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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS | DECISION 2000 : ELECTIONS

Measure O Failing as Voter Turnout Hits 78%

November 08, 2000|STEVE CHAWKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Resisting the most expensive initiative campaign in Ventura County history, voters on Tuesday appeared to be overwhelmingly rejecting Measure O, a bitterly debated attempt by private hospitals to seize the county's $260-million tobacco settlement.

In one of two county supervisors races, voters were leaning toward selecting slow-growth advocate Steve Bennett, co-author of the county's stringent restrictions on developing farmland.

In the other supervisorial contest, incumbent supervisor Kathy Long was locked in a tight race with challenger Mike Morgan.

An unusually high number of residents cast their votes, drawn to the polls by the nip-and-tuck presidential campaign, the heated debate over Measure O, the two supervisors' races and a variety of city, state and congressional contests. Election officials said 78% of the registered voters participated, compared with 66% in 1996.

"We haven't been over 70% since 1992," said Bruce Bradley, the county's elections chief.

Early returns indicated that Measure O, a proposal initiated by Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura, was failing by a substantial margin.

"Obviously the numbers don't look good," acknowledged Mark Barnhill, a spokesman for the hospitals promoting the measure. "But the folks associated with this campaign are extraordinarily proud of the measure's success in focusing the people of Ventura County on health care. Ten months ago, the Board of Supervisors was saying that health care was a blip on their radar screen."

Last month, the supervisors vowed to spend the settlement exclusively on health care--a decision they wouldn't have made, Barnhill contended, without the pressure of Measure O.

For their part, opponents of Measure O were grateful.

"This is extremely good news," said David Maron, a spokesman for No on Measure O. "It shows that absentee voters and others were able to look at the initiative and make an informed decision without falling for the marketing spin from CMH."

In the supervisorial races, voters seemed to be choosing Steve Bennett over longtime Ventura City Councilman Jim Monahan. The two are opposites in many ways, with Bennett an Ivy League-educated economics teacher and Monahan a businessman who found success without leaving his hometown of Ventura.

Bennett said his apparent good showing stemmed not from the force of his personality, but from "the issues I represent, that my candidacy represents--common-sense policies about the budget, campaign finance reform and continuing efforts to slow urban sprawl."

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Meanwhile, Supervisor Long was in a tough battle with challenger Morgan, a vigorous critic of her role in the county's botched mental health merger.

"She's the incumbent, but she also has baggage she's had to overcome," said Morgan, alluding to the merger. "When you lose millions of dollars like that, that's a lot to overcome."

In a rematch of the state's closest election in 1998, former kindergarten teacher Roz McGrath, a Democrat, was trailing Assemblyman Tony Strickland (R-Moorpark) the state Assembly's youngest member. Two years ago, Strickland edged out McGrath by 1,600 votes.

As usual, most incumbents seemed to be faring well. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) maintained a lead in his bid to represent the 24th Congressional District, which covers a portion of the Conejo Valley as well as Malibu and parts of the San Fernando Valley.

Voters also were leaning toward returning Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) to Sacramento. Jackson's district includes Ventura, Ojai, Santa Paula and most of Santa Barbara County.

Trying for reelection to the congressional post he has held since 1986, Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) was leading his Democratic opponent, Ventura attorney Michael Case. Case, the founder of Ventura's largest law firm, was seen as one of the strongest Democrats to challenge Gallegly, with support from seven of his district's 10 mayors, teachers groups, and several traditionally Republican farm owners.

Scanning the early results, Case said he received less funding from the Democratic party than he had hoped.

"There were already four big races in California and they became more expensive than anyone expected," he said. Gallegly, on the other hand, said he emerged from the campaign with $600,000 in the bank -- money his polls indicated he didn't need to spend.

"I think this shows that Elton fits this district," he said.

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Several contests triggered unprecedented spending, with commercials saturating radio and TV, and a cascade of glossy fliers pouring into voters' mailboxes.

More than $1.6 million went for advertising in the race between McGrath and Strickland. Two years ago, they spent half that in a race to represent an Assembly district stretching from Oxnard to Thousand Oaks.

Part of a pioneer Ventura County farming family, McGrath depicted her opponent as "a right-wing extremist . . . an ideologue who's out of touch with the constituents of his district."

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