Thursday, October 7, 2004
The last round of gerrymandering by the state legislature wiped the Monterey Bay area off the political map.
The re-drawing of the state Senate District map, which occurred in 2000, ensured that on Nov. 2, when voters elect a new politician to fill Sen. Bruce McPherson’s 15th District seat, the local representative will live at least 140 miles away.
When Sacramento redrew district lines, it split the county in two, separating the Monterey Peninsula from the Salinas Valley. The new 15th extends for 220 miles, from Silicon Valley to northern Santa Barbara County, including all of San Luis Obispo County.
The district will hold its first election next month, pitting Santa Maria Republican Abel Maldonado against San Luis Obispo Democrat Peg Pinard. It’s expected to be one of the closest races in the state.
While most other Senate districts were drawn as safe seats, to protect either Democrats or Republicans in office, the 15th could go either way. Forty percent of its voters are Republicans, and 38.3 percent are Democrats, according to the Secretary of State.
Carl Pohlhammer, who chairs the Monterey County Democratic Central Committee, says it’s one of the most important races in the state for two reasons.
First of all, he says, it’s one of only two Senate races in the state that could go either way. “All the rest have been gerrymandered into one party or the other,” he says.
“And second,” he says, “the Democrats have a majority in the Senate right now, but it’s not quite enough to override what you could call a Republican legislative veto. The absolute refusal of Republican legislators to go along with any tax increase has completely stymied everything except deficit spending.
“We have one thing to do, and that’s elect Peg Pinard.”
He says the Democrats are confident.
“The state Democratic Party is not going to put well over $1.5 million into a campaign,” he says, “unless they think, A, it’s crucial, and B, they have a good chance to win.”
The state Democratic Party has dumped almost $2 million in Pinard’s campaign coffers, and Maldonado says he’ll spent $1.5 million. And both candidates have called in party big dogs: Maldonado’s got the endorsement of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and outgoing state Sen. Bruce McPherson, who appears in nearly every Maldonado-for-Senate TV commercial.
Pinard’s endorsed by powerful Dems, including US Congressman Sam Farr, former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, outgoing state Senate Pro Tem John Burton and incoming Senate Pro Tem Don Perata, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez, and Monterey County Assemblymen John Laird and Simón Salinas.
Both candidates list the economy, education and the environment as their top three priorities, and both like to emphasize their crossover appeal—Pinard by stressing the need for fiscal accountability and responsibility in Sacramento, and Maldonado by touting his farmworker roots and downplaying his Republicanism. (He repeated “I’m independent” about a dozen times in a recent League of Women Voters debate in Seaside.)
But that’s where the similarities end.
Maldonado’s a three-term Assemblyman in a Republican district who won 62.7 percent of the vote in his last race. He’s also a former mayor and city councilman.
Pinard’s a San Luis Obispo County supervisor and former mayor and city councilwoman. A Democrat, she won 70 percent of the vote in her last election in Republican San Luis Obispo County.
Maldonado blames the current fiscal woes on “five years of overspending” in Sacramento.
As a local official, Pinard’s familiar with the state’s habit of balancing it’s budget on the backs of cities and counties.
She describes herself as a “fiscal conservative,” and she prides herself in balancing her local budgets without raising taxes, finding ways to cut $3.3 million from the San Luis Obispo City’s budget without losing jobs or public services.
Based on her environmental record, both the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters have endorsed Pinard.
The Conservation Voters’ Environmental Scorecard gave Maldonado a failing grade—43 out of a top score of 100 in 2003 and only a 29 of 100 in 2002—for voting against bills intended to advance water and air quality, and for, they say, protecting special interests at the expense of public health and environment.
When it comes to education, Pinard’s got first-hand experience. She served two years in the Peace Corps in the Philippines as a math teacher, and upon returning to the US, she taught migrant farm workers in the High School Equivalency Program in San Luis Obispo.
As Mayor of San Luis Obispo, Pinard started an afterschool program for at-risk youth called Students Taking Active Responsibility (STAR). She faults the recently-approved state budget for cutting funding for local schools, community colleges, the California State University system and the University of California System. She also won the endorsement of the California Federation of Teachers.
“The best thing Maldonado can say is, ‘Yes, I’ve voted for smaller class sizes,’” Pohlhammer says.
“Peg Pinard has a reputation as a winner, even in Republican San Luis Obispo County,” Pohlhammer says.
In fact, she’s never lost a race.
“She’s won her races substantially. She has been very strong on environmental issues and educational issues and civil rights’ issues. She’s been supportive of affordable housing, and that’s a major issue here.”
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“If you call me to go to your home, I will go to your home,” Maldonado said, in the closing minutes of Sunday’s Seaside debate.
But after three weeks and numerous phone calls requesting an interview with the Assemblyman, his campaign still wouldn’t set a date.
Pinard, on the other hand, met with the Weekly at Starbucks, which has become her home away from home for meetings with reporters from Saratoga to Santa Maria.
Pinard’s direct and energetic—a little feisty, even. “I say what I mean, and I do what I say,” she says.
She orders a decaf mocha, with “just a little” whipped cream. “Just sin a little, right?” And she starts right in on the state budget.
“Both parties let us down,” she says. “This is the first time in California history we’ve ever passed a bond just to pay debt. If you ask the average person, ‘Do you believe all of your tax money is spent efficiently and wisely?’ I don’t think you will get a ‘yes’ answer.”
Pinard supports saving money through smart planning, the kind of planning she fought for in San Luis Obispo, steering new housing and development into existing neighborhoods and business areas. This eliminates the need for new roads and sewer systems, and additional cops and firefighters, she says.
She also talks about cutting waste in government commissions and layers of bureaucracy.
“There’s a lot of duplication,” she says. “Sometimes we have a good idea, but we have five ways of doing it, which costs a lot of money.”
To illustrate her point, she describes the cleanup of Avila Beach. She uses this example often in the conversation, to demonstrate her ability to work with government agencies, to demonstrate her commitment to the environment, and to demonstrate her ability to get the job done.
Here’s the story: For more than 100 years, over a half-million gallons of crude oil, gasoline and diesel fuel leaked from Unocal pipelines beneath the town of Avila Beach. For more than a decade Unocal did nothing.
Shortly after being elected County Supervisor in ‘96, Pinard began work on negotiating a settlement agreement with Unocal. It required the oil company to temporarily relocate residents, dig up the contaminated soil, and rebuild the town.
Some of the mitigation funds from the cleanup were used to preserve thousands of acres of coastal hills and open space. She also negotiated 33 new affordable homes out of the deal.
The California Attorney General called the negotiation, “perhaps the largest environmental settlement in California history.”
“Now this spill was larger than Exxon Valdez, only it was on the ground,” Pinard says. “I got all the agencies to work together and we got the job done. And Unocal is now my supporter.
“We need to see more of this working together at the state level. We don’t have to give up the goal of clean air, clear water, of preserving our coastline and open space. We don’t have to diminish our values; we just have to make our processes work better. And I did that.”
As mayor, she also made the city more “pedestrian friendly” through smart-growth changes to the General Plan, and upped the affordable housing requirement.
The old rules required new subdivisions to build one affordable unit for every 10 new homes, or developers could buy their way out. Pinard’s General Plan required one affordable home for every five market-rate units. Period. No buying out.
She says the redrawn Senate maps “make no sense.” (Her opponent voted for the new districts.) And although she lives one county away, Pinard insists she can effectively represent the Monterey Peninsula.
“A lot of the issues Monterey faces are very similar [to San Luis Obispo’s],” she says. “People who live here are concerned about coastal protection, and they are sensitive to the environment. There are also the very common issues of water, housing and traffic. And taken to the state level, you also have the issues of education and health care.
“I’m already known throughout my own district as being extremely accessible,” she continues. “I have people call me up and I have to say, ‘You know, you are actually in so-and-so’s district.’ They say, ‘I know, but they don’t return my phone calls.’”
Pinard does return phone calls, and that, at least, is more than we can say about her opponent.