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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS | ELECTIONS

Supervisorial Candidate Too Busy for 'Silly' Debate

October 10, 2000|GAIL DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Board of Supervisors candidate Jim Monahan, a Ventura city councilman, rejected opponent Steve Bennett's call to debate, saying Monday he doesn't have time for "these silly things."

That, Bennett said, is because Monahan's stands on issues wouldn't stand up to public scrutiny.

The give and take on debates indicates the mounting vitriol characterizing the race. Last month, Bennett accused Monahan of determining his stand on Measure O, the initiative that would give tobacco settlement money to private hospitals, by conducting a poll.

Monahan has called Bennett a special-interest liberal, while Bennett has countered by saying Monahan is part of an out-of-touch old-boys network.

They've sparred in the media and at separate events. But Monahan's comments Monday mean they won't do so face to face at a public forum.

Since the March 7 primary, in which Bennett led Monahan, the two candidates have appeared together only once, at a Sept. 20 forum sponsored by the Ojai Valley Chamber of Commerce.

After that, however, Monahan backed out of an Oct. 1 League of Women Voters forum at Ventura College, and he was the only supervisorial candidate not to attend an Oct. 6 meeting in Oxnard sponsored by the county chapter of the Black American Political Assn. of California.

Those absences, Monahan said, reflect his campaign priorities. He said he'd rather walk the district and talk to voters.

"My schedule is so full right now I don't have time to go to the bathroom," Monahan said Monday. "I'm not unemployed like Steve is right now, so he can run around and do these silly things."

Democrat Bennett, 49, is a high school economics teacher on leave of absence for the fall semester. A graduate of Brown University, he is the author of laws passed to limit growth and cap local campaign spending.

Monahan, 65, is Ventura's longest-serving councilman and a Republican, although the race for supervisor is nonpartisan. He has run his family welding business for 40 years and has based his campaign on what he says is the county's need to get its fiscal house in order.

The two have known each other for years, having served together on the Ventura City Council from 1992 to 1996.

Sue Kelley, who organizes forums for the League of Women Voters of Ventura County, said the league is willing to schedule a forum at Monahan's convenience, but that Monahan has said he is too busy.

Voters already know his views, Monahan said, and that he and Bennett are "as opposite as can be."

But Monahan's former campaign manager, Fred Gage, hinted last month at another reason Monahan might not want to debate: He is not an articulate campaigner.

After Gage quit in September, he said, "Jim should make very few speaking engagements. He is not an orator."

Often, said Herbert Gooch, a California Lutheran University political scientist, candidates decline debates because they are leading in the polls and don't want to risk their standing or give their opponent free exposure.

In this race, however, Bennett led in the March primary, collecting almost 16,000 votes, 44%, to Monahan's 11,266 votes, 32%. Rosa Lee Measures, a Republican who recently endorsed Monahan, received the remaining 24%.

Monahan has raised more money than Bennett, which is often viewed as an indicator of a candidate's standing. Monahan has collected $227,386 to Bennett's $182,244. But Bennett raised more money than Monahan in the last three months and has $56,000 in remaining cash to Monahan's $2,714.

The Ventura-based 1st District, which has 80,000 registered voters, also includes Ojai and a tiny portion of Oxnard. It has been represented since 1980 by retiring Supervisor Susan Lacey, a Democrat.

Bennett said Monahan's plans to attend an Oct. 25 fund-raiser at the Pacific Corinthian Yacht Club in Oxnard, which will feature a Republican candidates-only forum, is a sign Monahan would rather raise money than meet voters. Bennett also said he attended forums before the March primary when he was still teaching.

"If he has time to attend a partisan thing like that, why doesn't he have time to present himself in a forum where all of the voters have a chance to see us side by side?" Bennett said.

Beverly Benton, a campaign spokeswoman for Monahan, said the candidate would be available for a League of Women Voters forum with Bennett on Oct. 31 or Nov. 1, but Monahan contradicted that, saying he was just too busy.

Kelley said it would hurt voters if the candidates do not participate in a forum before November's election. The league's forums include questions prepared in advance by league moderators but also allow members of the audience to submit questions in writing, which all the candidates answer.

They are also either televised live or taped for later broadcast.

"When the candidate isn't there you can't ask them questions, and you have no opportunity to compare and make up your mind who you want to vote for," Kelley said. "So it's a real disappointment for the league."

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