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Uphill Fight Against Measure O Pays Off

DECISION 2000

November 09, 2000|TINA DIRMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In one corner stood Measure O's backers, armed with $2.3 million for high-priced consultants, poll-takers and glossy mailers.

In the other, Measure O opponents, so strapped for money that in the days before the election a message on the campaign office's answering machine urged supporters to make their own signs.

But somehow, with the help of well-timed action by the Board of Supervisors to take the punch out of Measure O's promise, the uphill battle to slay the well-financed giant paid off.

County voters Tuesday resoundingly rejected the initiative that would have transferred control of $260 million in tobacco settlement funds from county supervisors to a handful of private hospitals. The measure failed 32% to 67%.

Opponents of the measure attributed their success to a well-thought-out, carefully maintained fight, led by coalition Chairman David Maron, that helped opponents stretch their slender $114,000 war chest.

"We maximized our opportunities and minimized our mistakes," said Maron, sounding a bit incredulous himself over the campaign's success. "We were such underdogs in the financial department, but we prevailed."

The Coalition Against Measure O also received a strategic assist from county supervisors, who approved an ordinance one week before the election mandating the tobacco money be used for countywide health care programs. That law, which also sets aside a portion of the annual funding for private hospitals, took the wind out of Measure O's sails, opponents of the measure say.

Measure O backers, however, reject any criticism they were willing to spend lavish sums to wrest public dollars for private hospitals. The $2.3 million spent on the initiative, sponsored by Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura, made it the most expensive ballot battle in county history.

The measure's supporters say heavy spending was necessary to compensate for the powerful political force--the Board of Supervisors--pushing against the initiative, Measure O spokesman Mark Barnhill said.

"Really, the opponent was the county," Barnhill said. "An entrenched county that was willing to use all its power to fight this thing, even going as far as to court to try to block it from the ballot."

Michael Bakst, Community Memorial's executive director, said the supervisors overstepped their power to defeat the measure. While board members could not publicly campaign against Measure O, behind the scenes they were quietly orchestrating opposition to it, Bakst said.

"My hat is off to them for winning," Bakst said. "But victory at any cost is not a victory."

Maron, health care consultant Neal Andrews and a team of volunteers chose to fight their battle from a small office across the street from the sprawling Community Memorial Hospital building.

Measure O proponents began stuffing mail boxes early and often with the type of slick mailers associated with high-dollar campaigns. Billboards, radio spots and newspaper ads followed.

By contrast, Maron's group managed to send only a limited number of mailers to voters considered most likely to cast absentee ballots. A second round was sent only to voters in the affluent east county who might be more sympathetic to Measure O because they are less dependent on public health services.

Maron said they also made the most of free speaking engagements, targeting groups they believed would most likely make it to the polls, including the League of Women Voters, rotary clubs and chambers of commerce.

Then came endorsements from key groups, such as the American Lung Assn., California Nurses Assn., Ventura County Medical Assn. and the county's largest employee union. Several city councils publicly condemned the measure, calling it a grab of public funds.

"That's what turned the tide for us, I think," Maron said. "People could see, 'Well, if the Taxpayers Assn. and the county's doctors and nurses are against it, then I should be too.' "

One supervisor said Measure O's overly orchestrated campaign backfired with wary voters.

"The advertising campaign, the mailers," Flynn said. "They were so slick, they were unbelievable. "The professionals simply overdid the campaign."

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