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Upset Signals a Power Shift

Supervisor's defeat in Riverside County shows southwestern suburbs wield clout, some say.

March 05, 2004|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

Temecula Councilman Jeff Stone's decisive victory in the race for Riverside County supervisor and the embarrassing loss for incumbent Jim Venable are being touted as signs of the growing clout in the county's fast-growing southwestern suburbs. Stone said residents were hungry for a local representative and have long believed their concerns were being ignored by politicians based in Riverside.

"This is the first time the southwest county area is actually going to have a voice on the Board of Supervisors, not a handpicked power from the Riverside oligarchy," he said.

Political watchers across the county expected a close race, but few thought Stone would beat the incumbent by a staggering 16 percentage points, or 10,000 votes. They said the biggest factors may have been the redistricting that removed Venable's core political supporters from the 3rd District, the incumbent's refusal to debate more than once and a dirty campaign.

The district includes Venable's hometown of Hemet, as well as Idyllwild, San Jacinto and Canyon Lake. In 2001, the district boundaries were redrawn to exclude older communities such as Banning, Beaumont, Nuevo and Juniper Flats and to encompass the newer cities of Temecula and Murrieta. Stone, who grew up in Orange County and attended the USC School of Pharmacy, said he moved to Temecula in 1983 seeking a better quality of life in which to raise his family. He opened a number of pharmacies and a medical-supply business.

Stone first sought and won election to the Temecula City Council in 1992 after becoming annoyed while driving on Jefferson Avenue.

"Someone put a lot of graffiti over the facade of a building, and it struck me: I moved out here to move away from urban problems," he said. "So I decided to do something about it and take a stand and run for City Council to make sure we have local laws in place to maintain the quality of life."

In his 12 years on the council, he counts among his accomplishments reducing graffiti, drunk driving and red-light running; fighting the prior council's plan to offer Wal-Mart hundreds of thousands of dollars in incentives to locate there; and improving ambulance response times.

At the same time, Stone saw developments being approved on unincorporated land around Temecula that were increasing traffic and hurting the city. The city has sued the county four times over development approvals and zone changes, with three successes and one still in the courts.

So Stone decided to take on Venable, whom he blames for rubber-stamping what he considers grossly inappropriate development plans.

He said he had no idea that his message would resonate so well. "I was pretty optimistic, but I didn't know what the magnitude of the numbers was going to be," he said. "I walked 10,000 homes in the last three months and spoke to a lot of people. People were very encouraging, and people liked my vision. People are tired of traffic snarls and seeing development pop up on every corner with no new infrastructure.... They're just getting sick of it."

As a county supervisor, Stone said he expected to be a voice for responsible planning.

Supervisor Bob Buster "and I share the same philosophy, and I think Marion Ashley does too," Stone said. "Growth is OK, but you have to have quality growth if you want to enhance the quality of life of existing residents. You need to minimize the impacts on existing residents and make sure new residents are paying the bill for adequate" roads, schools and parks.

Other priorities include improving Sheriff's Department response times by adding deputies, and making sure the Fire Department is properly equipped -- tasks that may be difficult to accomplish because the board is considering 8% cuts for each county department.

Stone will take office in January unless Venable retires early. Phone calls to Venable seeking comment were not returned.

Temecula Mayor Ron Roberts, the next president of the Southern California Assn. of Governments' governing board, said the election showed the increasing political muscle in the southwestern part of the county.

"I think you'll see the center of the district will be Temecula," he said. "Politicians [here] are becoming more seasoned."

A fatal mistake was Venable's refusal to show up at recent debates, Roberts said. He "used the wrong strategy. Instead of going face to face in debates, he was nowhere to be seen," Roberts said. "That's one of the reasons Jeff got the big vote."

Venable and Stone debated in October in Sun Valley, but Venable skipped three voter forums since then.

Meanwhile, Stone made a point of reaching out to voters in Venable territory, said Hemet Councilwoman Robin Lowe.

"He walked neighborhoods here in Hemet," she said. "He came to Hemet Beautiful Cleanup Day. He got out there and introduced himself."

Venable's last-minute mailers alleging improprieties in Stone's pharmaceutical work may have also backfired.

"Whoever ran Venable's election used the dirty tactics," Roberts said. "People who use these tactics do not get elected."

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