Judy Sly: 5th Assembly District: Broad area and broad-minded rep

February 15, 2013 

sly

Judy Sly

Residents of the new 5th Assembly District won't get a lot of face time with their recently elected representative, Frank Bigelow.

In his new job, the Madera County Republican represents all or part of nine counties, stretching from El Dorado in the north to Madera and Mono in the south. The population centers are at either end, El Dorado and Madera. From his home on a ranch in O'Neals, a tiny community off Highway 41, it's a three-hour drive to Mono Lake -- if the highway is open through Yosemite. If not, then he has to go south to Bakersfield or north to Lake Tahoe to get there.

Previously, the sparsely populated Mother Lode and mountain counties were drawn into legislative districts that extended west into the Central Valley. In recent years, the Assembly members and senators representing Tuolumne and Mariposa counties, for example, were from Modesto.

The Citizens Redistricting Commission wanted to create districts with common interests. In the case of the 5th Assembly, its common denominators include Highway 49, the foothills, Sierra Nevada and a predominantly conservative viewpoint.

The only Assembly district that is geographically larger is No. 1, which extends north from Lake Tahoe to the Oregon border and is represented by Brian Dahle. He and Bigelow have a lot in common. Both are lifelong farmers-ranchers and both won runoff elections against fellow Republicans.

The 2012 open primary resulted in about 16 runoffs between two Assembly candidates from the same party. Bigelow came in second in the June primary to Thomas "Rico" Oller, a former state legislator with much stronger name recognition.

In the general election, Bigelow came out on top with slightly more than 52 percent of the vote. And he won it because he cleaned up in his home county of Madera, where he had served on the Board of Supervisors since 1998. (The Madera dominance may seem logical, but we've also seen races where candidates fare poorly in their home counties.)

Bigelow also collected significantly more campaign money than Oller, and he got it from a mix of sources, including action committees that normally support Democrats and saw Bigelow as the less strident of the choices.

I talked with Bigelow at the end of January. He doesn't know yet what his legislative package will be, although he said he's not inclined to introduce a lot of bills. "Quite honestly, I believe there are too many bills introduced. It makes it hard to vet them all." Amen to that.

He has signed on to several bills that propose to rescind the state fire tax on rural parcels. That's a priority for Republicans this session, though it will be an uphill battle.

Bigelow also opposes the current plan for high-speed rail because of the high price tag and the prospect that it will disrupt so many valley farm operations. The Madera supervisors, like others in the valley, initially supported high-speed rail. "What was proposed to us then is not what we have today," he explains. Others, including Congressman Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, have changed their views on the train project for the same reason.

Though state parks are not typically a high priority item for Republicans, Bigelow will be heavily involved because his vast district has many of them. His staff is still identifying just how many there are and what their concerns will be.

The Legislature has been in session just a little more than a month, so it's too soon to identify Bigelow's style and whether it will be successful. He stands out, for sure, wearing boots and a cowboy hat through hallways filled with suits. In fact, he doesn't remove the hat until the Assembly is called into session.

In demeanor, Bigelow sounds a lot like the other Republican legislators from our area -- conservative in philosophy but not a flamethrower and willing to work with the other side.

"Nothing good comes from temper tantrums," he told me. "We're here to be adults and think through the subjects they elect us to address. There's only 120 of us up here. We represent 38 million people. We've got to be thinkers. ... I'm not here to pick a fight with a Democrat or Republican."

As for staying in contact with his constituents, Bigelow plans to use telephone town halls and videoconferencing, as well as putting a lot of miles on the road. There are a lot of them running up and down the 5th Assembly District.

Sly is editor of The Modesto Bee Opinions pages. Contact her at jsly@modbee.com, (209) 578-2317 or on Twitter @judysly.

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