‘We’re not this blindly conservative group.’ How Bakersfield’s development is bringing new views to city
In the final run-up to the 2020 election, KCRW is taking a look at a pair of neighbors that couldn’t be more different — at least on the surface. Los Angeles County and Kern County share a border and get along, but you could say each has a yard sign providing a clear idea of where they stand politically.
One is basically the heart of the resistance to President Donald Trump. The other is a conservative bastion that went for Trump in 2016 and will likely do so again this November. With the nation so split over issues like racism and policing, we can see those divisions on display in Southern California.
In a series called “Red County, Blue County,” we’re going to take a look at these two places, what sets them apart, and some surprising common ground they share.
We begin in the rapidly growing city of Bakersfield, located in the heart of bright red Kern County. The sun is baking the heart of town on a summer afternoon as Andrae Gonzales, who’s wearing long pants, walks along the sidewalk. He shrugs off the triple-digit heat; after all, he’s used to it. He grew up in the area.
Elected to the Bakersfield City Council in 2016, Andrae Gonzales represents the downtown core and has been a leading voice in revitalizing the heart of town. Photo by Matt Guilhem/KCRW.
“You know Bakersfield was a place that a lot of my friends and high school classmates – was a place where we wanted to get out of,” he says through a mask while walking downtown. “We wanted to get to a bigger city; we wanted to go off to college and get a job elsewhere. There was a definite small town feel to this community.”
Like a lot of millennials in town, he went away to college in a liberal city – Berkeley in his case – but came home to the Central Valley.
“I wanted to be part of the transformation of our community,” he says. “I recognized that we were growing. That wasn’t the question; the question was: how are we going to grow? What will Bakersfield look like over the next 20 years, 30 years? I wanted to be part of that decision-making process.” The young Democrat is playing a part in shaping the city’s future. He was elected to the city council in 2016 and is one of two Latinos serving on the seven-member body.
As he crosses the street and wipes a bead of sweat from his forehead, Gonzales points to a new residential development.
“There is a demand for more housing within the urban core, and that’s a change,” Gonzales says. “That is a shift from what we’ve seen in Bakersfield.”
A mural depicting the eyes of Cesar Chavez gazes out on downtown Bakersfield. The artwork was completed in November 2019 and is by the internationally recognized Argentinian artist Cobre. Photo by Shannon Stapleton/Reuters.
With density and urbanization rising in the Kern County seat, Gonzales believes another kind of change is coming to the Central Valley city. He points to a recent ballot initiative — Measure N — as evidence of Bakersfield’s slow fade from ruby red to blushing purple.
“In 2018, the city council put forth a measure to increase the sales tax by one cent on the dollar,” he explains in a tone that gives you the sense he’s told this story before. “There were a lot of folks who were engaged politically, who were very cynical about the fact the voters in Bakersfield would actually increase their taxes. You know, many people think this city is staunchly conservative, and what they mean is also fiscally conservative. They’re not going to raise taxes. ‘Don’t raise my taxes – no way, no how.’
“On election night, we got the results. Measure N was actually failing by several thousand votes. As more votes came in and were counted, we ended up winning by 97 votes. There [were] over 100,000 voters who participated in this election, but we won.”
Measure N generates about $58 million for the city every year with the funds going to spur economic development, maintain public safety, and address homelessness. It’s similar to a tax hike called Measure H that LA County voters passed for themselves in 2017.
According to Gonzales, the like-minded Measure N squeaking by in Bakersfield shows “that we’re not this just blindly conservative community, that people may have conservative principles here, but they’re also open minded,” he says. Gonzles says voters put the focus on what’s best for the community overall.
While the former Woolworth’s in downtown Bakersfield has become a sprawling antique store, the last of the five-and-dime’s Luncheonettes continues serving customers. The black and white checkerboard floor is original, and formica is still the preferred material for the countertop. Photo by Matt Guilhem/KCRW.
Tucked against the 99 freeway and on the other side of the Kern River is a diner called Zingo’s. Think great neon sign and a wrap-around countertop that’s never known an empty cup of coffee. It’s the kind of place where waitresses aren’t averse to calling you “shug” or “hun.” But the staff does have an aversion to masks. The people behind that wrap-around countertop aren’t wearing a face covering, and neither is Bobby Lynch who’s seated at it. Why?
“I believe that a lot of the COVID scare is politically motivated,” Lynch says confidently. “A lot of it will be cured about November 6, but that’s just my opinion.”
Sporting a gray t-shirt and faded Hooters visor, Lynch looks at ease as he sits inside the warm diner. He says his politics match his location.
“I’m in Kern County,” Lynch says matter-of-factly. “I pretty much vote Republican down the board.”
House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy (far right), whose district includes Bakersfield, has been a close ally of President Donald Trump. McCarthy has represented the southern San Joaquin Valley in Congress since 2007. Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters.
An ardent Trump supporter and lifelong Bakersfield resident, Lynch is among the 53% of Kern County voters who supported Donald Trump in 2016. In LA County, just 22% of voters backed him.
While the preference for Hillary Clinton shows a glaring contrast between the two counties, they weren’t always so far apart. At least some of the conservative legacy that runs up and down the Central Valley can be traced to the 1930s. When the Dust Bowl ravaged the Midwest, countless families left the plains for California’s agricultural heartland. Their know-how turned the Central Valley into some of the world’s most productive soil, and their politics continue to shape the area.
But even before the Dust Bowl and the Depression were sealing California’s place in the popular imagination, LA and Kern were already heading in different directions.
“They diverge, probably right at that moment around 1880 to 1910 – where the metropolitan future of one place is fairly—you can see it, and the less growth-obsessed, less of a juggernaut future of a place like Kern County is also, I think, by then in the cards,” says Prof. William Deverell, the director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West.
Kern County produces the most oil of any county in California. The industry goes back more than a hundred years in the region. In 1910, the famed Lakeview Gusher spewed more than 9 million barrels of oil creating a black lake near the town of Taft. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/File Photo/Reuters.
LA would eventually grow to be the nation’s most populous county with an economy that includes international trade and Hollywood. Meanwhile, Kern County stuck to the land. Under the bounty of its fields, vast deposits of oil attract some of the biggest fossil fuel companies in the world to the region.
Despite the president’s advocacy for America’s farmers and fossil fuels, Bobby Lynch saysTrump’s policies haven’t helped oil and agriculture heavy Kern County.
“I don’t think he has a chance to help this region,” says Lynch. “You got Governor [Gavin] Newsom that wants to get rid of all fossil fuels. He doesn’t want any agriculture to happen. They don’t ship water to the Central Valley farmers that they’ve paid their water rations for. It almost seems like the state-level government doesn’t want any business.”
With big portions and all-American fare, Zingo’s is a consummate greasy spoon (in the best way). While the food is prodigious, the coronavirus precautions being taken by the diner aren’t. Both staff and customers were unmasked inside the restaurant on a recent visit. Photo by Matt Guilhem/KCRW.
Taking refuge in Zingo’s from the hot midday sun, Lynch unspools his belief that society is declining due to a rise in homelessness, more crime, and a sense that there are no more hard and fast rules. At the conclusion, the native Californian says he doesn’t feel at home here anymore.
“Right now I’m staying around for family members that are too old and need some help, but if I can convince them to leave, we’ll all go together,” Lynch says.
The former trucker may be planning to hit the road permanently for the Midwest, but thousands of people – including a good amount of Angelenos – are flocking to Bakersfield and stoking its growth.
Almonds are among the myriad items grown in Kern County. Table grapes, carrots, and other nuts are also popular crops in the county. The rich soil of the Central Valley routinely makes it the most productive farmland in the nation. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters.
In the newly hip part of downtown Bakersfield called East Chester, Café Smitten stands out. It’s a bright blue brick building that used to be an auto shop but now serves pour-over coffee and eclectic breakfast fare. With chic industrial design and a full complement of succulents, Smitten wouldn’t be out of place in Silver Lake.
Bob Smith, another member of the local city council, is already sitting on the cafe’s patio. He rode his bicycle to the coffee shop, is wearing shorts and flip-flops, and has a tan on par with George Hamilton.
If that doesn’t give an idea of how laid back he is, how he describes himself will.
“I’m an old white guy; I’m the minority these days which is fine with me,” Smith says with a chuckle.
Both the city of Bakersfield and Kern County are now majority Latino. White residents make up about a third of the population.
Smith hails from the northern part of the Central Valley and moved to Bakersfield in 1980 when it had about 100,000 residents. Over the last 40 years, it’s gotten to nearly 400,000 and has become California’s ninth largest city.
“You know the whole valley is the most affordable place in California; we get a lot of people from LA,” says Smith.
A stone’s throw from the heart of downtown Bakersfield, Cafe Smitten is a coffee shop and brunch spot that would be at home in LA, New York, or London. Photo by Matt Guilhem/KCRW.
It’s hard to find better housing prices than in Kern County. According to Zillow, the median price of a home listed in the county is $255,000. Meanwhile, it’s just about $700,000 for LA County.
That definitely was a factor when Smith’s daughter, Stasie Bitton, decided to move back to the Central Valley after living in Manhattan for eight years with her husband.
“When we were talking about leaving New York, Bakersfield just started to sound good and make sense for what we were looking for,” Bitton says. “We wanted to start a family. We wanted to purchase a home. We wanted more space. And Bakersfield just fit the criteria that we were looking for.”
They may have left the skyscrapers of New York City physically, but Bitton and her husband brought the elements of their favorite Big Apple coffee shops and restaurants to their new home with Café Smitten. It’s a hit, and with several boutiques launching close by, it’s changed the vibe of the street.
“‘This doesn’t feel like we’re in Bakersfield,’” Bitton says is a compliment her business commonly receives. “I’m like, ‘actually, the really cool thing is that you are in Bakersfield, and this is possible in Bakersfield. You are in your hometown.’ You don’t have to drive to have a cool experience – have it in your own hometown.”
Cafe Smitten co-owner Stasie Bitton and her father Bob Smith. Bitton followed a path many young people from Bakersfield do: she left for college, saw the world for a while, and decided to come back to town to put down roots. Photo by Matt Guilhem/KCRW.
With more big city stuff coming to town – and more big city people, could some big city views be starting to roost in Bakersfield? Bitton says she prefers staying out of politics, but her dad the city councilman, Bob Smith takes the question. First he says he doesn’t like “getting hung up in that Republican, Democrat, conservative, liberal stuff.” But eventually, he answers.
“I’m a man of faith,” Smith begins. “I’m a family man. I’m a man that wants to give back to the community. I’m a man who likes bicycling, who cares about people’s health, and I’m also a registered Republican. So, my tribe is my family, not conservative red Republican. I have one son-in-law that was born in Ecuador, another son-in-law that was born in Israel. My son’s partner was born in Russia. So, it’s a very diverse life these days for most everybody.”
As Smith says, it’s a diverse life and he’s many things, including a Republican. The same goes for Bakersfield; it remains a place with conservative values, but local politics skew toward pragmatic rather than partisan. Facing a global pandemic, a tanking economy, and an election unlike any we’ve ever seen, the no-nonsense approach of Bakersfield could offer lessons to both red and blue counties alike.