When choosing who they would like to represent California's 12th District in the upcoming state Assembly election, voters will pick between two very similar candidates - conservative Republican farmers Heath Flora and Ken Vogel, who had one last chance to win voters over at Wednesday night's candidate forum hosted by The League of Women Voters of Stanislaus County.
Unsurprisingly, Flora and Vogel agreed on many questions asked by the audience at the forum, which ranged from climate change to supporting local education. Water was the prevailing theme of the night, however, with both candidates taking a strong stance against the State Water Board's recommendation to require 40 percent unimpaired flows on the Tuolumne, Merced and Stanislaus rivers.
The State Water Board has proposed increasing flows to provide habitats for fish and wildlife upstream of the Delta from Feb. 1 to June 30 from three tributaries of the lower San Joaquin River and adjusting the salinity requirements to a slightly high level to reflect updated scientific knowledge and protect farming in the Southern Delta.
"I absolutely do not support the unimpaired flows for a myriad of different reasons," said Flora. "Number one, it's taking 40 percent of our water that we don't have to give...it's not about fish - it's about shipping water south."
"Heath and I agree on that," said Vogel. "The figures I've seen for the economic impact to this whole area...a $1.6 billion impact to this whole area for these 40 percent unimpaired flows. It doesn't benefit this area at all, and I am totally against that."
When asked about the state's drought and specifically, what steps the candidates would take to protect ground water, Flora, a volunteer firefighter, was able to give a unique perspective on what he would do to increase California's snow packs.
"Right now, the firefighters, we see these massive forest fires," said Flora. "Forty to 60 trees is a healthy forest, and right now we're in the 200 trees per acre area. If we work with our forestry departments on thinning out the forests, we will increase the snow pack. If we can clean out the organic material on our forest floor with controlled burns, we can increase the runoff."
The only disagreement between the two candidates came following a question about term limits. Flora is in favor of them, while Vogel is not.
"I think one of the biggest issues that we have in politics, in general, is people get comfortable," said Flora. "Right now we have folks in the federal government who have been there 30 plus years. They're completely ineffective and they'll be completely ineffective until they pass away or decide to retire. I absolutely support term limits because it's time that a new generation, a new fresh face gets into these seats...these same old career politicians are exactly the reason we are in the position we are today."
The differing opinions between Flora and Vogel highlighted the only factor that seems to separate the two very comparable candidates - experience. Vogel has decades of experience in public office, having served on the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors. Flora has no experience in public office, representing the kind of "fresh face" he hopes to see more of in office.
"Experience is not really a crime," said Vogel. "Experience is useful. Experience can help get things done, so that is the reason I do not support term limits."
Since the passage of Proposition 28 in 2012, legislators first elected on or after Nov. 6, 2012 are limited to a maximum of 12 years. Prop. 140, passed in 1990, affects any members elected prior to Nov. 6, 2012 and limits them to a maximum of two four-year terms. State Assembly District 12 incumbent Kristin Olsen has served three four-year terms and will be terming out of her seat this fall, but whether she will be replaced by Vogel or Flora it is sure to be a close race.
Vogel and Flora defeated Virginia Madueno, Harinder Grewal and Cindy Marks in the June primary, with Vogel receiving 25.58 percent of the vote and Flora garnering 23.21 percent. Vogel has a surplus of local endorsements, including all members of city councils in Turlock, Ripon, Escalon and Manteca, as well as four Stanislaus County supervisors and Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson. Flora is a favorite among the area's police and fire departments, with endorsements from the California Correctional Peace Officers Association and the California Association of Highway Patrolmen, along with others.
Flora promised to the crowd that, if elected, his number one priority will be to protect the region's water.
"The State Water Board is a huge, huge problem for the economic success and continued success as a 12th District," said Flora. "I want to really look into making sure that it's absolutely necessary that bureaucracy is in place...we will fight that fight to no end because if we don't have water in this district, the whole concept of the 12th District being an economic powerhouse through agriculture goes away."
If elected, Vogel's top priority will be water as well.
"What I look forward to in the legislature is working on the water issues," said Vogel. "We have to have more water, and we have to protect it from the water grab that's going on."
The General Election will be held on Nov. 8 with polls open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Vote-by-Mail ballot requests must arrive no later than Nov. 1. Personally delivered ballots must be delivered by the close of polls on Nov. 8 and mailed ballots must be postmarked on or before Nov. 8, received by the county elections office no later than Nov. 14.