By John Ellis
The Fresno Bee
The newly created 5th Assembly District sprawls across both sides of the Sierra, touching all or parts of nine counties -- and with no real heart that would give any candidate an early edge.
Instead, six men whose homes are scattered in the western Sierra foothills from O'Neals in the south to Calaveras County in the north are seeking the seat. Three are Republicans, two are Democrats and one is an independent.
Under the state's new "top two" primary, all six will run against each other in the June primary, with the top two advancing to the November general election.
But there is agreement among political experts that -- based on fundraising, political experience and name identification -- two are the most viable candidates.
They are Madera County Supervisor Frank Bigelow, who lives in O'Neals, and Rico Oller, a Calaveras County businessman who has served in both the Assembly and state Senate.
Of course, don't tell that to the other four candidates -- Mark Belden and Mark Boyd of Calaveras County and Timothy Fitzgerald and Kevin Lancaster of Tuolumne County.
"I have absolutely no money, but by sheer will, I must have met five times as many people as ," said Belden, who is not affiliated with a political party but describes himself as a "right-of-center ... fiscal conservative" who leans libertarian.
Belden, 55, has not met the threshold to file a campaign finance report with the Secretary of State's office. It is the same story for Fitzgerald, 66, and Lancaster, 28.
Boyd, 58, who lives in the Calaveras County hamlet of Arnold, has raised a little more than $5,000, loaned himself another $1,000 -- and had less than $2,000 in his campaign account as of March 17.
This is Boyd's first run for elective office, though he has a political science degree and interned for Assembly Member Jim Beall, a San Jose Democrat.
Boyd -- who has the state Democratic Party's official endorsement -- says he offers a potent alternative to Oller and Bigelow, and his campaign stances are, indeed, polar opposites of the two Republicans. He does wish he could raise more money, but said, "I'm the only one that is talking about the economy."
Still, the district is tough for a Democrat. Republicans have 43% of registered voters, while the Democrats are at 32%.
Bigelow and Oller are both Republicans and are creating the most buzz.
Oller has raised around $93,000 and has loaned his campaign $100,000. He has more than $177,000 in his campaign account, though without the loan it is less than $80,000.
Bigelow has raised close to $200,000 and has loaned his campaign another $50,000. He had close to $160,000 in his campaign war chest as of mid-March.
He also appears to have an ace in the hole: the Mother Lode Taxpayers Association Political Action Committee For Bigelow Assembly 2012. It was formed April 16, and already has $200,000.
That comes from just two donors -- $50,000 from the California Dental Association independent expenditure political action committee and $150,000 from the California Real Estate Independent Expenditure Committee.
Bigelow said he had no knowledge of the group, and Oller said the move will backfire.
"There are some groups and people that will be very fired up when they find out this is happening," Oller said.
Still, he doubted it might result in an independent expenditure on his behalf that would match the one being spent on Bigelow.
Oller said the money flowing to Bigelow is more than just to support the Madera County resident, it is also a reaction to Oller's candidacy. The reason, he said, is that Bigelow would be more amenable to support a tax increase pushed by Gov. Jerry Brown.
Bigelow scoffed at that notion, and as proof he blasted Brown's prison realignment plan, in which low-level felons are being sent to local county jails instead of state prison, and local probation departments are supervising low-level prison inmates as they're released.
It was, Bigelow said, the "final straw" that led him to run for the Assembly.
Oller -- who has already served two Assembly terms and one state Senate term -- said he decided to try to return to Sacramento after watching California's economy deteriorate.
"We're so close to disaster and spending money beyond our means so much that the money is just going to run out," he said.
Though he knows that as a Republican he'd be in the minority, Oller said the Capitol needs a conservative voice to sound the economic warning.
His other big issue, he said, is the state's global warming law -- which was written in the state Assembly and is often referred to by its bill name, AB 32 -- which sets a statewide limit on greenhouse gas emissions. The goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.
But, Oller said, it would further damage the state's economy by hitting agriculture, trucking companies, contractors and anybody else who uses diesel fuel.
"It's an ugly thing, but we can turn it around," he said. "It doesn't have to go that way."
Oller's other issue is opposition to the state's high-speed rail project. He says Bigelow has on four occasions as a Madera County supervisor voted in support of the project.
Bigelow said his view -- and that of his fellow Madera County supervisors -- changed over time as they learned more about the high-speed rail plan, and as the project itself changed.
Though the supervisors -- and Bigelow -- initially supported the project, earlier this year they officially went on record in opposition to the project.
"As any good leader would do, you explore all the options," Bigelow said.
"It's a moving target. Before we put the state in more debt, we need to get the actual truth."
Traveling the district, Bigelow said a concern that has arisen consistently is a $150 annual charge on 800,000 rural homeowners for Cal Fire's wildlands fire prevention services.
Bigelow -- a 14-year veteran Madera supervisor -- called it an "inappropriate taxation. ... This should have been stopped from day one."
He also shot back at Oller -- who because of Assembly term limits could only serve two more years if elected -- saying it is important for the district to have somebody who could be there a full three terms to have the "continuity of connection with constituents and people in the state Capitol to move things through the state Legislature."
All the attention on Bigelow and Oller doesn't mean the others are giving up.
Fitzgerald, a self-described author and economist who said he's currently working on a three-volume memoir that details his "activism as a civic leader" dating to the 1960s civil-rights movement, insists he has a genuine chance at victory.
He's run unsuccessfully for office several times -- including as a Green Party candidate, though he again is a Democrat.
Boyd offered the sharpest alternative to the Republicans.
While Oller talks of repealing AB 32, for instance, Boyd talks up its positives, including better air quality for the state.
He also said voters in seven of the nine counties in the district voted no on Proposition 23, the unsuccessful 2010 ballot initiative that would essentially have rolled back AB 32's global warming reduction goals.
Lancaster, a 28-year-old taxi driver, could not be reached for comment.
Assembly District 5 candidates
Hometown: Railroad Flat
Occupation: Real estate investor/builder
Education: Bachelor’s degree, California State University, East Bay; master’s degree, City University of New York
Party preference: No party
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