayed reports that he was subsequently going to retire from the House of Representatives.

McCarthy announced his retirement on Dec. 6, two days before California’s electoral filing deadline, setting off a succession scramble in the San Joaquin Valley. Because McCarthy as the incumbent was not running, the filing deadline for California’s 20th extended until Dec. 13.

Fong originally declined to run to succeed his former boss and filed before the Friday, Dec. 8, deadline to qualify for his Assembly race. Grove, R-Bakersfield, who will be termed out of the Legislature and appeared the likely McCarthy successor, declined to run Monday morning. Once Grove opted out, Fong changed his mind and gathered McCarthy’s endorsement.

California’s secretary of state said that, under elections code, Fong could not withdraw from the Assembly race and could not be on the ballot for competing offices (however there are fringe candidates on the ballot for two offices in California). Weber said she would bar him from the 20th.

However a Sacramento County Superior Court judge granted Fong’s request to appear on the ballot for both the Assembly and Congress in December.

Up against a deadline, Weber included Fong’s name on the certified list of candidates for both the Congress and Assembly. But she said she would appeal the decision.

Then at the end of January, Weber asked an appeals court to remove Judge Shelleyanne W. L. Chang’s ruling and disqualify Fong as a congressional candidate by April 12, the say she would certify the primary election results. If the court grants her request, she would bar him from the Nov. 5 ballot.