SANTA BARBARA — It's hard to think of anything worse for a public official than to be accused of disloyalty in wartime.
Yet that is where Gail Marshall found herself as she tried to fend off a recall brought on by allegations that she opposed saying the Pledge of Allegiance at a public meeting two weeks ago.
"I am an American who is patriotic and proud of my country," said a beleaguered Marshall, serving her second term as Santa Barbara County's 3rd District supervisor. She said she just believed that suddenly bringing the flag into a meeting to discuss riding trails could be "divisive. Patriotism is a private, as well as a public, matter."
An aide, John Buttny, considered it a political dirty trick and labeled Marshall's opponents that night as a "mob" whose members were "wrapping themselves in a bloodstained flag."
But Laurie Huarte, who was at the meeting inside a little church in the bucolic Santa Ynez Valley, said she was appalled. "Anyone who would be making [reciting the pledge] an issue is not a true American."
It may be hard to reconcile such intemperate language with the popular image of this blessed part of California's Central Coast. But the "controversy over the flag," as it's known around here, is merely the latest chapter in a decades-long power struggle pitting this county's rural north against the gentry of Montecito and Santa Barbara.
Though a Northerner, Marshall Is Targeted
Power struggles over growth, jobs and the environment are increasingly common as suburban America matures and people with differing values suddenly find themselves bumping up against each other.
What distinguishes this one is the degree of hostility and the wide gap in understanding, underscored by a recent series of events, from the arrest of a northern farmer for plowing a wetland to passage of a law preserving oak trees on farmland to charges that the south used state prison felons in redrawing the political map to preserve its dominance.
Marshall became a target because she voted for the controversial map, even though she is a northerner herself, living in the Santa Ynez Valley.
"The north sees themselves as on the short end," said Mark Schniepp, director of California Economic Forecast. "They see the south county as arrogant people who control them and they hate it. They're the stepchildren of Santa Barbara County, and that's the way it's always been."
But perhaps for not much longer.
While the south has occupied itself with controlling growth and preserving the old-line power centers in Santa Barbara, the north has been growing in numbers and ambition. The population of Santa Maria, a sprawling farm town once nothing more than a gas and taco stop between Los Angeles and San Francisco, increased 22% in the last decade to 80,000, only about 10,000 less than Santa Barbara. Now, the local burghers have their sights on eclipsing Santa Barbara's position as the "capital" of the Central Coast.
"Santa Barbara is pretty much stagnant," said Dave Cross, chairman of the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce. "They are against growth and industry. We are pro-agriculture and industry. What you're seeing is a shift in power."
Saying it is one thing. Putting in the shade a city that attracts visits from presidents and has more chief executives per capita than any other city in America is another thing altogether. But population figures bear him out. The 2000 census showed the north county grew twice as fast as the south coast in the last decade, to 198,345, nearly equaling the south's population of 201,000.
Goleta, an unincorporated southern community that has been more hospitable to housing construction than most, will vote Tuesday on a cityhood measure partly driven by its own slow-growth movement. If Measure H passes, Goleta will be able to compete with Santa Barbara for federal dollars and influence.
"Santa Barbara is a hell of a city," said James Farr, 56, publisher of the Valley Voice newspaper. "But it's time for Goleta to go off on its own."
District Straddles North-South Boundary
Farr, who makes no secret of his pro-cityhood sympathies, announced several weeks ago that he would not accept anti-cityhood advertising. Opponents of cityhood accused him of suppressing free speech, an allegation that caused him to relent.
"It bothered me that I didn't see the bushwhacking I was in for," Farr said.
Which brings us back to Gail Marshall, a determined, driven woman who more than anyone is at the center of Santa Barbara County's civil war. Her district straddles the imaginary north-south boundary line at Gaviota Pass, between those who have power and those who want it.
People in the north tend to see the division as about more than numbers, frequently lapsing into speeches portraying themselves as the kind of Americans who built the country and southerners as out-of-touch dilettantes determined to preserve their bit of heaven by keeping everyone else out.