Early in his campaign for mayor of Simi Valley, Greg Stratton scarcely mentioned his three opponents, preferring to focus on his own accomplishments in seven years as a city councilman.
Now, as Election Day approaches, Stratton not only notices his opponents but must face the possibility of losing to one of them.
Considered the one to beat from the day he entered the race, Stratton was quickly endorsed by outgoing Mayor Elton Gallegly and his other council colleagues. But Stratton has since been heavily outspent--and, some argue, out-campaigned--by rival Tom Ely.
Ely, president of the Ventura County Community College District Board of Trustees, has raised about $35,000--more than anyone who ever ran for a city office in Simi Valley. Ely, a former insurance salesman, is retired and has campaigned night and day. Stratton still must put in time at his job as an engineering manager for Teledyne Systems Co. in Chatsworth.
As a result, political observers say, Ely has saturated Simi Valley with campaign signs and political advertising.
"He has closed the gap," said one observer closely associated with city politics who did not want to be identified. "He has run an aggressive, slick campaign that's thrown Greg off track."
The change from front-runner to possible victim of an upset has caused Stratton, 40, to modify his strategy of focusing on his own record. He is now attacking Ely's.
Stratton, who has raised a little more than $10,000, conceded that Ely's $35,000 war chest allowed him to buy advertising "that might have some impact" on voters.
Each man charged the other with souring the campaign by mudslinging and distortion.
"They've seen the numbers, they've seen the momentum on our side and they've reached down in the barrel and started pulling out handfuls of mud," said Ely, 50, who took offense at Stratton's assertion that Ely was "the best candidate that developers can buy."
The two went at it again Thursday night during a political forum at Moorpark College. The session was also attended by the two other candidates for mayor--engineering designer Gene Baker and Wilburn Owens, a retired plant operations worker at California State University, Northridge--as well as most of the candidates for City Council.
When candidates were allowed to ask questions of one another, Stratton and Ely accused each other of taking too many campaign contributions from developers. Donations from developers are an issue in Simi Valley because of the controversy surrounding two sets of competing ballot measures aimed at curbing growth and development on the city's hillsides.
Stratton accused Ely of being a "hypocrite" for saying he will vote against all four growth-curb measures even though he has contributed money to the campaign supporting the passage of the two less-restrictive measures endorsed by the City Council.
The councilman also raised the issue of expense accounts Ely submitted as a trustee of the community college board, which he says are generally higher than those of the other board members.
Deflects Both Issues
Ely deflected both issues, saying he contributed to the council's growth measures because they represent the more reasonable alternative. He said his expenses for mileage and telephone calls for community-college business are higher because he lives 79 miles from the district's Ventura headquarters.
Many of those who know him say Stratton is uncomfortable in the role of attacker. But they worry that Ely has gained momentum with an aggressive, highly visible campaign.
"There is no question this is going to be a tough one to call," said Gallegly, who did not run for reelection to the mayor's post in order to run for Congress in the 21st District. "It's definitely Greg's race to win or lose."
Others agree. But they add that Stratton may have committed political blunders that crimped his ability to equal the money that Ely has collected.
One of those mistakes, according to Assemblywoman Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley), is what she called Stratton's inconsistency. "Greg's waffled on a lot of issues, and people remember that," said Wright, a former Simi Valley mayor who has not endorsed a candidate but who signed Ely's nomination papers.
Another observer repeated the frequent criticism that Stratton fumbled badly when he hesitated in opposing the two more restrictive growth measures placed on Tuesday's ballot by a citizens group.
Wright said Stratton never established ties to the business community, which is reflected in business leaders' lukewarm response to his fund-raising efforts.