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Santa Paula Roots for Another Arnold

Ventura County town lays claim to Sen. Vinick of TV's 'The West Wing,' backing his fictional run for the White House.

November 08, 2005|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

In this politically charged election season, the small agricultural community of Santa Paula has declared itself "Arnold Country." But not that Arnold.

Rather, community leaders have plastered the city with banners and bumper stickers proclaiming their allegiance to fictional presidential candidate Arnold Vinick, who is running on the Republican ticket on NBC's "The West Wing."

It turns out, Vinick hails from Santa Paula, at least according to a biography posted on "The West Wing" website, which says that he volunteered at the city's library, served on the City Council and helped refurbish the California Oil Museum. The show's writers made Santa Paula his hometown in response to campaigning by city officials.

Community leaders saw an opportunity to promote this Ventura County city of 30,000 after a January episode in which the television character, played by Alan Alda, mentioned that he grew up in a citrus-growing community in California.

Santa Paula Mayor Mary Ann Krause, a "West Wing" devotee, was watching that night. She fired off a letter to the show's writers and producers offering Santa Paula, the self-described "Citrus Capital of the World," as Vinick's hometown.

The City Council declared Vinick a Santa Paula resident and ordered City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz to put him in the White House. Bobkiewicz followed with an information blitz to writers and producers, touting the city's assets. He admits that there was some bribery involved, as he sent a crate of oranges to further generate interest.

The lobbying paid off last month, when Vinick's resume was posted on the website and the California senator was listed as Santa Paula's favorite son.

"I'm probably the only city manager in America who has ever been directed by a City Council to get someone elected president," Bobkiewicz said. "We're not going to let up until we get Sen. Vinick into the White House."

Neither "The West Wing" nor NBC have played a part in Santa Paula's promotional campaign, making no mention of it in commercials or on the show's website.

But when it came to fleshing out details of Vinick's early political life, Santa Paula was a natural fit, said story editor Lauren Schmidt, who is the point person for the promotional campaign, receiving letters, postcards and invitations to community events playing up the Santa Paula connection.

She wrote a biography stating that Vinick was born in Brooklyn, New York, but raised in Santa Paula, where he worked on the family's citrus ranch and learned the value of hard work. After graduating from Yale University and Stanford Law School, he opened a law practice in Santa Paula and won a City Council seat in the town's first write-in victory.

"We just really wanted him to have that small-town upbringing," Schmidt said. "I personally love the fact that this town is so into it. That's exactly the effect we want to have on our viewers."

But Vinick has yet to mention his Santa Paula roots on the show, and it's unclear whether he will, Schmidt said.

Still, city officials and residents have gone all out in their Vinick campaign.

To the strains of a John Philip Sousa march, Santa Paula leaders in April opened Vinick's official presidential campaign headquarters at the city's historic train depot -- complete with sign-waving supporters and red, white and blue balloons. The Chamber of Commerce, which is housed in the depot, has been selling Vinick buttons, T-shirts and bumper stickers and has raised about $200 so far for the city's Fourth of July fireworks display.

"We're just trying to promote the city," chamber manager Ken Brookes said. "We're actually amazed that Hollywood has gone along with our idea."

City residents certainly have.

Dozens showed up Sunday night at the Santa Paula Community Center hoping to hear mention of Vinick's agricultural roots during a live televised debate between the Republican nominee and his Democratic opponent, Matt Santos, played by Jimmy Smits. The closest Vinick got was a mention of Santa Barbara as he talked about oil drilling.

Still, in a large hall peppered with American flags and hand-written signs reading "Victory for Vinick" and "There Can't Be Too Many Arnolds in Government," the faithful cheered every Vinick statement.

A snap poll of "West Wing" viewers conducted by MSNBC/Zogby International revealed that the debate has given Vinick's campaign new momentum.

Energized Vinick supporters took a group photo in front of a sign, inviting the California senator to Santa Paula in the final days of the campaign -- a possibility that writers have not ruled out.

"We're just having fun," said Carmita Wood, 75, who had "Vote for Vinick" spelled out in masking tape on the back of her button-down shirt. "And we're doing everything we can to promote the values of this small town."

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