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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS | ELECTIONS

Local Campaigns Keep It Clean, With a Few Exceptions

November 05, 2000|DARYL KELLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Measure O as a wolf in sheep's clothing. Tony Strickland as an armed and dangerous gunslinger. Uncle Sam peeping through a keyhole as an agent of Elton Gallegly. Two council candidates as part of a pro-growth recipe for disaster in Thousand Oaks.

That is about as negative as Ventura County campaigns got in this year of gentlemanly politics.

"Candidates don't want to arouse the voters' anger with last-minute smears," said Jamie Fisfis, political director for the Assembly Republican Caucus. "But I do believe the worst is yet to come. In the end, candidates typically fall back to their old ways and blast away."

Just two days before the Nov. 7 election, most Ventura County campaigns have followed the model of civility that is the U.S. presidential race, focusing mostly on issues and personal qualifications in a rash of fliers and brochures, as well as radio and television ads.

For many of Ventura County's 387,075 registered voters, those final images--candidates with families, candidates in classrooms, candidates citing opponents' records--will be what sticks in the mind following a number of campaigns that were among the costliest in county history.

Spending records were set this fall in half a dozen races for Congress, the state Assembly, county supervisor, the Thousand Oaks council, and the $2-million-plus Measure O initiative that would transfer control of $260 million in tobacco settlement funds from county government to private hospitals.

Most of those campaigns kept it relatively clean compared with the angry, personal attacks of the past.

"I think candidates realize that negative campaigning not only won't resonate with voters this year, it will backfire," said Carolyn Leavens, a prominent county Republican. "I think people are sick to death of smear tactics."

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The 37th Assembly District race between one-term Assemblyman Strickland (R-Moorpark) and Democrat Roz McGrath, a Somis kindergarten teacher, has perhaps the hardest edge of all local races.

It also may be one of the closest, after McGrath lost to Strickland by just one percentage point when they first battled for the Assembly in 1998. And her campaign has almost twice as much money--at least $800,000--to spend this time. Strickland's contributions exceed $1 million.

A series of hard-hitting mailers, paid for by the state Democratic Party, has hammered away at Strickland's record on gun control, women's issues, health care, education and the environment.

The gunslinger mailer depicts on its cover a cowboy with pistols drawn. Inside, the flier states, "Tony Strickland, Armed and Dangerously Out of Touch." It features Strickland's opposition to mandatory trigger locks on guns and his stance against tougher penalties for selling "Saturday Night Specials." It notes his campaign contributions from the National Rifle Assn. and conservative Christian broadcaster Edward Atsinger III: "Far Right Gives Strickland $100,000."

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The cover of another mailer shows a man in a gas mask surrounded by smoke. "Pollution? No Problem," it says. Then it recounts Strickland's purported negative record on the environment.

That left Strickland to cite his own squeaky-clean ad campaign and compare it to the Democrats' attacks. He responded with a statement by former Republican Rep. Robert Lagomarsino, who likened McGrath's campaign with the nasty assault of millionaire Michael Huffington, who knocked off Lagomarsino in 1992.

"Roz McGrath is continually misrepresenting Tony's votes," Lagomarsino said in a campaign press release, "and unfairly attacking one of the hardest working Assembly members."

McGrath said she had nothing to do with the ads. "The Democratic Party did it," she said.

Strickland also answered back in ads paid for by the state Republican Party, a series of mailers reproducing the controversial covers of the Democratic mailers and asking: "What's Wrong With Roz?"

Inside, one reads: "Roz McGrath is on her third run for the Assembly. In their desperation, her campaign advisors have filled your mail boxes with half truths and distortions about Assemblyman Tony Strickland's record . . . It's your typical million dollar slash and burn say anything to get elected campaign."

"We encourage our candidates to hit back when they're hit," said Fisfis, of the Assembly Republican Caucus. "But according to our tracking polls, that piece on guns didn't work. They tried to attack, but Tony won the argument 22% to 19%, and 45% said they didn't care. So it was a net gain for Tony for them to attack."

Phil Giarrizzo, director of McGrath's campaign, said Strickland has spent two years promoting himself while in the Assembly, so the challenger's task is to shine a hot light on his record, which is much too conservative for the 37th District.

"Those aren't attack pieces," Giarrizzo said. "They're a statement of his record. We have hammered at his record."

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