She never got a bachelor's degree, but worked her way through Ventura Law College in 1984.
"I'm totally a self-made woman," she said. "When I first left home in 1969, I had a '67 Mustang and 500 bucks. I was the third of three children, and the till was kind of tapped by the time they got to me."
As a partner with husband John, Sullivan prospered as a lawyer in Ventura and Santa Paula, where she became a business leader, heading the Chamber of Commerce and gaining election to the City Council in 1992 and 1996.
Sullivan never considered a run for state office until a year ago, when Seneca Network, a group that seeks out Republican women as candidates, gave her a call. Then former Assemblyman Brooks Firestone, a wealthy Santa Ynez Valley winery owner and a moderate Republican, called to see if she would run.
"They had heard about me and felt I was qualified and experienced," she said.
Mitchum dropped his second run for the Republican nomination, saying that party leaders thought Sullivan, a moderate who favors a woman's right to an abortion, would lure more Republican women to the polls.
"Robin Sullivan . . . knows how to work with people to actually get things done," Firestone said.
Even as she was organizing her run for Assembly, however, Sullivan became embroiled in an angry dispute that has torn Santa Paula apart, dividing many in the Latino and Anglo communities and leading to a federal lawsuit that challenges the city's method of electing council members.
In April, Sullivan lashed out at a council colleague who accused her of overplaying the fact that she is one-fourth Mexican. The colleague, Councilwoman Laura Flores Espinosa, said at a meeting that Sullivan was out of control and that she feared for her safety.
Furious, Sullivan called Espinosa "insane" and threatened to sue her for character defamation. Sullivan also told news reporters that she would sue them if they implied that she had threatened Espinosa.
Sullivan acknowledged the next day that she had acted unprofessionally, but she also said she needed to speak her mind.
"Sometimes it's more important to stand up for yourself and your family than to worry about how you're going to be perceived."
Jackson, the daughter of a small-business owner and the granddaughter of a Russian immigrant who tutored President Franklin D. Roosevelt's son, grew up outside Boston.
She received a law degree from Boston University in 1975 and immediately took a job as a county prosecutor in Santa Barbara.
Over the years, she helped found a shelter for battered women and a coalition against gun violence, and she was a staunch supporter of Planned Parenthood. She served on state commissions on child support and family equity.
Finally, in 1998, she defeated Mitchum in a classic liberal-versus-conservative matchup.
This year, Jackson is running on her record.
A veteran lawyer, she is a polished Assembly orator with a flare for debate and detailed analysis. But her critics have said that her passion has led her to unnecessary confrontations with colleagues, especially Republican men.
"The key issue is certainly my effectiveness as a legislator," Jackson said. "In 1999-2000, the governor signed 18 of my bills into law and 26 reached his desk. To get 26 bills to the governor's desk is extraordinary."
Jackson has made her mark especially on environmental and domestic violence issues, helping to push $90 million in coastal cleanup money into a bond issue passed in March. She also worked with Bradbury to pass an anti-stalking bill to protect women after Ventura mother Vicky Shade was murdered by her ex-boyfriend.
As a small-city councilwoman, Sullivan said she knows local needs and issues better than Jackson, who never held a local elective office.
"The weakness I see is [Jackson] maybe not having an understanding of local communities, such as what types of services people want," Sullivan said. "We're emphasizing getting our tax dollars back into the local community."
So far, the 35th District race has been exceedingly civil--at least at public forums.
Sullivan has spoken primarily about returning property tax dollars, appropriated by the state in 1992.
"That would affect everybody," she said. "It's more of a holistic approach to legislation instead of just being involved with special interests."
Jackson has cited her own efforts in that cause, notably her lobbying of Davis to cap the amount of property tax the state takes from local governments and to return $700 million to local government this year. Davis finally approved a $200-million rebate and rejected the tax cap.
Jackson ranks as her top three accomplishments the Shade anti-stalking bill, a bill that forces the repair or replacement of leaking septic tanks, and a measure that gives teachers a $250 to $1,500 credit on their state income taxes, depending on years of service.
When Davis signed the teacher tax-break bill in July, he wrote on the back of it: "This is the most important bill I've signed to date."