Her fingernails may not show it, but there's no mistaking that Carolyn Leavens loves the fertile land she has farmed for nearly four decades.
The 57-year-old rancher running for Susan K. Lacey's seat on the Ventura County Board of Supervisors speaks with relish of planting lemon seedlings, rearing four children and balancing the books on her family's 800-acre citrus and avocado ranch.
Her hero is Norman E. Borlaug, a Nobel laureate who developed grains that flourish in Third World countries. She describes the lettering on her big pastel campaign signs as "agricultural, or orange-leaf green" on a peach background.
Some of her comments might sound like pastoral cliches were they not obviously sincere.
Leavens' background has also helped in a more practical way, allowing her to tap the pockets and bend the ears of many old ranching families. The names Teague, McKevett, Thille and Jewitt adorn her campaign contribution roster--as do those of local power brokers from the Bank of A. Levy, the TOLD Corp. and Utt Development.
But in spite of rallying some prominent backers, Leavens, a forthright, white-haired woman with cornflower blue eyes, has also risked alienating voters bent on keeping every acre of open land in Ventura County untouched.
Of the five candidates vying for the seat that includes Ventura, most of the Ojai Valley and the Saticoy-Montalvo area, Leavens alone favors revising the longstanding county guidelines that govern growth and green space. If she is to wrest control from Lacey, a two-time incumbent, Leavens will have to convince no-growth advocates and environmentalists that some change in those guidelines is not only inevitable, but also beneficial. And she will have to walk an ideological tightrope between the seemingly contradictory interests of ranchers and developers while forging her own identity.
Leavens, who has served on civic and state boards for years but never held elected office, must collect more than 50% of the vote in the June 7 primary for an outright win. If no candidate does that, the top two contenders will square off in November.
Leavens and Lacey also face competition from writer/consultant Robert W. McKay, a former president of the California Wildlife Federation; real estate agent Herschel M. Johnson, a 23-year U.S. Navy veteran, and Gary Wean, an Oak View businessman.
Leavens has been endorsed by five past presidents of the Ventura Chamber of Commerce, Assemblyman Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), state Sen. Ed Davis (R-Valencia) and Reps. Robert J. Lagomarsino (R-Ojai) and Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), to name a few.
John Sullard, a Ventura councilman, said a win by Leavens "would show a political shift from Democrat to Republican and . . . to more pro-growth."
Leavens dismisses this as nonsense, contending that the election last year of Republican Madge Schaeffer, who represents the Thousand Oaks area, did nothing to interject partisan politics into the supervisorial board.
Cites Leadership Roles
The political neophyte does not see her lack of experience as a stumbling block. Instead, she cites her leadership roles in agricultural and taxpayer organizations for more than a decade.
Starting in 1976, Leavens served on the board of the Ventura Taxpayers' Assn., the watchdog organization that analyzes bonds and propositions. She was the 1982-83 president.
"She can analyze dollars and cents. She stays well-educated and well-informed on issues," said Del Pickarts, a former president of the taxpayers association who worked closely with Leavens.
Also in 1976, Leavens founded the Ventura affiliate of the 5,000-member California Women for Agriculture and became its first president. She moved steadily up the ranks, serving as state president in 1981 and, from 1983 to 1985, as president of the 35,000-member American Agri-Women, the national umbrella organization of women farmers and ranchers.
For a decade, Leavens also sat on boards that help advise the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its state counterpart, and served on agriculture advisory councils for several University of California campuses.
Traveled to Capitals
It was as an officer of women's farm groups that Leavens first traveled to Sacramento and Washington to meet legislators and lobby for laws favorable to ranchers. Leavens also has testified before the Assembly Labor Committee and at Environmental Protection Agency hearings on issues that range from seasonal farm labor to the use of pesticides.
In land-use matters, Leavens was part of a citizens' committee that helped advise the Local Agency Formation Commission on a regional land-use program.
But Leavens said the political spirit did not move her until last fall, when she began a stint on the Ventura County Grand Jury.
Her assignment was to attend Board of Supervisors' meetings, take notes and report back to the grand jury. And Leavens recalls some things that disturbed her.