PALMDALE — For the past 20 years, change has been sweeping through the Antelope Valley like a high desert wind.
The population has grown fivefold, including an influx of blacks and Latinos. Fast roads now link the cities of Palmdale and Lancaster to L.A.'s urban core 70 miles away. Retail growth is mushrooming, with Joshua trees vanishing into Costcos and Carl's Jrs.
But one aspect of life in the Antelope Valley hasn't changed--the political scene. The area remains the most staunchly conservative region in Los Angeles County, political observers say.
Witness Kevin W. Carney, the sheriff's sergeant elected Nov. 2 to the Palmdale City Council--four days after he was arrested on suspicion of molesting a 14-year-old girl.
Carney, an outspoken conservative, used his anti-diversity, pro-school prayer views to tap into a well-organized network of church groups, right-wing activists and Republican businessmen. That support helped him build a bank of absentee votes before his arrest that proved decisive.
Carney was popular even before the council election. He served on the local high school board, and as a sheriff's sergeant he embodied the spirit of law and order that attracted many residents to the High Desert.
But many Antelope Valley politicians, both friends and foes of Carney's, said the conservative groups that endorsed him and helped pay for his campaign wield enormous clout in the region.
"How else would an accused child molester get elected?" asked Palmdale Mayor Jim Ledford, a self-described moderate Republican. "The far right controls everything here. They've made nonpartisan elections partisan. They are better financed and better organized than anybody else. That's how it's always been."
Ledford is part of the tight circle of white, middle-aged Republican men who run the Antelope Valley. Others in the power grid are Assemblyman George Runner (R-Lancaster), who founded a church school, and William "Pete" Knight (R-Palmdale), a right-wing state senator who is leading the charge against same-sex marriage.
"In politics, there's a big clique up here and it needs to get weeded out," said Palmdale resident Bob Rogers.
That's why Rogers said he voted for a 20-year-old college kid, Carlos Chavez, who ran for mayor but lost: "What the heck, how can he do any wrong? He may have brought some new blood in."
Old Guard a Potent Force
The Antelope Valley Republican Assembly is one of the most powerful political organizations of the old guard, according to Republicans and Democrats. A conservative group formed in 1977, it backs candidates who are traditionally anti-tax, anti-gun control and anti-abortion. Its president, Wayne Woodhall, is a retired aerospace engineer who is now an emu rancher.
Woodhall spent a recent morning on his emu ranch south of Palmdale trying to reconnect with his flock of 150 flightless birds he had neglected during the recent election cycle.
"Remember our rule, Red," Woodhall told a recalcitrant emu who pecked his hand when approached. "You have to be a friend to have a friend."
Woodhall sees himself as typical of many Antelope Valley residents: He came to get away from the values of "down there" as he calls L.A. He believes creationism should be taught in school and calls the laws of physics "God's laws."
Those views were echoed in 1995 with the "Contract with Antelope Valley Families," backed by seven candidates, including Carney, who was then running for a seat on the board of the Antelope Valley Union High School District. Similar to the Republican Party's "Contract With America," the tenets opposed teaching about sexual orientation and multiculturalism, and supported campuswide moments of silence.
Carney won his race that year, continuing the conservative majority that ran the board for years.
Back then, Carney was supported by the Antelope Valley Republican Assembly. He's a member of the group and won its endorsement for the City Council race this year.
Twelve of the 18 local candidates in this election cycle who were supported by the conservative assembly won their seats. Among the city councils and elementary school boards in Lancaster and Palmdale, the Antelope Valley Community College Board and the Antelope Valley Union High School District, all but two are controlled by a majority of either Republican assembly members or candidates endorsed by the assembly.
"If you're not endorsed by AVRA, the chances of you winning an election are slim," said Sandy Corrales, a registered Democrat who lost to Carney by 97 votes. Absentee votes were her downfall; Corrales' 169 mail-ins fell far short of Carney's 410, the most absentee ballots of any candidate.
Backed Nixon as a Teenager
Carney, who is 48, married and the father of three adult children, walked precincts for candidate Richard Nixon as a teen.