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Judge Takes Leave From Bench to Join Senate Race

Libertarian Jim Gray is challenging Barbara Boxer in a longshot campaign. He believes changes are made by example.

May 24, 2004|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

UKIAH, Calif. — Jim Gray, rigid as a judge's gavel, stood at the front of a high-ceilinged tavern here and ran through a list of political positions he hoped would appeal to Mendocino County's famously idiosyncratic voters. Pot should be legal. Genetically modified foods should be labeled. The Patriot Act should be gutted.

"We are galloping, racing toward a police state," said Gray, his voice curt and direct. "This Patriot Act is the most recent, but our civil liberties are in jeopardy."

These are not political views normally associated with a 59-year-old Orange County Superior Court judge, a self-described "conservative dude" who left the Republican Party less than two years ago over its stances backing the war on drugs and the Patriot Act, and joined the more doctrinaire Libertarians. But in a life marked by anomalies -- Gray once led an anti-Vietnam War protest while enrolled in USC's Navy ROTC program -- the judge is engaged in yet another incongruous act: a yearlong leave of absence from the bench to challenge two-term Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer for the U.S. Senate.

With a three-person staff, pocket change in his war chest and a campaign based mainly on legalizing marijuana, Gray's path to the Senate is steeper than the traditional uphill run. It's more like standing at the base of El Capitan, looking skyward and wondering just how high he can scramble before gravity drags him back to earth.

But Gray sees his campaign as an act of personal responsibility. He might be a pragmatist on an impractical mission, but he believes current government policies are wrong and should be changed. And he believes you change things by example.

"How can I expect anybody else to come forward unless I do more than my share?" Gray told the crowd.

So Gray has been making small forays like this one, going out for a few days to talk to supporters, troll for fresh votes and try to get himself interviewed by local media. Then he returns to Costa Mesa to map strategy from his office near John Wayne Airport, a rented first-floor space wedged between two fast-food joints and downstairs from a tanning parlor.

Like most minor-party candidates, Gray doesn't really expect to win in November. With Boxer anchoring the Democratic left, challenger Bill Jones on the Republican right and no one from the Green Party on the ballot, Gray hopes to galvanize enough support from the political margins and the independent center to send a message to the mainstream.

"Even if we just make a strong showing, the Republicans and Democrats are going to see our votes as the difference between winning and losing future elections," Gray said.

To be considered by any voters, Gray has to get heard.

Late on this cool May afternoon, about two dozen people had gathered in the Ukiah Brewing Co. as the judge took the stage. It was unclear how many came to hear him talk and how many just stopped in for a beer and stayed.

Tough Road

Mendocino County is not what you would call Gray -- or Libertarian -- country. In the March primary, Gray placed second, picking up 64 votes to perennial Libertarian candidate Gail Lightfoot's 98, a reversal of the statewide results. The Libertarian vote was barely an asterisk to the major parties: Jonesreceived 3,164 votes and Boxer, running unopposed, outpolled everyone with 13,034 local votes.

Yet Gray, a little over 6 feet tall with drilling hazel eyes, has more in common with Mendocino County voters than those numbers would suggest. The redwood-covered hills and vineyard-carpeted valleys about two hours north of San Francisco are home to all manner of recalcitrant hippies and back-to-earthers at the forefront of the medical marijuana movement. County voters decided in March to require genetically modified foods to be labeled -- the first such local mandate in the nation.

That progressive unpredictability extends to local elections. Libertarian Norm Vroman -- a convicted tax-evader -- has twice won election as district attorney largely because he backs legalizing marijuana. And Sheriff Tony Craver is a renegade Republican who also thinks the drug war has been a failure. Both men, popular political figures here, have endorsed Gray.

Gray may have found sanctuary with the Libertarians, but he's an indifferent member of the tribe. Part of his appearance in Ukiah, for instance, was spent arguing for mandated labeling of genetically modified foods, something most Libertarians would say amounts to the government sticking its nose in where it doesn't belong.

"I am not a purist. I am not doctrinaire," Gray said. "I believe in responsibility. I also believe in anti-trust laws.... [Libertarians] have no place for antitrust. I part company with them there."

The differences aren't likely to cost Gray support among hard-core Libertarians, though, since as a sitting judge he lends credibility to the party mainstream.

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