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Vince Fong secures last-minute victory to appear on ballot for Kevin McCarthy’s House seat

Vince Fong.
California State Assembly
Vince Fong.

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. – California Assemblyman Vince Fong prevailed in his battle with state officials over his right to compete for the congressional seat left vacant by Kevin McCarthy’s resignation – at least for now.

Secretary of State Shirley Weber announced she would appeal the ruling made Thursday by a Sacramento Superior Court judge. She previously deemed Fong ineligible to run for Congress because the two-term Assemblyman had already filed for reelection in his district.

State election code prohibits a candidate from running for two offices simultaneously, Weber argued. But Fong saw it differently. His attorneys argued the law was written a century ago, when political parties had more say in nominating candidates.

California has since moved to a so-called “jungle primary” system, in which all candidates from all political affiliations run against each other directly. That means two candidates from the same party can compete against each other in the general election, a possible outcome in the battle to replace McCarthy.

Because the code was written under an election system that no longer exists in California, Fong’s attorneys argued it should no longer apply. They further accused Weber of acting to “deny the will of voters” in her capacity as the state’s elections chief.

Weber has denied those accusations, saying her decision was motivated purely by her interpretation of the state’s election code.

The judge had to make a decision in the dispute by looking at relevant statutes, and while the ruling is a clear win for the Fong campaign, Judge Shelleyanne Chang’s remarks signaled potential rough waters ahead for the candidate.

The judge wrote that the matter isn’t fully resolved, as the fact that Fong may indeed run in two races could disenfranchise voters if Fong were to win both races. In that scenario, Bakersfield would be left without a representative either in Sacramento or Washington, D.C.

Los Angeles-area Assemblywoman Wendy Carillo issued a statement following the court decision and stated she will introduce policy to clear up the protocol should a similar situation arise again. Carillo said “under no circumstances should candidates be able to run for two offices at the same time, creating opportunities to win both.”

Weber, too, said in a statement on Friday her office plans to appeal the ruling "to ensure that voters in future elections will not become disenfranchised, be left without representation, or become subject to other unforeseen negative consequences that would erode confidence in our elections."

The court, despite siding with Fong, acknowledged it “somewhat defies common sense to find the law permits a candidate to run for two offices during the same election.”

“Statute is the sole basis” for siding with the assemblyman, judge Chang added.

But Fong celebrated the pre-primary victory.

“Today’s decision is a victory for voters in the 20th Congressional district, who will now have the opportunity to select the candidate of their choice in the March 5th election,” he stated in a press release. “I look forward to getting back on the campaign trail and working as hard as I can over the next several months to once again win the trust of Central Valley voters.”

Fong’s candidacy has so far been drama-filled

Other congressional hopefuls had already taken aim at Fong, who previously served as McCarthy’s chief of staff and already had his endorsement.

“The GOP has spent [three] years chastising Democrats for ignoring election laws during the 2020 election to benefit themselves and now here we are with Republicans doing the same thing,” David Gigilio wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

The Clovis card-shop owner describes himself as an America First Republican who had hoped to unseat McCarthy even before his resignation announcement.

Others blamed Fong’s predicament on McCarthy for fumbling his resignation.

In a scathing Christmas Eve editorial, The Bakersfield Californian wrote McCarthy was “only thinking about himself” when he dropped out of the race just before the state’s filing deadline.

With more notice, the newspaper’s editorial board argued, the drama in the district might have been avoided.

“If all this sounds like a big mess,” the board wrote, “it is.”

Now with Fong back on the ballot, according to the certified ballot sent to county elections offices on Thursday, 10 candidates will officially battle it out for House District 20 in March.

Among them is Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux, who announced his candidacy shortly after concerns about Fong’s eligibility were raised. He touted a history of toeing off with the state’s Democratic governor and legislature on public safety issues, including sentencing reforms.

Democrat Marissa Woods is also running for the seat again. Though, McCarthy defeated the Bakersfield teacher in last year’s runoff election by more than 30 points.

Fong will have a distinct advantage with McCarthy’s weight behind him. The former House Speaker leaves Congress with $10 million in the bank, some of which could give a boost to the Fong campaign.

McCarthy officially resigns from the House of Representatives on Dec. 31. In the meantime, the district will be left without a representative until a special election is completed early next year. Governor Gavin Newsom’s office stated a date would be set mid-January.

The winner of that race will serve the remainder of McCarthy’s term through 2024. The winner of November’s General Election – the 10 candidates vying – would head to Washington in January 2025.

Joshua Yeager is a Report For America corps reporter covering Kern County for KVPR.