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Recall Effort Highlights a Political Fault Line

Some voters in her Santa Barbara County district consider Supervisor Gail Marshall too liberal.

November 02, 2002|William Overend | Times Staff Writer

SANTA BARBARA — Her patriotism has been questioned and she's been portrayed as a hothead. So County Supervisor Gail Marshall -- facing the voters Tuesday -- keeps her guard up now, a politician burned.

By contrast, the man who could replace her, Jim Thomas, seems relaxed. A shrewd politician with the style of a good old boy, he was the county sheriff for 12 years until he resigned to oppose Marshall. If he doesn't unseat her next week, he says, he'll head home to Los Olivos and Oscar, his quarter horse.

Marshall is the target of a bitter recall fight that is expected to top the $1-million mark in campaign spending. Most of the spending is by Thomas, who will serve in her place if voters recall her and if he wins a separate vote for the position.

Marshall represents the 3rd District, a swing area that crosses the ideological line between Santa Barbara's north and south. The district is a blend of pro-growth ranchers in the north and slow-growth college students at UC Santa Barbara.

Though Marshall lives in Solvang, the recall drive has been strongest in her own backyard, where critics accuse her of consistently selling out north county interests on subjects ranging from agricultural regulation and development to the makeup of the 3rd District itself.

The imaginary dividing line between north and south in Santa Barbara County is the Gaviota Pass. To the south is the old-money, world-famous city of Santa Barbara, increasingly liberal in its politics and committed to slow growth.

Marshall's critics say she has been the swing vote on county issues about 100 times, almost always siding with the south's two county supervisors.

Those votes have included opposition to a proposal for more offshore oil drilling, support for a ban on so-called Saturday night "junk guns," and condemnation of the Boy Scouts for discriminating against homosexuals.

Part of the reason for the voting pattern is simple: Though Marshall, a Democrat, lives in the north, her political stronghold is actually on the other side of that imaginary line, in Goleta and in the liberal voting bloc at the university. She carried Isla Vista with 85% of the vote in the last election.

Marshall points out that most of her constituents actually live in the south -- about two-thirds, she says. Thus, she says, she is simply representing the majority of the people who put her in office in 1996 and reelected her in 2000.

But the political landscape in Santa Barbara has been changing; the north grew almost twice as fast as the south in the last decade. Its population now is 198,345, slightly fewer than the 201,000 residents to the south.

So last year, when it was time to redistrict the county, Marshall solidified her political base by rejecting efforts to stick Isla Vista in another district and add the prison population of Lompoc to hers.

"Prisoners obviously can't vote," said Lammy Johnstone-Kockler, leader of the recall drive. "The political machine in Santa Barbara has become ultra liberal. They aren't even middle of the road, and Gail has chosen to become part of that."

Marshall said her critics have distorted her record. She is pro-agriculture, she said, but not a supporter of absolute property rights. Beyond that, she added, the recall drive is "sleazy," a blatant try for a midterm power grab and a shameless abuse of the recall process.

As head of the No on Recall Committee, Santa Barbara political activist Das Williams said the county needs Marshall to help fight conservative agricultural, oil and development interests that would be much more comfortable dealing with Thomas, a Republican.

"Our county and the area need a slow-growth supervisor," Williams said.

Thomas, 57, said he thinks the recall is needed primarily because there has been too much divisiveness in county government. Already, a signature drive is underway in the northern areas to break away and create a new government called Mission County. That drive will probably end if the recall succeeds, Marshall's critics say.

"In dealing with ranchers and farmers, she is much more regulatory than I would be," Thomas said. "But that isn't the only issue here. We all know the state budget is not in good shape. There are going to be hard decisions in county government.

"In the past, she has tended toward across-the-board cuts in all departments," Thomas said. "My view is very different. I believe government is formed to protect people. My priorities are police, fire, medical and infrastructure, roads and such."

There are 45,952 registered voters in the 3rd District. Bob Smith, the county's chief election official, predicts a countywide turnout of 60%. The intensity of the recall drive could bring out even more voters in the 3rd, he said.

The political rancor reached its peak when a controversy erupted over saying the Pledge of Allegiance at one of Marshall's advisory committees five weeks after Sept. 11, 2001.

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