A decade ago, Greg Carson was at the top of his game.
At 33, after a decade as a lobbyist for the farm industry, he burst onto the Ventura political scene by winning a seat on the City Council and immediately becoming mayor.
But after helping to usher in the renaissance of Ventura's downtown--and crashing his car while driving under the influence--Carson opted not to run for reelection, focusing his energies instead on his cafe / nursery.
Now, after more than six years out of the spotlight, Carson has recently been appointed to the Ventura County Fair Board, a step toward a possible reentry into politics.
So where has Greg Carson been all these years?
In Europe. And Indonesia. And Egypt and Morocco. All over the globe, really.
"That's my way of continuing to educate myself," Carson said. "It's a valuable part of my life's growth."
Carson, who also sits on the Ventura Chamber Music Festival Board, has spent the rest of his time refining the Garden Village Cafe, his combination coffeehouse, plant nursery and gift shop near Ventura College. "I wanted to challenge myself and see if I could develop something unique," he said.
In his early 20s, Carson, a fifth-generation Ventura resident, left for Sacramento to work as a lobbyist and director of the California Farm Bureau Federation.
A registered Republican, he always anticipated coming from behind the scenes and running for a state or national office. That is, until he returned to Ventura and ran into bureaucratic obstacles at City Hall while trying to develop his cafe.
"There was no common sense to the process," Carson said. "It was really crazy."
In 1991, voters elected Carson and two other new council members to four-year terms on a pro-business platform. Power on the council shifted away from the environmentalists, and Carson, having received the most votes of the new members, was named mayor by his peers. He was 33.
"He was a kid," said former Councilman Todd Collart, who served as Carson's deputy mayor. "That was kind of a shock to a lot of observers."
Carson counted himself among the shocked.
"I had only been here a year and a half," he said. "I had never been to a City Council meeting."
The council went to work on a variety of issues that would have long-standing effects on Ventura's downtown.
"We couldn't get Venturans to go to our own downtown," Carson said. "There was no life on Main Street or California Street."
Carson remembers pushing for both big things--widening sidewalks and adding a parking structure--and little things, such as maintaining the beach, trimming palm trees and keeping the lights shining on City Hall at night. He thinks he and his colleagues might have stepped on a few toes along the way.
"To do as much as we accomplished, you have to be rather aggressive," he said.
Current Mayor Ray Di Guilio said the city councils of the late 1980s and early 1990s took steps that were "a little progressive and chancy at the time."
"I think a lot of people had given up on our downtown," he added. "[The council members] saw past some of the rough edges. Carson was an integral part of those developments."
The community will benefit from Carson's participation on both of the boards on which he sits, Di Guilio said.
Despite his personal and collective accomplishments, Carson knows that the low point of his term on the council will always come back to haunt him.
In October 1993, a California Highway Patrol officer arrested Carson after he rolled his Isuzu Trooper off the Ventura Freeway. Carson pleaded no contest to driving under the influence of alcohol, paid a $1,550 fine and served time on a labor crew.
"That's what people are going to remember me for," Carson said. "That's one of the reasons I've hung [back]."
Carson takes responsibility for the incident, though he attributes the wreck to fatigue as much as alcohol.
Carson served the remaining two years of his term, then retreated to his cafe/nursery, which employs 15 part-time workers. But now, he said, he's ready for more. "[Cafe ownership] is not my life's goal," he said.
In September, Gov. Gray Davis appointed Carson to the county's Fair Board, a position he will hold through January 2004.
Carson said he wants to help the board determine how best to use the grounds after the fair shuts down for the year. Former Councilwoman Nan Drake, who now works with Harrison Industries, thinks Carson is perfectly suited for the job.
"It's exactly what the Fair Board has needed for a long time," she said. "People think about the fairgrounds once a year."
Despite his role on the Fair Board, Carson said he isn't thinking about running for office again.
"I'm not necessarily positioning myself for any specific thing," he said. "It's just fun to get to know all the different players again."
Meanwhile, Carson is considering moving to his family's 45-acre lemon farm just east of Ventura. The farmhouse was built by his great-grandparents in 1920.
He expects refurbishing the house to be both a challenge and a long-term project, concepts to which he is no stranger.
"I fell pretty hard, pretty fast," Carson said. But, he added, "I held my head up high and kept going."