SANTA BARBARA — Environmentalists here know Bill Wallace, a veterinarian by trade and chairman of the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors, as a strong friend of slow-growth policies.
Frustrated developers, on the other hand, call him Dr. No. "He's anti-everything," said Jerry Beaver, president of Beaver-Free Corp. in Santa Barbara. "The attitude is stop everything at any cost because any growth is bad."
Like him or not, the Nov. 3 election in which Wallace faces a well-financed, business-backed candidate could end the era of slow-growth policies in coastal Santa Barbara County.
"This election is extremely pivotal--the stakes are terribly high," said Charles Cappel, chairman of the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business, a group backing Wallace's opponent, rancher Willy Chamberlin.
After his first election to the five-member Board of Supervisors in 1976, Wallace was the lone liberal voice. In recent years, he has anchored a solid slow-growth majority that made county government here as sympathetic to environmentalist concerns as any in Southern California.
As a member of the Isla Vista Community Council in the early 1970s, Wallace would show up for meetings in hippie-style garb, and he is rarely seen in a tie. Early in his political career, he founded Friends of the Water Table, an environmental protection group, and organized a ballot initiative that imposed a moratorium on new water hookups.
Wallace, 52, has more recently opposed several proposals to connect Santa Barbara to the State Water Project, arguing that it would open the county to large-scale new development.
In four elections, Wallace has won easily without facing a runoff. "He has had a slow-growth, liberal constituency and as long as he voted that way, he was not going to lose," said David Yager, a former supervisor.
In the primary last June in Wallace's 3rd District, Chamberlin, a rancher from the rural Santa Ynez Valley making his first run for office, won 49.9% of the vote in a four-candidate race. Wallace came in second with 37.7%, escaping defeat by 20 votes.
Chamberlin is backed in the runoff by pro-growth interests such as the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business. Another Supervisor, Mike Stoker, has helped pay for Chamberlin's television commercials.
The stakes in the 3rd District--which reaches from Goleta north to Lompoc--are being viewed by many around Santa Barbara County as the difference between night and day.
"This election will decide whether the majority voting bloc on the board will remain basically liberal and environmentalist or whether it will swing to a pro-business, pro-growth slant," said Katie Crawford, a former member of the Goleta Water Board.
If Chamberlin is elected, environmentalists say, the pro-growth lobby will have a majority of the board. In the June primary, a challenger backed by Stoker defeated Supervisor Dianne Owens, a Wallace ally.
"They simply want three puppets up here," Wallace said in an interview.
Chamberlin, 52, calls such talk scare-mongering. "I do not believe this race is one that should be pro-growth versus no-growth," he said. Rather, it is one that pits a "pro-private sector and pro-economy" candidate against an incumbent who has "put stumbling blocks in the way of every business in Santa Barbara County."
If he is elected, Chamberlin said, he will try to provide a "level playing field so that we have a balance between the environment and the economy."
Wallace blamed his poor showing in June on a general anti-incumbent sentiment and a redrawing of his district, which subtracted voters from his base around Goleta and added more conservative areas in the northern part of the county.
Some political observers say that Wallace also may have lost some credibility last year when voters passed a measure tying Santa Barbara to the State Water Project over his objections. Amid the recession, his rigorous slow-growth views may also have lost some appeal.
"I think (the recession) on top of this whole water business . . . has made a lot of people question their allegiance to the slow-growth, environmental group who tend to be a bit inflexible," said Crawford, who broke ranks with Wallace over the question of state water.
But other watchers of the Santa Barbara political scene say voters may still reelect Wallace on Nov. 3. They note that the field has been trimmed to two candidates and that Wallace should benefit from a higher turnout in the more liberal south end of the county fueled by interest in the presidential election.
Wallace, who says this would be his last term, has promised to conduct a more vigorous campaign than he ran in the spring. Fund-raising efforts include concerts featuring Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne. In contrast to the primary campaign, there will be TV commercials.