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Rivals move toward middle

Tony Strickland and Hannah-Beth Jackson feel moderate voters are the key to the 19th Senate District.

October 13, 2008|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

To partisans, they are "Phony Tony" and "Taxin' Jackson."

Tony Strickland, 38, might call himself the alternative energy executive, detractors say, but he's still the same right-wing Republican who consistently voted against the environment during his days in the California Assembly.

And Hannah-Beth Jackson? The 58-year-old Democrat is so liberal that she's never seen a tax she didn't like, according to Strickland's supporters. Voters couldn't have a clearer choice, both sides say.

But as they face off for the 19th state Senate District seat covering much of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties and Santa Clarita in Los Angeles County, both candidates are moving to the center in a bid to win over the crucial block of moderate voters who will probably decide the election.

With no incumbent and voter registration split nearly equally between Republicans and Democrats, big money and attention is pouring into the race. Republicans don't want to lose the seat held by termed-out Republican Sen. Tom McClintock, and Democrats badly want a win to move the party closer to a two-thirds supermajority needed to pass budget and tax measures, analysts say.

"It's the hottest race on the Senate side," said Allan Hoffenblum, editor of the nonpartisan California Target Book. "It's a centrist district that leans Republican, but it's anything but a safe seat."

McClintock was easily reelected in the district after its borders were redrawn in 2000 to favor the Republican incumbent. Since then, voter registration and demographics have changed to put the district within striking distance for Democrats.

Money has been pouring into both campaigns, with Strickland posting $1.4 million in spending so far and Jackson close behind at $1.2 million. Jackson has also benefited from $177,962 in spending by independent groups.

Strategists believe a win will hinge largely on who best appeals to the 18% of voters who don't align themselves with either party. That means moving to the center -- a challenge for "Ms. Left and Mr. Right," as the local news media have called the two opponents.

From 1998 to 2004, Jackson was known as a fiery battler on environmental issues, as well as for pushing increased funding for education and healthcare and voting to improve pension benefits for unions. Advocacy groups such as the Sierra Club and the California Labor Federation gave her top marks, while pro-business and anti-tax organizations flunked her voting record.

Strickland, meanwhile was a reliably conservative vote, favoring big business, anti-tax initiatives and a limited role for government. The 6-foot-5 former college basketball player founded California's Club for Growth, a right-wing group that pledged to target for defeat any Republican who voted for a tax increase.

As they seek a return to Sacramento, both candidates are attempting to broaden their appeal.

In a series of radio and TV ads this year, Strickland touts himself as a crusader for renewable energy.

"I don't talk about the environment, I live it," he says in one ad getting plenty of play on local TV and cable stations.

Last year, Strickland was among five founding partners in GreenWave Energy Solutions, a Thousand Oaks company that aims to capture ocean wave energy and convert it into kilowatts for consumer use.

His other partners include a real estate developer and a real estate consultant who have backed Strickland's previous campaigns, and Wayne Burkamp, a San Francisco attorney.

GreenWave is applying for a federal permit to study the effectiveness of various devices that capture wave energy, Burkamp said. The partners have purchased two leases off the coast of Mendocino and San Luis Obispo to test the products, he said.

The company doesn't have any employees, services or products because it's still waiting for its permit to be approved, he said.

Environmental groups last month held a news conference to question Strickland's sincerity.

"Look at his record and you will see Tony Strickland is not what he appears to be," said Fran Farina of the Sierra Club.

Strickland voted against requirements for renewable energy and many other bills that required energy conservation while in the Assembly. In 2003, he wrote a letter to then-Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer opposing the state's efforts to regulate greenhouse gases, citing an "utter absence of scientific consensus" on global warming.

"Literally his entire campaign is based upon this fiction, with fictional companies endorsing it," said Parke Skelton, a Democratic consultant who is advising Jackson.

But Strickland says his change of heart is real. Like T. Boone Pickens, the billionaire oil man now advocating cleaner energy sources, he has decided that America must "get off foreign oil," Strickland said.

"You can have a clean environment and grow the economy," he said.

Strickland is married to Audra Strickland, who won election to his Moorpark-based Assembly seat after he was termed out.

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