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The Epitome of California Voters

San Benito County has become a bellwether for statewide elections in recent years. That's good news for the governor.

September 11, 2006|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

HOLLISTER, Calif. — Nestled between two small mountain ranges, this pastoral stretch of Central California has much to commend it.

The sprawl of Silicon Valley gives way in San Benito County to rolling hills, native oaks and endless acres of lettuce and spinach, making it one of California's most fertile farm regions.

Downtown Hollister, with its old-time feel, is a nationally recognized historic place; homes in its tree-shaded neighborhoods, though pricier than a few years back, remain a relative bargain.

But it is the county's status as a political bellwether that makes it unique -- and the views of residents like Donna Holmes particularly compelling in these last weeks of the California governor's race.

Holmes is a Democrat who opposed the 2003 recall and opposed Arnold Schwarzenegger in that unusual election. At the mere mention of President Bush, she shook her head and warned, "Don't even go there!"

But come Nov. 7, Holmes will probably vote to reelect Schwarzenegger, snubbing her fellow Democrat, state Treasurer Phil Angelides.

"I do like him," she said of the incumbent, citing Schwarzenegger's willingness to fund social programs and "the way he has reached out to people" beyond his own Republican Party.

Angelides, she said, turned her off during the nasty Democratic primary and has done nothing to woo her back, not even when he ties Bush to Schwarzenegger. The governor "has his own agenda," said Holmes, the 68-year-old owner of a trucking company in San Juan Bautista.

In the last few elections, voters in San Benito County have an unparalleled record of mirroring California's statewide results, often with remarkable precision.

In 2003, for instance, the state voted 55% to 45% to recall Democrat Gray Davis, the same as San Benito County. Statewide, Schwarzenegger received 48.6% of the vote to replace Davis; he received 48.7% in San Benito County.

It unclear why this out-of-the-way place, just a short drive from the Monterey Peninsula, lines up so neatly with California's sentiments. With 56,000 residents, about the population of Arcadia or Fountain Valley, the county is hardly a statistical match. It is more rural than California as a whole, and its residents are younger. Latinos make up a much larger percentage of the population and there are fewer college graduates.

Still, the voting trend, which started in 1998, continued on June 6 when San Benito County rejected two state bond measures and cast ballots in the gubernatorial primary in numbers very close to statewide returns.

With that history, a series of random interviews with voters around the county offered some hints of how Schwarzenegger has rebounded from last year's disastrous special election and why Angelides faces an uphill fight to replace him.

Most of those asked in the unscientific survey said they believed that, overall, things in California were headed the right way, a stark shift from the last several years of discontent. People griped about the state of the public schools and complained about high gas prices and crumbling roadways. Several said not enough was being done about illegal immigration.

"What's the use of taking your shoes off at the airport when at the borders, anybody could walk in?" asked Gary Henriques, a 63-year-old retiree who moved from San Jose to Hollister a few years back to get "six times the house for half the money."

But for the most part people tended to agree with Republican Bradley Tremblay, 50, a produce broker in San Juan Bautista, who cited an improved business climate, a state budget in surplus -- for now, anyway -- and a willingness in Sacramento to deal with the state's infrastructure problems.

"After swallowing some tough pills," he said, California seems to be doing better.

Much of the credit is given to Schwarzenegger. He is no longer seen as politically superhuman, as he was in the recall, and he may never be seen that way again. Even fans of the governor say there are times he has seemed overmatched by the job.

"I think he's run into a lot of things that he probably didn't anticipate he'd run into," said Rick Ito, a 38-year-old middle school principal and Democrat, who said Schwarzenegger has failed to rein in the "powerful special interests" in Sacramento the way he promised. But, Ito went on, "I feel like he's trying his best."

Like their fellow Californians, San Benito County voters overwhelmingly rejected the governor's 2005 special election initiatives. But the anger and resentment so abundant during the campaign last year appear to have evaporated.

"He promised the people that if he couldn't get the state government behind him, he would take it to the people, which he did do," said Cilly Fisher, 79, a ticket-splitting Republican, who was getting an early start on Christmas decorations at San Juan Bautista's Chamber of Commerce. "Whether it turned out to be a big mistake or not, he did what he promised."

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