SACRAMENTO -- When state Sen. Dave Cogdill unexpectedly announced last year that he would not seek a second term, he opened up a coveted Republican-controlled seat that connects Modesto to eastern Fresno County.
Some of Fresno's bigger political players passed on a run for the 14th District, leaving the GOP field to an incumbent Assembly member from the north valley and four relative newcomers to politics.
The contenders square off in the June 8 primary in a district that has been served by valley political heavyweights that include Chuck Poochigian and Ken Maddy.
Republicans hold a 47 percent to 34 percent voter registration edge in the district; 52 percent of all its registered voters live in Fresno County and 17 percent live in Stanislaus. The district includes Madera and Sonora.
The lone Democrat running is Larry Johnson of Clovis, a retired airline pilot who owns an aviation insurance company.
Based on endorsements and fund raising, the GOP favorite looks to be Tom Berryhill, R-Oakdale, a second-term Assembly member.
He reported $139,673 cash on hand as of the latest reporting period in late March, with the other candidates raising far less or nothing at all. Berryhill has the backing of a host of elected officials, including Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin and Cogdill, R-Modesto, who is leaving the seat to run for assessor of Stanislaus County.
Berryhill's challengers are trying to make an issue of the fact he only recently moved to the district, though he's lived in the vicinity his whole life.
Berryhill's Modesto residence was just outside the 14th, so he moved to Oakdale in January. Opponents say he falls short of a requirement in the state constitution that candidates live within the district for one year before the election.
"He should drop out of the race to let this state know that as an assemblyman, he's following the rules," said Tom Marsella, a competitor from Fresno.
Another candidate, Heidi Fuller, challenged Berryhill's candidacy in court but lost the case before Sacramento County Superior Court Timothy Frawley. He cited legal precedents involving local races that say residency restrictions should not be enforced in excess of 30 days from the time the candidate files to run, to protect their rights under the U.S. Constitution. Fuller is seeking an opinion from the state Supreme Court.
Said Berryhill: "I've done everything legally and the cases that they brought against me were absolutely frivolous. ... That's the only way they could get free press, so they keep hammering on it."
Berryhill, 56, farms wine grapes in Ceres. His time in the Assembly has been dominated by partisan debates over how to solve the state's gaping budget holes. He has mostly kept strict Republican positions, opposing tax increases and voting against most budget compromises pushed by moderate Republican Gov. Schwarzenegger.
But he has shown an independent streak, too. Last year, he earned a 67 percent voting score from the ultraconservative California Republican Assembly group, the lowest score among San Joaquin Valley GOP lawmakers.
"It's way too easy in these safe seats to sit on your hands and vote 'no' all of the time," he said. "I've tried to come up here and get something done."
Among his biggest legislative achievements is an anti-metal-theft bill passed in 2008 that requires junk dealers to collect more information from customers. The legislation was cheered by farm groups.
Berryhill's stiffest challenge might come from Marsella, the only Republican running from voter-rich Fresno County. The 69-year-old financial adviser is making his first election bid since he lost an Assembly race in 1978.
"People have been asking me for years to run, run, run," said Marsella, who has the support of former Fresno Mayor Jim Patterson and Bob Smittcamp, a politically active east side farmer.
Like all Republicans in the race, Marsella is staking fiscally conservative positions. He says he would push for tax cuts and offshore oil drilling. One key difference between the two candidates: Berryhill supports the $11 billion water bond on November's ballot. Marsella opposes it, saying it is too expensive.
Fuller, of tiny Columbia near Sonora, has been in the race the longest. She planned to take on Cogdill and blast his decision to vote for new taxes as part of a budget deal he negotiated as GOP leader.
"It was a grave disappointment to everyone who voted for him," she said.
The 46-year-old stay-at-home mom is a former utility industry consultant who in the 1980s was an Arabic linguist for the Air Force.
She aligns herself with the tea party movement, is against the water bond and wants to cut state worker payrolls by 10 percent every year for the next five years.
Like Fuller, Bret de St. Jeor of Modesto is making his first run for public office. He owns a packaging business in Oakdale and says, "I'm just really tired of the way California is treating business owners." His ideas include banning unannounced visits by the state's Division of Occupational Safety and Health, which he says are a burden for business owners. He has no position on the water bond, saying he is not familiar with its details.
Tim Campi also is a political rookie. He lives in Manteca but commutes to San Jose, where he is an engineer for a company that makes semiconductors. He favors ending regulations such as no-burn days for fireplaces. He does not have a position on the water bond.
"I haven't actually read it, so I couldn't give you an opinion as of yet," he said.