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DECISION 2000

Not Half the Conservatives They Used to Be

November 09, 2000|DARYL KELLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like the nation as a whole, Ventura County has developed a split personality.

This county, always reliably conservative overall, showed its two political faces Tuesday.

It split down the middle when selecting a president, favoring Democrat Al Gore by 510 votes, or 0.2%, before 41,000 late-arriving absentee and damaged ballots are counted over the next few days.

It sent four Republicans and two Democrats to the Legislature and Congress, electing every incumbent on the ballot.

It trounced the Republican-backed student voucher initiative and supported new taxes by allowing school bonds to be approved by only 55% of voters, not two-thirds.

And always a bastion of support for law enforcement, it went the other way this time, preferring a statewide initiative that requires drug treatment, not jail, for convicted first-time drug users.

"We've become a county that can swing either way," said Bruce Bradley, chief of county elections. "And the split is between the [Republican] east county and the [Democratic] west."

After favoring Republicans Nixon, Ford and Reagan, county voters supported Clinton twice narrowly and now Gore, at least until election officials finish counting conservative-leaning absentee ballots Monday.

"It's not the same county any more," said Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), easily elected to his eighth term. "There's a difference between the kind of Republican you have now as compared to 10 years ago: It's moved a little bit closer to the center.

"It hasn't become liberal East Coast Republican or Silicon Valley Republican or Beverly Hills Republican," he said. "But they're moderate conservatives, not the hard conservatives a lot of people have made them out to be."

As Ventura County was showing its centrist stripes, it also maintained its slow-growth tinge.

The county's vaunted anti-sprawl Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources movement got a split decision as Santa Paula adopted a growth-control measure, but Fillmore rejected two such initiatives. Seven of 10 local cities--and voters countywide--have now imposed growth boundaries that can't be expanded without a vote of the people.

At the same time, SOAR showed it has legs in local politics as its leaders secured seats on city councils in Moorpark and Thousand Oaks and the co-author of the countywide SOAR measure, Steve Bennett, won a seat on the county Board of Supervisors.

"The culture of Ventura County has changed," Bennett said. "SOAR is now a mainstream part of the culture. Stopping urban sprawl and protecting the quality of our lives cuts across the traditional liberal-conservative split."

And, in a dramatic statement, voters rejected 2 to 1 Community Memorial Hospital's $2.3-million Measure O campaign, an initiative that played off voter distrust of county leaders in an effort to shift $260 million in public money to private hospitals.

County Democratic Chairman Hank Lacayo said he sees a lesson in the costly Measure O loss as compared with the expensive win by environmental candidates Ed Masry and Linda Parks in Thousand Oaks.

"I'm a bit confused," mused a smiling Lacayo. "Measure O spends a lot of money and goes down. Masry and Parks spend a lot of money and win. Is it that voters can tell the difference between good and evil? I think so."

Indeed, both Republicans and Democrats were counting their blessings Wednesday.

And they were all looking to the future, particularly at how new districts drawn every decade to reflect population changes will affect them. Since Democrats control the Legislature, they will redraw lines for state and congressional districts during the next year.

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Republican Gallegly fought off his strongest challenge since 1992, winning by 12.5 percentage points over Ventura attorney Michael Case, who spent about $725,000. Gallegly said he spent even less and banked $600,000 for future campaigns after polls showed him well ahead.

In 1991, redistricting cut conservative Thousand Oaks out of the conservative incumbent's 23rd Congressional District, replacing it with liberal Oxnard. Democrats thought he was vulnerable. But no opponent has come within 12 points of defeating him over the last 10 years.

"I'm optimistic that, based on all the potential scenarios, this will only become a district that is more favorable to my political strengths," Gallegly said. And he is anxious to begin work in a Republican-controlled Congress, assisted by a Republican president.

"But when you consider the [slim] margins in both houses," he said, "it's going to take a tremendous amount of effort in a bipartisan way to make things happen."

On Wednesday, Case was thinking about the possibility of a second run at Gallegly, and what an extra $200,000 or $300,000 might have meant in getting his campaign on cable television--an expense that the unknown newcomer could not afford.

"What I don't really know is did we get our message out and voters rejected it, or were we unable to get our message to them? That's my frustration."

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