At 7:02 a.m., Tony Strickland stood on the busy southeast corner of Telephone Road and South Victoria Avenue in Ventura, performing a delicate Miss America wave with his big right paw. Wearing a rictus grin and a blue sincere suit, the 6‘5” former college basketball star held a cup of Peet’s Coffee in his left hand while oscillating the other at the wrist, extending a full wave to any passing commuter who beeped at him and the nine campaign staffers who smiled and held signs on behalf of Strickland’s bid for the 19th District state senate seat.
“People love this,” he said, adding that he spends several mornings a week doing what campaign code calls Burma Shaving. “There’s nothing better you can do between 6:30 and 8:30 in the morning. It’s too early to knock on somebody’s door.”
A politician who came up as a campaign manager, Strickland has brought all the tricks he’s learned about retail politics-precinct walking, shopping mall tabling, campaign gee-gaw distributing, small house meetings, and neighborhood coffees-to his tight race with Hannah-Beth Jackson, a grassroots supplement to the several million dollars he’s pouring into TV ads. It’s a campaign style that takes advantage of his boyish looks, engaging personality, and lifelong network of connections in Ventura County, where two-thirds of the district’s voters live. Talking public policy, Strickland performs better than, say, Sarah Palin. But as he sometimes stumbles over words or gropes for ideas that go beyond familiar talking points, it’s clear his greatest political strength is his talent for schmoozing.
“Hi Tim,” he greeted a small businessman on one of the calls he constantly makes on his BlackBerry between campaign events. “I know you’re extremely busy, but would you be willing to host a coffee or a lunch or something like that?”
On a recent day when he let me tag along, Strickland and his campaign manager covered several hundred miles of the big district, from his Moorpark home to Ventura, down to Simi Valley, and then up to Lompoc before heading south again. During one stretch of the 101, I queried him about renewable energy-his signature issue-and what he would work to accomplish if elected. He quickly listed expediting permits and some general ideas about tax credits, two things he ticks off in his stump speech. When I asked what a comprehensive, state government alternative energy strategy would look like, he demurred. “We’re working out that proposal now,” he said. “We’re going to have a comprehensive renewable energy plan-we’re going to release that.”
Strickland looks to private businesses for good ideas, so we made a stop at California Solar, a small company that works with builders to install thermal, photovoltaic, and radiant heat solar energy systems. Founder and president Rick White, a 20-year veteran in the business, offered a rundown of his firm and its market, displaying state-of-the-art solar roof technology, as Strickland listened and sipped a grande pumpkin spiced latte. “We just signed a contract with Drew Carey’s people to do Drew Carey’s home,” White told the candidate. “We did Julia Roberts’s home and Will Smith’s home.”
In the parking lot afterward, Strickland and his manager discovered that neither of them had the car key, which a campaign volunteer mistakenly had left with after fetching house signs from the trunk. As we stood waiting for his mother-in-law to bring a spare key, Strickland made calls off a printed sheet that had contact information for voters who’d emailed his Web site.
“Hi Barbara, its Tony Strickland,” he said to one. “Thank you so much for your email.” After ringing off, he told me, “People remember when you do that. They see you later and they say, ‘I think it’s the coolest thing that you called.’”
Minutes later, Strickland hustled into a Republican phone bank operation in a nearby shopping center to thank a half-dozen people there making calls. On the way out, he hoisted a life-size cardboard cut-out of vice presidential candidate Palin: “Don’t we love this?” he asked the phone bankers, who cheered, having learned from their calls how much the Alaska governor has energized the GOP base.
After the long drive to Lompoc, he spoke to 50 members of the Republican Women’s Club who lunched on chicken breasts, rigatoni, and tossed salad. “You’re a good looking man-you shouldn’t be blurry,” one woman scolded him, criticizing the quality of video photography on his TV ads. After his speech- “If we don’t win this race, I guarantee your taxes will go up”-Strickland urged the ladies to take home a house sign, then apologized for not being able to stay and chat.
“I’ve got to walk some precincts,” he said.